Just Transitions: a comparative perspective

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

Part One: The scope and background of 'just transitions'

1.1 Origins of the term 'just transition'

The concept of 'just transition' was developed by North American trade unions to provide a framework for discussions on the kinds of social and economic interventions necessary to secure workers' livelihoods in the shift from high-carbon to low-carbon, climate-resilient economies (E3G 2018). The term 'just transition' is widely thought to have been coined by the US labour and environmental activist, Tony Mazzocchi, who - referencing an existing federal program to clean up environmental toxic waste - had campaigned for the establishment of a similar "Superfund for Workers". The proposed superfund was intended to provide workers exposed to toxic chemicals throughout their careers with minimum incomes and education benefits so as to enable them to transition away from their hazardous jobs. When environmentalists complained that the term 'superfund' carried too many negative connotations, the proposal's name was changed to 'just transition' (Eisenberg 2019).

Until his death in 2002, Mazzocchi and those that worked with him sought to mobilise the just transition campaign as a means of addressing tensions and creating alliances between the labour and environmental justice movements. Where the latter calls for racial equity and other forms of non-discrimination, the just transitions movement, which seeks to mitigate inequitable effects on livelihoods caused by transformations in energy systems and resource use, is concerned with economic and labour equity. The movements are not dissimilar in that each seeks a distributive component on top of traditional environmentalism's conservation priorities (Eisenberg 2019). Mazzocchi duly negotiated partnerships with Greenpeace and environmental justice communities and developed environmental educational programs for workers. In this way, driven by the challenges posed by climate change, the just transition movement enabled unions to align their efforts towards providing workers with decent jobs with the protection of the environment (Ibid.).

Having arisen in the context of the 1970s labour movement, the concept of 'just transition' has evolved and spread to other areas and domains, from environmental justice groups to the international trade union movement, international organisations and the private sector. Since its inclusion in the preamble of the 2015 Paris Agreement[1], it has also been adopted in global, national and subnational policy circles (Just Transition Research Collaborative 2018).

1.2 What is meant by a just transition? What might a just transition look like?

In general, as suggested above, the concept of 'just transitions' is being used 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). However, as the term becomes more popular, it is increasingly understood and used in many different ways. Deployed in the service of a wide variety of ideological views, demands for a just transition can range "from a simple claim for jobs creation in the green economy, to a radical critique of capitalism and refusal of market solutions" (Barca 2015: 392, cited in JTRC 2018). This range "can make it difficult to clearly identify what Just Transition stands for. It also raises a series of important questions: What kind of transition do we want? In the interests of whom? And to what ends? Answering these questions implies an in-depth discussion of the meaning of justice in the age of climate change" (JTRC 2018). Despite the diversity of meanings attached to 'just transition', in very general terms, two broad definitions predominate:

a) The first builds on the term as it arose from the U.S. labour movement in the late 20th century (see above), in part in response to the environmental movement. This foundation shapes the term's stricter definition - the idea that workers and communities whose livelihoods will be lost because of an intentional shift away from fossil fuel-related activities should receive support from the state (Eisenberg 2019).

b) A second broader definition of 'just transitions' 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 (Ibid.).

In the second definition, the term 'Just Transition' is used to refer to the notion that justice and equity must 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.).[2]

1.3 Who and what should be included in a just transition?

How far do the just transition policies of different countries reinforce existing inequalities, such as the under-representation of women and other marginalised groups in fossil fuel governance and employment? Do they transfer biases from one industry to another, without addressing the underlying norms and practices that drive inequality or do they attend to the needs of those who are likely to be most disadvantaged by energy transition? (Piggot et al. 2019). Such questions raise issues around how boundaries should be placed around who and what is included in a 'just transition':

