Just Transitions: a comparative perspective

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

Part Three: Conclusions and Lessons Learned

The purpose of this report has been twofold. Firstly, in Part One, it has aimed to briefly review the origins of, background to, and basic principles associated with the ‘just transition’ movement, according to the emerging literature. Secondly, in Part Two, it has sought to compile various examples of transition and restructuring processes from across the world and take stock of the key insights they bring to contemporary transition-planning. This concluding section will begin by making a few general points about the case studies, before laying out the principal lessons that can be learnt from them.

The report has addressed a range of examples of transition and restructuring processes from five different countries: the US, Canada, Germany, Peru and Norway. Since ‘just transition’ is a term that has only entered mainstream policy discourses relatively recently, it seemed overly limiting to focus the report solely on policy processes that explicitly deploy the language of ‘just transition’. A number of well-known socio-economic transition processes, which have been concerned to incorporate social justice and labour issues, have unfolded without reference to the term, at least in the early and mid-stages of their trajectories. The case of the Ruhr Valley is a key example of this.

Moreover, given that most explicit ‘just transition’ processes have arisen specifically to address the phase-out of coal and other heavy industries (US, Canada, and Germany), it seemed important to integrate examples of policies and activities that are concerned with areas of social and economic life that are of direct relevance to Scotland, namely the oil and gas industry (discussed in the case of Norway), and land (discussed in the case of Peru).

These case study countries therefore testify to a wide variety of processes that are either explicitly orientated towards fostering just transitions or are in some ways aligned with the principles of just transition. These include advisory panels; strategic policy documents; strategic funding programmes; transition initiatives run by NGOs and philanthropic organisations; union-led initiatives; and Payments for Ecosystem Services projects. These different forms are summarised in the table below:

Type Transition instrument/process/activity Case study examples
Advisory task force/commissions Dedicated, government-initiated ‘just transition’ task forces, commissions and advisory panels at national and regional levels to formulate non-binding just transition principles and recommendations
  • Coal Commission Germany (national)
  • Task Force on Just Transition in Canada (national)
  • Advisory Panel on Coal Communities set up by the Alberta Government (regional; Canada)
Government-initiated national advisory panels to provide recommendations on how to facilitate low-carbon transitions – which incorporate (but do not focus on) principles associated with ‘just transition’.
  • Generation Energy Council (national; Canada)
Strategic Policy Frameworks National strategic policy frameworks designed to address low-carbon transitions, which incorporate (but do not focus on) elements associated with ‘just transition’.
  • Mid-Century Strategy (national; US)
  • Clean Power Plan (national; US)
  • Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (national; Canada)
Strategic funding programmes Government-initiated national and regional funding programmes designed specifically to support transition processes through financial assistance for communities/workers/municipalities/orgs/regions affected by coal/industrial decline.
  • POWER Program (National; US)
  • Alberta’s Coal Community Transition Fund [CCTF] (regional; Canada)
  • Alberta’s Coal Workforce Transition Program [CWTP] (regional; Canada)
  • Ruhr structural transition programmes
Transition initiatives run by non-governmental campaign/regional support networks/orgs Regional Philanthropic funds
  • Just Transition Fund (JTF) – for Appalachia grantees (regional; US)
Non-governmental campaign and regional support networks, groups or organisations that promote community organising and run assistance programmes, particularly in areas affected by industrial decline
  • Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (regional; US)
Union-led initiatives Union coalitions for just transition
  • Coal Transition Coalition (Canada)
Environmental and Ecosystem Services Projects Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) projects designed by private, governmental, or NGO actors, with varying degrees of local community collaboration, to prevent deforestation, offset carbon production elsewhere, and provide community benefits.
  • REDD+ projects (Peru)

The scope and focus of just transitions in the case studies

The case studies discussed in this report attest to what is already asserted in much of the literature on just transitions: that the most well-developed just transitions policies and practices seem to have emerged largely with respect to the coal industry. The most comprehensive of these are exemplified by Germany and Canada. However, it seems evident that these transitions have been aided by economic transformations that were already militating against coal production, regardless of climate change.

