Countries are currently in the long overdue process of transitioning away from fossil fuels to mitigate the effects of climate change.
As part of this transition, many leaders are trying to support people employed in sectors dependent on fossil fuels with training, opportunities, and resources.
This is known as a “just transition,” a concept developed by trade unions that seeks to center workers and communities during periods of economic disruption. Without this emphasis, communities would potentially be deprived of a primary source of income as, for example, a coal mine closes, which could lead to poverty and other consequences.
“It really has to do with fairness,” Christopher Sheldon, practice manager for the World Bank’s Infrastructure Energy and Extractive Industries Global Practice and an expert on just transitions, told Global CItizen. “It’s more than transitioning from one form of energy to another; it’s about the socioeconomic upheaval.
3 key things to know about 'just transitions'
- The idea of a just transition originated with labor groups seeking economic rights in the aftermath of coal mine closures.
- The concept has since broadened to include a society-wide transition away from fossil fuels.
- A global just transition must revolve around climate justice.
Leaving no one behind
The World Bank and other organizations have developed strategies to help communities rebound in the wake of the socioeconomic upheaval. The World Bank, in particular, works on addressing the repercussions of closing coal mines.
Coal mines can provide thousands of direct jobs in mining, mineral processing, and transportation. They can also support broader networks of service jobs, health care, and other sectors and can finance community infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. In the past, when a coal mine closed, it was usually because a mine was tapped out or no longer economically viable compared to other forms of energy. The sudden vacuum left by the mine would have harsh consequences, according to Sheldon.
As a result, groups like the International Labor Organization and the World Bank stepped in with support for a just transition. Michael Stanley, the extractives lead at the World Bank, explained that just transitions hinge on three pillars: strong government oversight, extensive community involvement, and environmental rehabilitation.
Communities, in particular, have to be compensated fairly during the closure process and allowed to influence the new economic direction of a community, whether investments should be made in tourism, agriculture, or some other industry.
“It really matters that you have a strong, inclusive growth process, that all the impacted stakeholders are included so you really have clarity on how decisions will be taken, what they’ll be informed by, and who will take the decisions,” Stanley said.
Sheldon noted that countries such as China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Africa have the most arduous transition before them since these economies continue to rely so heavily on coal energy.
In recent years, the concept of a just transition has broadened beyond coal mine closures to encompass broader societal shifts.
The Climate Justice Alliance argues that a just transition means moving away from the current “extractive economy” toward a “regenerative economy.”
“This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste-free,” the organization notes. “The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations. If the process of transition is not just, the outcome will never be.”
A regenerative economy
As climate change and biodiversity loss threaten the future survival of humanity, proponents of an expansive just transition are calling for the global economy to be overhauled.
That begins with rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and reducing energy consumption in high-income countries. With global temperature increases expected to surpass the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold enshrined in the Paris climate agreement this decade, drastic action is needed to prevent catastrophic environmental consequences.
The International Energy Agency recently reported that countries can have a fighting chance of staying under the 1.5 degrees limit if countries stop drilling for new fossil fuels immediately and quadruple renewable energy production by 2030.
The United Nations goes further by calling on countries to use the next decade to dramatically scale up investments in environmental restoration, focusing on wetlands and forests, marine ecosystems, and grasslands.
But restoration is only effective if it's accompanied by conservation; if countries continue to use natural resources at unsustainable rates, then more and more of the planet will become degraded. The UN reports that 75% of the Earth’s surface has been altered by human activity to fuel the global economy and the pace of natural resource depletion only continues to grow.
As a result, organizations like the Climate Action Network are calling for countries to phase out current models of consumerism that depend on extreme resource extraction, pollution, and a global underclass of laborers.
“After centuries of global plunder, the profit-driven industrial economy rooted in patriarchy and white supremacy is severely undermining the life support systems of the planet,” the Climate Action Network writes. “Transition is inevitable. Justice is not.”
“We must build a visionary economy that is very different than the one we now are in,” the organization argues. “This requires stopping the bad while at the same time building the new. We must change the rules to redistribute resources and power to local communities.”
A just transition in the fullest sense of the term means reimagining the world we live in so that intersectional forms of justice and the planet’s well-being are elevated above concerns of economic growth.
This means creating societies where food, clean water, shelter, education, and health care are available to all; where smallholder farmers and worker cooperatives are allowed to organize; where marine and land ecosystems are shielded from excessive exploitation; and the potential of every human is cultivated.
“Just transition initiatives are shifting from dirty energy to energy democracy, from funding highways to expanding public transit, from incinerators and landfills to zero waste, from industrial food systems to food sovereignty, from gentrification to community land rights, from military violence to peaceful resolution, and from rampant destructive development to ecosystem restoration,” the Climate Action Network writes.
It adds: “Core to a just transition is deep democracy in which workers and communities have control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.”