  • Drawing a line around particular industries and groups that would be negatively affected by a climate policy and therefore need or merit transitional support is likely to be problematic, given the interdependencies between different sectors and socio-economic groups. A recent study has noted that existing transition policies tend to ignore the potential cascading impacts of industry closure, such as how the loss of jobs in one industry might flow on to affect others. For example, the effects of men's unemployment in former coalfields of the UK in the 1980s and 1990s were highly gendered. When coal jobs dried up, there were significant ripple effects for women in mining regions, such as displacement from manufacturing jobs as unemployed male workers sought out new professions, the need to take on the "double-duty" of paid employment and domestic care to fill holes in household budgets, and psychological impacts resulting from a disruption to home life (Piggot et al. 2019). Elsewhere, in Canada, workers in the fossil fuel sector earn significantly higher incomes than accommodation and food services workers in the same communities. Furthermore, fossil fuel workers are disproportionately white and male compared to other sectors. If and when the fossil fuel industry is phased out in Canada, workers in a wide range of sectors will be negatively impacted, and yet it is predominantly fossil fuel workers who benefit from government transition programmes as they are currently envisioned (JTRC 2018).
  • Given the deep entanglements and interdependencies implied by the various effects of globalisation, economic integration (such as the EU single market and shared currency), and global supply chains, there are questions over how far just transitions can effectively be addressed solely at a national level; actions taken in the name of a just transition in one place may lead to problems in others. For example, within the EU, longstanding industry practices such as German unions' participation in wage restraint have been put in place to promote competitiveness and protect jobs during periods of economic instability. However, such approaches have produced a large trade surplus and impeded growth in southern Europe by deflating the euro (Abraham 2019). By propping up the "German economic model of exportism at the expense of other countries", wage restraint brought deindustrialisation and high trade deficits to Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain (Candeias 2013: 6-7, cited in Abraham 2019), eroding southern Europe's ability to recover from the European sovereign debt crisis (Abraham 2019). In Greece in particular, an increasing debt burden and European officials' requirement that the country pursue drastic austerity measures (such as enormous wage cuts, spending cuts, and tax increases)[3] have significantly eroded its capacity to decarbonise. Greece is one of Europe's most coal-dependent countries, and the privatisations of its national energy company and utilities (initiated as part of a ranging package of austerity measures) have extended the life of Greek coalfired power plants.[4] Notwithstanding Greece's commitment to uphold the Just Transition framework,[5] undertaking a just transition process whilst also undergoing austerity is extremely challenging, since austerity erodes relationships between union members and environmentalists, decentralises collective bargaining and limits governments' abilities to invest in coal-affected regions and protect coal workers from unemployment (Abraham 2019: 7). In this sense, some point out that European trade unionists and social democrats cannot truly square their advocacy for international solidarity with their commitment to international competition (Panitch 1998). Such analyses suggest that applying a business-as-usual approach that seeks to enable a national-level 'just transition' whilst outsourcing costs elsewhere will not be adequate to the task of implementing a just low-carbon transition in a globalised world.
  • Low-carbon technologies can themselves be the source of injustice. For example, whilst the rapid growth in renewable energy schemes in the Lower Franconia region in the Federal State of Bavaria in Germany was initially heavily driven by local cooperatives, they quickly became dominated by big corporate investors from outside the region. This shift had the effect of disenfranchising the local community, separating it from a large proportion of its land and hindering its ownership of low-carbon assets. In large part this situation followed from regulations that govern the funding and siting of renewables, which favour larger investors with a greater capacity to tolerate risk. Other examples of unjust low-carbon transitions include the alleged poor working conditions, including child and slave labour, entailed in the Brazilian biofuels industry, as well as health problems caused by toxic wastes from the manufacture of semiconductors, which are central to the solar PV industry. Meanwhile, the construction of a large solar scheme in Gujarat in India has, through the enclosure, commodification and privatisation of land for the development, led to the land dispossession of vulnerable communities (Gambhir 2018). The decision to increase the installation of onshore and offshore wind turbines in Scotland, which may make sense in the context of lowering emissions and potentially ensuring new forms of technical work for Scottish workforces, may have impacts on indigenous and local communities elsewhere in the world whose land is mined for the mineral and metal resources required to supply turbine and generator parts. Such examples highlight that replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources will not in and of itself address injustices, including the inequitable distribution of environmental hazards and the lack of influence of communities affected by renewable energy infrastructures (Gambhir 2018: 7).