Thus far, there appears to be little evidence of transition processes at a similar stage of development with respect to the oil and gas industry. Norway’s policy frameworks are directed predominantly towards greening its industrial strategy. In Norway’s case, even as great progress has been made in terms of domestic emissions-reductions, there appears to be no phase-out of oil and gas – the vast majority of which is exported – in the offing, and there is no mention of just transitions with respect to the industry in the available policy documents. Instead, considerable weight is placed on Carbon Capture and Storage technologies as a means of justifying the continuity of the oil and gas industry, and on the promotion of green industries alongside, but not instead of, fossil fuels. It has been reported that New Zealand, which couldn’t be included within the scope of this study, is initiating a just transition and economic diversification plan for those currently reliant on offshore oil and gas extraction (to be phased out by 2050) based on social dialogue with unions and broad stakeholder consultation.[82]

In broad terms, the transition processes in Canada, Germany and to some extent, the US, follow a similar model, orientated towards what the JTRC (2018) has classed as a managerial transition (see Table on p.15 of this report). The transition policies and measures so far implemented in these countries are designed to mitigate the effects of the phasing out of a limited industry: coal. These transitions are and have duly been fairly limited in scope, focussing mostly on retraining and job substitution, though in the case of the Ruhr significant attention has been paid to regional revitalisation and projects intended to inspire new imaginaries of localities (such as heritage schemes) and to support the emergence of new identities. However, unlike the transition processes explored in the rest of this report, the Ruhr Valley’s transition has been underway for several decades, and is significantly more advanced both in terms of policy development and implementation.

Despite the absence of attention to oil and gas, Norway’s planning seems fairly broad-based, envisaging relatively holistic transformations to the economy. The case of Peru, meanwhile, attests to the complexities that ensue where local development activities (in this case through Payments for Ecosystem Services projects) unfold without adequate oversight and regulation from national or regional government, and – crucially – without establishing a priori the requisite legal structures and safeguards to protect the rights and lands of indigenous and local communities. More broadly, the case points to the need for procedural and distributive justice as applied to land tenure and ownership issues, and for community and collective (rather than private) ownership of assets, infrastructures, land, and resources, as part of any just transition. It also points to the difficulties of implementing carbon offset projects – which tend to be tilted towards the needs of developers and richer countries – as a way of managing transitions.

Key lessons offered by case studies and existing literature

1. Just transition strategies should be long-term, and early planning is necessary.

a) Transitions, especially just ones, are likely to take a long time. Significant groundwork is necessary to ensure that just transitions are carried out effectively and fairly. In the Ruhr example even the breakthrough phase took some 15 years (from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s). In Peru, it has become clear that strong governance structures are necessary prior to any implementation of REDD+ projects. In addition, trial and error will be part of the picture, as we have seen with the attempts to establish a Nokia factory in the Ruhr – a move that was not well-aligned with local needs.

b) Many factors can impact the stability of transition processes in the medium and long-term, including public support, government changes, and climate policy targets and trends.

c) Early planning is necessary. Proactive, comprehensive planning, which includes all relevant stakeholders, will increase the likelihood of an orderly, rather than a disruptive, transition (Piggot et al. 2019). Very rapid transitions may cause more inequities in the short- and medium-term. However, most transition programmes have been largely reactive – responding to an existing decline in the coal industry – rather than creating a comprehensive vision for transitioning away from all types of fossil fuels (Piggot et al. 2019). Transition planning for oil, gas, and other related industries has largely been neglected. As a result, younger workers may lack time to build the skills necessary to transfer to other industries, and new workers may be trained for roles that are disappearing. Companies will also have less time to shore up pensions and remediation funds and experiment with alternative business models while they remain profitable. Finally, opportunities to address existing gender and racial inequalities in the energy sector will be missed.

