Just Transitions: a comparative perspective

Report prepared for the Just Transition Commission providing a comparison of just transitions in other countries.

Executive summary

The concept of ‘just transitions’ emerged from the U.S. labour movement in the late 20th century. However, it is only in recent years that it has begun to circulate more widely in national and international policy discourses (see Section 1.1). In general, the term is being deployed to counter the idea that valuing job security and caring for the environment are two mutually exclusive goals, and to broaden out the debate on low-carbon transitions from technical questions around energy system transformation to its social justice implications (JTRC 2018).

In existing policies and literature, ‘just transitions’ tend to be defined in two different ways (see Section 1.2). The first, stricter definition of the term, drawing on its origins in the labour movement, focuses on the need to offer state support to workers and communities who will lose their livelihoods due to a deliberate shift away from the fossil fuel industry (Eisenberg 2019).

The second, broader definition calls for justice in more general terms, not just for workers. It emphasises the importance of not continuing to sacrifice the well-being of vulnerable groups for the sake of advantaging others, as has been the norm in the fossil-fuel-driven economy. In this definition, justice and equity are understood to form an integral part of the transition towards a low-carbon world. This broader, more radical definition of a “just transition” calls for an ambitious social and economic restructuring that addresses the roots of inequality (Ibid.).

This report draws on examples and literatures that are indebted to both definitions.

It considers how far five different countries (the US, Canada, Germany, Norway and Peru) have gone in terms of embedding the broad principles implied by ‘just transition’ in their plans, strategies, policies, and activities (see Part Two). The report also draws attention to other processes elsewhere in the world that have been concerned not with the transformation of industrialised economic practices and labour, but rather with other kinds of structural change, particularly around land use, tenure, and ownership in the context of carbon emissions reduction efforts. The first part of the report addresses three key principles that existing literatures have associated with Just Transitions (see Section 1.5). These are that:

1. energy transition strategies should be long-term and align both with agreed climate goals and commitments to improving social equality;

2. transition planning should be participatory, applying both distributive and procedural justice, and taking into account those who will be affected by transition processes across the socio-economic system; and

3. transition planning processes should be taken as an opportunity to redress systemic injustices that exist under the current fossil fuel dependent social, political and economic paradigm.

Drawing on existing literature, the report goes on to outline a typography of four different possible approaches to just transition (see Section 1.6):

1. Status quo: approaches that seek to craft transition processes without modifying the current socio-economic system;

2. Managerial: approaches that alter certain rules and arrangements within the existing system;

3. Structural: approaches that use procedural and distributive justice mechanisms to modify aspects of the system;

4. Transformative: approaches that seek to radically overhaul the current system.

Most of the approaches addressed in the case studies are examples of managerial transition processes, with limited elements of structural change in some cases. Most advanced national just transition planning has tended to take place with respect to specific industries (coal, in particular), with the result that transition processes have had a fairly limited sectoral focus. This has made it less necessary to engage in more complex transition processes that address multiple domains across the socio-economic system at the same time. However, the case of the Ruhr valley, which is discussed as part of the German case study, offers an example of a more ranging and holistic transition process that has been ongoing for decades.

Nonetheless, current transition planning now faces much greater challenges in that it must contemplate a shift away from a more engrained dependency on the oil and gas industry, as well as attending to deep-seated and intractable issues surrounding land use and agriculture, amongst others, in the context of an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions.

The report concludes by offering a range of lessons learned (see Part Three), drawing from the existing policy frameworks, literatures, and transition processes discussed in the report. Among these, the following proposals for current and upcoming transition-planning are made, which are to:

Planning and investment

  • Develop early strategic planning;
  • Diversify economic activity to attend holistically to a range of issues beyond job substitution and retraining, such as new infrastructures, the development of new green industries, and educational initiatives, amongst others;
  • Consider the role of decentralisation of infrastructures, such as energy schemes, and local/community/public ownership of land and other resources in ensuring a fair and equitable just transition;
  • Recognise that actions taken in the name of a just transition in one place may lead to problems in others;


  • Distribute the benefits and burdens of transition equally across the population;
  • Develop for this purpose mechanisms for enabling multi-stakeholder participation in transition planning processes, and effective forms of procedural and distributive justice;
  • Broaden out transition processes so that they do not focus narrowly on fossil fuel workers, but attend to wider vulnerable populations across the socio-economic system;
  • Ensure that new projects speak to people’s imaginations and help reorganise aspirations around different possibilities – how to work differently, how to care differently for others and for the environment; how to educate differently; how to build housing; how public participation in political life could expand, etc.;
  • Address gender, racial, and class disparities;

Policy development

  • Embed just transition in every aspect of legislation, regulation and planning;
  • Recognise that whilst centralised strategic planning, regulation and legislation is necessary, transitions are context-specific, and accordingly localities, communities, and regions should lead transition responses;
  • Establish appropriate forms of education and expertise for the purposes of a just transition and draw on existing expertise and infrastructures in doing so.


Email: justtransitioncommission@gov.scot

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