1.4 Persuading workers/communities to support the transition; ensuring broad inclusion of different workers and groups offsets risks of political/social unrest

Some have warned that if just transition policies are not sufficiently inclusive or wide-ranging, there is a danger that certain groups will benefit over others, in turn raising the risk of populism and political unrest. At the COP 22 Climate Summit in Morocco, Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety warned that a "poorly managed transition from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy and industry will lead to a rise in populist and illiberal forces" so the promotion of renewable energy must "leave nobody behind" (King 2016, cited in Abraham 2019). Labour union officials have at times argued along similar lines. Luc Triangle, the general secretary of IndustriALL Europe, has said that the loss of well-paying, stable, skilled jobs in heavy industry drives the anger behind the increasing popularity of European populist parties. Mazzocchi similarly believed workers facing environmental restructuring without support from a proactive labour movement could find fascism attractive (Leopold, 2007, p. 413, cited in Abraham 2019). Triangle argues that risks of political unrest could be mitigated by guaranteeing income security for workers displaced from carbon intensive jobs and investing heavily in renewable energy to create green jobs (Triangle, 2019, cited in Abraham 2019).

However, Abraham writes that actions taken in the name of 'just transition' can also accentuate inequalities and socio-economic divisions. His criticism seems to be directed particularly at forms of just transition that are being implemented in parts of Germany, particularly the Ruhr Valley, where more precarious coal-workers have not benefitted to the same degree as other, longer-serving workers (this is discussed further in Part Two). Whilst arguing that the concept of just transition maintain its character as a labour policy stemming from the labour movement, Abraham notes that it should include broader social justice goals, including policies such as universal basic income, which would render the government an employer of last resort for those without jobs. Such approaches, he argues, would help to prevent tripartite negotiations over transition policy enabling the "creation of a labour aristocracy, which would fuel contingent workers' resentments of big labour, and abet anti-labour politicians" (Abraham 2019).

1.5 Principles of just transitions: A need for a broader understanding of just transition?

As suggested above, the impacts of energy transitions are likely to extend far beyond just those felt by workers directly employed in the coal, oil and gas industry. This suggests that transition planning should include a broader set of actors and issues, and that more complex interventions than simple job substitution and worker retraining are likely to be needed. Such interventions might include facilitating the introduction of universal basic income, dynamising local communities and economies, and fostering new relationships with land. Such approaches would avoid the need to pick 'winners' and 'losers' of a just transition, and help to generate new regional or sectoral economies, opening the way to more resilient communities that can support the changes to come (Eisenberg 2019).

There is unlikely to be a universal policy approach that ensures an equitable transition in all contexts, given that transitions will look different based on the structure of the industry, workforce and community in each fossil-fuel-dependent region (Piggot et al. 2019). Developing energy transition plans that take into account both climate imperatives and social justice concerns is a challenging endeavour, and there is no simple recipe for a just and equitable energy transition. However, some commentators have established a number of principles that they consider applicable when developing and implementing just transition policies in any context (Piggot et al. 2019). The Stockholm Environment Institute proposes the following:

A. Long-term energy transition strategies that align both with agreed climate goals and commitments to improving social equality

For most countries, this means planning to phase out new fossil fuel development, based on the recognition that further development will likely strand workers, communities and assets as more aggressive climate policies take hold. Ideally, these long-term transition strategies should align with other national development plans focused on social and economic development (such as green job policies and plans for advancing gender equality). Moreover, proactive planning, in a comprehensive way that includes all relevant stakeholders, will help increase the likelihood of an orderly, rather than disruptive, transition (Piggot et al. 2019).

B. Transition planning that takes into account both distributive and procedural justice, and considers those who will be affected throughout the whole system.

Distributive justice is concerned with the fair allocation of the costs and benefits of a transition. There are a number of important distributive justice questions raised by a fossil fuel phase-down, such as: Which coal mines, oil fields and gas reserves should close first? Who should be compensated for losses? How can transition planning account for non-financial losses, such as loss of culture or identity associated with industry closure? What kind of assistance is needed? How should support across companies, workers, households and communities be distributed to ensure that the existing unequal relations of gender, race, class, age and ability are not exacerbated? Who should pay for just transitions? Should the public pay or the employers who have left regions and workers vulnerable?[6] SEI notes that there are no simple answers to these questions — decisions will be based in large part on the way fairness is defined, and the criteria used to determine distribution. For this reason, justice scholars argue that an important component of justice is the process through which decisions are made about how costs and benefits are distributed (Piggot et al. 2019).