2. Transition planning should be seen as an opportunity to remedy existing systemic injustices and distribute the benefits and burdens of transition equally amongst the population. Policies should align both with agreed climate goals and commitments to improving social equality.

a) Any transition planning that aims to remedy systemic injustices should include the phasing out of new fossil fuel development, based on the understanding that further development will likely strand workers, communities and assets as more aggressive climate policies take hold. 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 and racial equality (Piggot 2019).

b) Programmes that focus narrowly on fossil fuel workers risk exacerbating underlying inequalities in vulnerable regions. Existing policies tend to focus on compensating workers and communities directly affected by fossil fuel transitions, rather than on broader gender, racial, and social equality concerns. Conventional just transitions may help well-established workers, but do not necessarily empower more precarious workers, or those from sectors that may be only indirectly dependent on fossil fuel industries. For example, Canada’s Just Transition programmes (e.g. CWTP) are targeted at specific workers in highly vulnerable regions. Those working in sectors indirectly connected to the coal industry, often women and immigrants, who are also at risk of losing their jobs when a coal mine or power plant closes, are denied programme support, which includes compensation and retraining. Addressing issues such as the unequal participation of women and other marginalised groups in the energy workforce and decision-making processes; racial and class inequities; helping households who have struggled with energy access; improving “sacrifice zones” historically damaged by energy development; and facilitating social dialogue, social protection and employment rights, would be among the first steps needed to broaden out a just transition process narrowly focussed on fossil fuel workers (Piggot et al. 2019).

c) Just transition policies should be embedded into national planning, legislative and regulatory processes and into international frameworks for economic development, climate change and social inclusion. Among the ten recommendations of the Task force on Just Transition for Coal Power Workers and Communities in Canada was the need to embed just transition principles in the planning, legislative and regulatory process (See Box 4, p.37). Integrating just transition principles across policy, legal and regulatory instruments would require consideration of multiple forms of justice, distributive (establishing how the costs and benefits of transition should be distributed), recognition (how vulnerable regions and communities are being recognised in the process), and procedural (forms of engagement that incorporate communities into decision-making) (Pai et al. 2020). See Point 4b below.

d) Effective and thorough research should identify areas likely to be most impacted by decarbonisation well before policies are implemented. Currently, there is a considerable lack of research on areas most vulnerable to decarbonisation and about the social and employment implications of climate policies (Rosemberg 2010, cited in Pai et al. 2020). Gathering information about where inequities exist in the current energy system, which would require collecting socio-demographically disaggregated data, would be needed to assess where action is most needed. This kind of research needs to take place before just transition policies are created and implemented (Piggot et al. 2019).

e) Transition processes that do not address inequalities between different parts of the workforce and the population could lead to political and social unrest and a rise in populism.

3. Transition planning should be holistic and promote economic diversification.

a) Holistic approaches to just transitions, which take into account the need for regional revitalisation and diverse forms of social and economic life, are likely to be more effective than transitions orientated largely towards job substitution and retraining. Transitions from energy-intensive industries to a green economy demand a comprehensive policy framework. Structural and regional policies in the Ruhr included not only policies for industrial regional development and urban recreation, but also for education, the labour market, land use and building regulations. Transition policies that should be considered include provisions for new, decent, green jobs; pension guarantees; universal basic income; retraining of those who lose jobs; the construction of new infrastructures; the stimulation of new, clean-energy economic activity and enterprise; support for municipalities to help foment local development in areas of industrial decline; decommissioning of fossil fuel infrastructures and funding for environmental clean-up; amongst others.

b) There is a need for projects that are not simply driven towards fulfilling economic necessities, but also speak to people’s imagination and help reorganise aspirations in different directions. When industries are being dismantled, there is a need to rebuild new aspirations and imaginative possibilities around different foci (such as care, community service, and wellbeing) and identities. Research suggests that as coal industries decline, workers and communities engaged in mining over generations experience a loss of identity, as well as livelihood (see footnote 35 on the UK). Such losses should be taken into account in transition planning processes (Pai et al. 2020). Transition projects can open up opportunities to inspire new thinking and possibilities around, for example, 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. The establishment of industrial and landscape parks in the Ruhr not only gave new impetus to regional development and innovation; it also inspired new ideas.

