What is just transition and what does it mean?

The term just transition is on everybody’s lips. But what does it actually mean? There have been many transitions over the decades, from automatization, to relocation of entire industries, leading to job gains in one region and job losses in another. There have always been “winners” and “losers” in transitions.

To avoid these pitfalls, the concept of a just transition has been created. The concept has its roots in the work of labour unions and environmental justice initiatives. Low-income communities of people of colour were seeking just pathways of a transition towards jobs outside of industries polluting the air and the environment, harming the health of workers, and burdening their communities. Over the past years, the concept expanded its reach and relevance for fields beyond the labour market.

Costs and benefits are fairly distributed

A just transition of the energy sector, of economies and regions away from fossil-based towards a sustainable value creation, solves the issues of injustice resulting from:

  • Exclusion from social and political participation of affected groups,
  • Ignorance of particular interests and needs of groups of society, in particular, those of workers in unsustainable sectors whose jobs will get lost in the economic reorganisation,
  • Benefits being accumulated by only a small part of relevant stakeholders,
  • Lack of re-skilling concepts for workers losing their jobs due to restructuring of the energy landscape towards a renewable based energy system,
  • Lack of the creation of new jobs in sectors and fields that are in accordance with climate and environmental targets in the regions where jobs are lost due to restructuring,

A just transition of the energy sector means ensuring that costs and benefits of a world powered with renewables are fairly distributed. It therefore “must create alternatives to people and regions trapped in fossil fuel dynamics through new economic opportunity, education and skills trainings and adequate social safety systems.”[1] A just transition is thus a future-oriented concept, guided by principles of sustainability and climate justice. It should leave no one behind, and thus decisions made, need to benefit those most underprivileged appropriately. By doing so, benefits and burdens of the transition are equally distributed according to social equity.

Just transition example

One recent example is the EU’s Just Transition Fund. With the strengthening of its Just Transition Fund as part of the COVID-19 recovery package, the European Union is sending a powerful signal to its members and beyond: moving towards renewables make economic sense and can be designed in a socially just and fair way. With the fund, the EU binds financial support measures dedicated to the just transition of regions heavily reliant on fossil economies, such as coal mining. The fund is part of the EU’s Green Deal. Due to the economic crisis resulting from the COVID pandemic, this Just Transition Fund has been reinforced to accelerate the post-COVID recovery and is dedicated to finance a transition towards a future that is under the EU’s climate neutrality target of 2050 and is leaving no one behind in terms of jobs, social and democratic participation, the liveability of the region, etc.

For a just transition to be just, fair and inclusive, political decision makers are required to provide the necessary framework in terms of policies, incentives as well as securities to guarantee continuity and sustainability, by:

  • Facilitating inclusive and participatory decision-making through Multi-Actor Partnerships. These MAPs should reflect all relevant stakeholders.
  • Assessing the needs and motivations of workers, labour unions, fossil fuel companies and other actors.
  • Basing political decisions on science and setting clear, obligatory phase-out and phase-in targets.
  • Providing assistance (political, conceptual and structural, financial) to a just transition of affected regions and communities.

[1] https://www.irena.org/newsroom/articles/2018/Dec/An-Opportunity-for-Poland-and-the-World-to-Tackle-Climate-Change