The procedural justice dimension of a fossil fuel transition involves consideration of whose interests and what issues are taken into account in transition planning, and who gets to participate and hold power in decision-making forums. The broad spectrum of interests with a stake in transition planning includes people working in related industries, as well as households and communities that are dependent on fossil fuel revenues. It also includes those who will be adversely impacted by fluctuations in fossil fuel prices as a result of transition reforms, such as low-income households or those struggling to gain energy access. Moreover, an equitable transition planning process should also take into account inter-generational justice concerns, such as the impacts of decisions made today on future generations, or the need to support those historically harmed or marginalised by fossil fuel development (Piggot et al. 2019). In practice, this means transition planning will need to involve more than just those directly affected by industry closure (such as fossil fuel companies and workers). It also will need to include those who will be indirectly affected by changes to their local economy or environment, and those who will be disproportionately affected by shifts in energy costs or provision (such as low-income households).

Opening up the energy planning process, and assisting a wider group of affected actors, will involve a more significant investment of time and resources. Governments could support more holistic transition planning by redirecting fossil fuel subsidies, or using revenues generated from resource royalties, permit fees or carbon taxes to fund energy transition efforts. Single instances of legislative reform are unlikely to be adequate for the facilitation of more inclusive forms of transition planning. Whilst administrative law and policy can provide for mechanisms that facilitate communities' ability to pursue transition planning processes, flexible, 'messy', iterative governance approaches that do not necessarily guarantee certain outcomes are likely to be necessary. Such approaches require the involvement of diverse stakeholders in decision-making, equal bargaining between stakeholders, stakeholders with adequate resources and procedural mechanisms to pursue long-term, iterative decision-making or dispute resolution process, information exchange and the pursuit of win-win solutions. These practices would offer more space for recognising the complexity and the inter-relatedness between different aspects of socio-ecological systems (Eisenberg 2019).

C. The planning process should be seen as an opportunity to remedy existing systemic injustices

This could include addressing issues such as the unequal participation of women and other marginalised groups in the energy workforce and decision-making processes, helping households who have struggled with energy access, and improving "sacrifice zones" historically damaged by energy development. The first step in addressing these problems is to gather information about where inequities exist in the current energy system. This requires collecting socio-demographically disaggregated data (that is lacking in most contexts) in order to assess where action is most needed. But data alone will not be sufficient to drive progress — responsive policies and initiatives are also needed. Organisations such as the ILO are leading the charge on creating guidance for developing more holistic transition policies that look beyond simply keeping industry or workers solvent, to also include social dialogue, social protection, and employment rights as key parts of the transition agenda (Piggot et al. 2019).

In summary, Piggot et al. argue, an equitable transition policy should attend to both the distributive and procedural justice dimensions of transition planning. The policy development process should be participatory and designed to ensure the representation of historically marginalised voices, interests and issues in transition plans. What this looks like in practice, however, depends on a number of context-specific factors, including the history of fossil fuel development, the current structure of the industry, the energy mix and availability of alternatives, and existing gender and social inequality norms. Others note that just transition policies should be embedded into national and international frameworks for economic development, climate change and social inclusion.[7]

1.6 Mapping the range of approaches to Just Transition

The Just Transition Research Collaborative, drawing on existing stakeholder and academic classifications from Fraser (1995, 2005), Hopwood et al. (2005) and Stevis and Felli (2015), propose a useful framework for understanding the spectrum of approaches to Just Transition. They identify four ideal-typical forms of just transition, ranging from those that preserve the existing political and economic status quo to those that envision significantly different futures:

Status quo

Corporations and free market advocates emphasise the business opportunities associated with a green economy. They do not call for changes to the rules of global capitalism, but rather a greening of capitalism through voluntary, bottom-up, corporate and market-driven changes. States or governments are expected to provide an enabling environment for action, through incentives to businesses and consumers, and objectives such as the Paris agreement. The need to compensate and/or provide new job opportunities to workers who will lose out as a result of the shift to a low-carbon economy is recognised; however, issues around job distribution or negative externalities produced by those jobs (such as degraded land and water in mining communities) do not enter in. Support may take the form of corporate-run job retraining programmes, pension schemes and other forms of compensation for affected workers.