c) Efforts to generate new forms of productive and economic practice should adequately reflect existing regional expertise and capacities. Emerging new economies should be sufficiently rich and diversified to minimise the risk of economic losses in the future and ensure the maintenance of a multi-skilled workforce. In the Ruhr, Nokia established a factory in the area that required semi-skilled assembly workers, but the initiative lacked “regional embeddedness”, ultimately proving to be a “bridging solution without a long-term perspective”.

d) The expertise and infrastructures associated with existing fossil fuel-based industries may support the establishment of eco-industries and greener energy schemes. In the Ruhr, some low carbon innovation and cultural revitalisation projects in the Ruhr have built very directly on the legacy of the coal mining industry.

e) The establishment of higher education institutions and the creation of technology centres can help lay the foundations for new knowledge-based economies. In the Ruhr, this played an important role at a time when the economy was still locked into coal and steel production.

4. Transition planning should be participatory, involving diverse stakeholders and initiatives, and consider all those throughout the socio-economic system that are likely to be affected.

a) This will require significant investment of time and resources. Just transitions take time because they need to be negotiated rather than imposed. Governments could generate funds for transition processes by redirecting fossil fuel subsidies, or using revenues arising from resource royalties, permit fees or carbon taxes to fund energy transition efforts (Piggot et al. 2019). Whilst good laws and regulations are highly necessary to ensure the preservation of rights, they are unlikely to be adequate for the facilitation of more inclusive forms of transition planning and complex structural change (Eisenberg 2019). In Peru, it has taken more than a decade for indigenous peoples to ensure that their needs are properly attended to in the climate mitigation projects supposedly designed from the outset – at least in part – to benefit them.

b) Transition planning should involve both procedural and distributive justice processes. For fair and effective transitions to take place, both procedural and distributive justice must be taken into account. Where the distributive justice dimension of transition is concerned with the fair allocation of its costs and benefits (e.g. who should be compensated for losses? Who should pay for just transitions?), procedural justice 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. Transition planning processes should include not only those working in or otherwise dependent on fossil fuel revenues, but also those who will be indirectly affected by changes to their local economy or environment, those who will be disproportionately affected by shifts in energy costs or provision, future generations impacted by decisions made today, and those historically harmed or marginalised by fossil fuel development (Piggot et al. 2019). In order to work through the complex power dynamics entailed by transition, 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 (Eisenberg 2019).

c) Active collaboration between national, regional, and local government, municipalities, employers, NGOs, community organisations, and trade unions are needed for a successful and just transition. Any transition plan should be formulated, implemented, and evaluated through close collaboration between these actors. Effective coordination between different government departments and agencies is also vital. Collaboration between diverse actors in the Ruhr has been a key reason for the success of its transition. Recent scholarship on the Ruhr suggests that its restructuring is the product less of a singular vision of ‘just transition’ than of a confluence of overlapping transitions, whose relative success has been ascribed to the collaborative activities of regional actors alongside enabling external factors, such as supportive national policies (Schepelmann et al. 2016). In Peru, actions that have improved the activities and regulatory frameworks surrounding indigenous land rights with respect to REDD+ projects have been heavily driven by campaigning from key indigenous organisations. This demonstrates a need for state and community actors to work together.

d) Multi-stakeholder commissions can ensure buy-in, build stakeholder coalitions, and bring organised interests to the table, particularly in countries where phase-out debates are polarised, and political constellations complex. Germany’s Coal Commission helped to bring many relevant stakeholders, often with divergent interests, to the same table and trigger an intense public debate on the end of coal. Canada’s Just Transitions task force was composed of a range of members from diverse backgrounds, including labour, environmental groups, industry, and government, as well as from coal-producing provinces. However, in the German case, the commission’s large size (there were 28 commissioners) made it difficult to strike a balance between inclusiveness and the ability to work effectively, and diverse commission membership introduced ambiguities into the final report, fuelling rather than pacifying public debate over key concerns, such as lack of climate ambition, the stability of energy prices/security of supply, and compensation for power plant closure.

e) Commissions can lead the way to participatory processes in demonstrating a clear commitment to considering and addressing negative impacts on workers and communities. Inclusive process and listening constituted a key part of the Canadian Taskforce on Just Transition consultation processes. The task force visited every affected community to hear concerns and formulate recommendations.

5. Transition planning should recognise that transition processes are context specific.

a) Lessons can be learnt from historical transition processes, but current transition planning processes will have to proceed differently and move faster. Historical examples of transition, such as the process that has unfolded in the Ruhr, have been driven largely by market forces. The influence of the market still looms large in more contemporary transition processes (coal is the focus of most current transition programmes in large part because it is becoming more costly and less competitive to produce). However, there is now also an added imperative to rapidly cut emissions, driven by the global political consensus forged through the Paris Agreement. To some extent, then, no historical example can offer a framework for the upcoming transitions, which will need to proceed differently, and move more quickly. However, they can, provide insights into a well-managed transition and warn of the consequences of under-managing transition processes, namely “political instability, societal push-back and weakened trust in democratic institutions”. As such, regions and countries should continue to focus on learning from one another’s experiences and exchanging best practices (Reitzenstein et al. 2018).

b) How transitions happen in particular places and sectors is contingent on existing political-economic landscapes, including the history of fossil fuel development, the current structure of the industries at stake, the energy mix and availability of alternatives, and existing gender and social inequality norms. For example, given the focus of most existing just transition frameworks on involving workers in climate and industrial policy, it is unsurprising that Germany has been a leader in establishing just transitions policies. Germany’s experience with corporatist systems of collective bargaining, which allow democratically accountable unions to participate in policymaking and industrial decision-making, prepare the ground well for the kind of procedural justice envisaged by trade unions in the context of just transitions (Abraham 2019). Although the emphasis is on coal transitions current transition policy frameworks and literature, transition planning for other sectors, such as oil and gas, may unfold very differently (Pai et al. 2020).

6. Strengthening regional and local governance of transition processes is critical.

a) Regional policy-making and actions tend to be more advanced than federal or national processes, reflecting that the necessity and urgency for change are first likely to be felt more locally, particularly in areas that have been given over to mono-industries, and that local capacity to respond may also be greater. This appears to be the case in Canada, the US and Germany.

b) Drawing on lessons from grassroots transition initiatives – e.g. where communities are taking innovative action to democratise and decarbonise energy systems – may offer greater insight into potential approaches to just transitions that are well calibrated to address local needs. As an SEI briefing puts it, “promise for a just transition may lie in these diverse and diffuse local efforts, which can both provide a vision and example of what a more equitable energy future would look like, as well as lay the political groundwork for higher levels of government to take on energy policy changes” (Piggot et al. 2019).

c) Since transitions are context-specific, localities, communities, and regions are best placed to lead locally/regionally appropriate transition responses. State actors may be too detached from regional realities to meaningfully reshape a region; local and regional governments and civil society organisations are likely to be best placed to understand and intervene in complex regional dynamics (Eisenberg 2019). In some cases, national governments may also not have the capacity or willingness to carry out meaningful transition planning, particularly where the fossil fuel industry exercises significant influence over policy processes (Piggot et al. 2019). This is particularly evident in the case of Peru, where understanding of the needs of forest-dwelling peoples is better grasped at regional level, and particularly by organisations representing indigenous rights in the Amazonian area.

d) This implies a need to incorporate localities and communities in transition decision-making, planning and implementation. This would be supported by the establishment of highly participatory mechanisms, the availability of funding, and policies that empower communities to plan and implement local development activities.

e) However, the capacity for regions and localities to respond will be partly contingent on the autonomy, funding, and resources available to communities, and regional and local governments. In Germany, state authorities are responsible for innovation policy, much more than national authorities, leading to and fostering regional specialisation. Devolution of transition management to regions is only likely to succeed in the context of effective regional governance and support from central authorities.

f) Consider the role of decentralisation of infrastructures, such as renewable energy projects, and community/public ownership of land and other resources in ensuring a fair and equitable just transition. Facilitating the decentralisation of control over key resources – for example, through mechanisms that support community-led energy projects and the transfer of land, assets and infrastructures (such as renewable energy projects) to community ownership – should be considered as part of a low-carbon transition. Such processes would help empower localities and regions, helping them to formulate context-appropriate responses to conditions in their areas, and promote local decision-making and job-creation. Greater public/local ownership of resources would also help to redistribute assets more equally within the population, creating the conditions for a more equitable and democratic politics, and in turn helping to prevent a rise in social and political unrest (see also Point 7b below).