The Ruhr, Germany: Displaced workers receive decent compensation and help in acquiring new jobs. Miners who have worked for at least 20 years can retire at 49 and then receive a monthly stipend until they qualify for a pension. Young miners are given another energy or mining job, or else are re-trained while still receiving decent pay.[8]

Managerial reform

Greater equity and justice are sought within the existing economic system. While certain rules and standards are modified and new ones can be created - on access to employment, occupational safety and health - no changes are made to the economic model and balance of power. Advocates of this approach recognise that the existing fossil fuel regime generates rising inequalities within fossil-dependent communities, and that existing labour standards are ill-adapted when it comes to securing workers' health and wellbeing. Enterprise-wide planning, as well as social dialogue between unions and employers, are presented as key means to reduce emissions whilst increasing resource productivity.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the ILO's Just Transition Guidelines, a number of national unions, large environmental organisations, and private sector initiatives, including the Sierra Club, support managerial reform rooted in public policies and investments, and call for measures such as skills development, OSH measures, the protection of rights in the workplace, social protection and social dialogue. Workers and their unions are considered both the beneficiaries and drivers of the shift towards a low-carbon world. The ITUC focuses on labour-related issues, but does not question the established economic model. Emphasis is placed on social dialogue and tripartite negotiations between governments, unions, and employers as the process through which rights/benefits can be secured.

Structural reform

A structural reform approach attempts to secure both distributive justice and procedural justice,[9] implying institutional change. Solutions are not solely produced via market forces or traditional forms of science or technology, but emerge from modified governance structures, democratic participation and decision making, and ownership.[10] The distribution of benefits or compensation is not granted via top-down mechanisms, but rather is the result of the agency of workers, communities and other affected groups. This type of transition highlights the fossil fuel energy system's embeddedness in society and the structural inequalities and injustices that it produces.[11] This kind of reform might be found at local levels in small, worker/citizen-owned energy cooperatives. But it also entails implementation of new forms of governance that span political boundaries and reassessment of inequitable institutions and structures governing, for example, energy production and global supply chains.

The Trade Unions for Energy

Democracy initiative advocates for a Just Transition politics that addresses labour-focused transitions in ways that also foreground the need for socioeconomic transformation and transition of the entire economy.[12] However, it calls for a shift away from the social dialogue approach used by the ITUC and mainstream unions towards a social power approach, guided by the belief that current power relations must be transformed and that this can only be achieved through public/social ownership and democratic control over key sectors (especially energy).[13]


A transformative approach to Just Transition implies an overhaul of the existing economic and political system that is seen as responsible for environmental and social crises.[14] In addition to changing the rules and modes of governance, proponents promote alternative development pathways that undermine the dominant economic system built on continuous growth. While workers are an important part of this approach, a transformative Just Transition also involves the dismantling of interlinked systems of oppression—such as racism, patriarchy and

classism—that are deeply rooted in contemporary societies. Common to the different interpretations of transformation is the notion of aiming for positive and progressive change that overcomes systems and structures that reproduce and exacerbate environmental problems and social injustice.[15] However, there is no coherent vision of the pathways needed to arrive at transformative just transition. The processes required to bring about change are context specific and dependent upon the societal baseline from which it emerges.

A range of groups, networks and organisations, such as the US-based Labor Network for Sustainability, Cooperation Jackson , the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, the Just Transition Alliance, the Climate Justice Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the Women's Environment and Development Organisation, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and Movement Generation argue that economic inequality can be addressed in concert with environmental and climate justice, and the transformation of prevailing power structures, but that the process must be diversified, decentralised, democratic and community-led.

Source: JTRC 2018

The JTRC report further differentiates between these approaches according to how inclusive they are in scope. That is, they take into account how far just transition policies are exclusive (directed at a specific group of actors, in terms of how resources are distributed) or inclusive (designed to benefit society as a whole).

It should be noted that the 'transformative' category presented in the typology of transitions above effectively coincides with 'degrowth' thinking, which aims to overhaul the growth-based economy. In doing so, it sits uneasily with dominant models of sustainable economics and development that are espoused, for example, by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and most particularly SDG 8 on decent work and sustainable growth.

Nonetheless, the JTRC report questions whether all the approaches included in the table above could, in fact, all be constituted as just. They note that it is possible to argue that maintaining the status quo is unjust because of the inequities and injustices associated with the current socioeconomic system. They also point out that past efforts at managerial reform have led to "cases of unjust land grabbing and social exclusion". Accordingly, they argue for "a progressive interpretation of climate justice to overcome exclusionary approaches and rectify the many injustices that result from climate change". They regard reform-type approaches that work to tweak or modify existing systems as valuable steps towards this goal.


Email: justtransitioncommission@gov.scot

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