7. Land tenure rights and changes to land use/management

a) Just transition processes present an opportunity to address land justice and environmental degradation issues together. Just transitions processes offer an opportunity to implement holistic policies that address existing injustices regarding land use/tenure and the ecological destruction caused by many conventional land use practices at the same time. The lack of intersectoral support for socioeconomic development that would also stop deforestation and degradation is considered one of the biggest challenges facing REDD projects in Peru (Che Piu and Menton 2014).

b) Land reform processes that support communities to gain ownership of local land are likely to help facilitate a socially just transition process. The Peruvian case study suggests that lack of legal clarity over land management and tenure rights stands in the way of implementing successful transition projects. Facilitating local and community ownership of land, by building on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, the work of organisations such as the Scottish Land Commission and opening up further funding to enable communities to effectively conserve and maintain their land for the benefit of localities, would support local empowerment and provide tangible resources to enable local people to make decisions over their own futures, both crucial dimensions of a just transition.

c) Consider supporting localities and communities through schemes that support sustainable land use. REDD+ projects (explored in the Peru case), whilst flawed, point to the possibilities for supporting Scottish localities and communities that wish to conserve and regenerate land, rather than developing it for (for example) infrastructural purposes. Such possibilities could include establishing payments systems (along the lines of Payments for Ecosystem Services [PES] schemes) that provide localities (e.g. through community trusts, councils, or groups) with income for projects aimed at conserving and/or restoring areas of native woodland and peatlands.

8. Centralised support, leadership, and effective national regulation/policymaking is crucial

a) Whilst bottom-up activities are crucial to a successful transition, top-down policy, funding support, and regulatory structures are necessary. A series of regional structural policy programmes were instituted in the Ruhr over the course of the key transition periods, including the Ruhr Development Programme (1968-1973), the North Rhine-Westphalia Programme (1970-1975), and the Action Framework Coal Regions (1992-1995). These provided structure and a clear sense of direction, whilst channelling funding for transition projects.

b) Just Transition Task forces and Commissions should receive support from the highest levels of government. In the case of the Canadian Taskforce on Just Transitions, its message was carried by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, signifying the high-level commitment to the phase-out plan and helping to ensure buy-in from labour leadership and key industry representatives.

c) Outcomes of national commissions send strong signals to the public and peer countries as climate leadership becomes ever more important. But commissions cannot replace political leadership and ambitious emissions reduction targets, which are crucial for any long-term planning and outcomes in line with the Paris Agreement. There are risks that commissions are misused to delegate political responsibility or delay climate action. Research suggests that commissions are better placed to create the conditions for transformative policy change if they are tasked with outlining multiple policy pathways to inform political decision making, including the challenges and opportunities of each (Reitzenstein and Popp 2019).

9. The role of wider international structures and policy processes

a) Wider economic and political processes are also instrumental to crafting successful transition pathways. In the case of the Ruhr, these have included the prices of fossil fuels, the European Emission Trading System for carbon allowances, and German obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

10. Transition processes that bring benefits for certain regions/countries/populations/sectors may bring costs for others.

a) Low-carbon technologies can themselves be the source of injustice. Replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources will not in itself address injustices, including the inequitable distribution of environmental hazards and the lack of influence of communities affected by these new sources. For example, 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).

b) Actions taken in the name of a just transition in one place may lead to problems in others. Exporting green energy tends to preclude local production abroad, meaning that green jobs in one place could prevent the creation of green jobs elsewhere (Fisher 2013). German unions’ participation in wage restraint to promote competitiveness and protect jobs during periods of economic instability have impeded growth in southern Europe by deflating the euro (Abraham 2019).


Email: justtransitioncommission@gov.scot

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