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Demystifying ‘just transition’: What does it actually mean?

Exploring the origins, evolution and interpretations of the concept of a just transition

Demystifying ‘just transition’: What does it actually mean?

By Miriam Brett

29 June 2023

The term ‘just transition’ is often bandied about, but it is not always clear what it means. As there is no single universally accepted definition of a just transition, this blog aims to demystify the concept by exploring its origins, its evolution and its interpretations. 

The origins

Some point to a fear of workers losing their jobs as a reason for inaction or slow action to tackle climate breakdown. But the origin story of a just transition is grounded in the worker movement; specifically, in the fight to protect the future jobs and livelihoods of workers in carbon intensive industries.  

While various similar international examples predate the current understanding of a just transition, the concept is thought to have been developed by North American trade unions in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a coordinated effort to protect workers impacted by new water and air pollution regulations. Trade unions sought to “align their efforts to provide workers with decent jobs with the protection of the environment”, using the term just transition as a framework to describe the interventions required to give workers secure jobs in the shift from a high to a low carbon economy. 

The evolution 

The initial focus was centred on supporting workers made redundant due to environmental protection policies, but its meaning has since deepened and developed over time, growing to prominence at global, national and local levels, directly linking a just transition to proactive climate action.

As a starting point, it may be helpful to envisage just transition as the foundation laid for the bridge needed to take us from where we are today to where we want to be. This foundation is centred on a wide range of social and economic interventions required to secure livelihoods through a seismic shift in the industrial base towards climate-resilient economies where all workers and communities thrive. 

Importantly, interpretations of a just transition vary within policy circles, campaigns and social movements, spanning from local to global transitions. Some focus on the creation of good green jobs in the transition to a climate-resilient economy, while others view this as a component of a more systemic transition from a carbon intensive economic model driving inequalities to a reparative approach that heals imbalances and alleviates inequalities through climate action. 

Varying priority areas and focal points for a just transition are often interconnected with alleviating long standing injustices and the values this has instilled in those calling for change. This includes land, food and energy rights for Indigenous peoples, climate reparations to alleviate long-standing global injustices, and calls to tackle the unequal health outcomes of high levels of air pollution and poor quality, high emitting housing. 

While formal definitions of a just transition set out by international organisations vary, most share a common goal of reducing carbon emissions in a way that alleviates inequalities, and that this should involve the voices of the workers and communities most impacted. 

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines a just transition as “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.” Doing so, the ILO states, means maximising opportunities of climate action and managing challenges “including through effective social dialogue among all groups impacted, and respect for fundamental labour principles and rights”, and including all countries, sectors, and urban and rural areas alike.

Representing 200 million workers globally, International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) describes a just transition as securing “the future and livelihoods of workers and their communities in the transition to a low-carbon economy.” The transition is “based on social dialogue between workers and their unions, employers, and government, and consultation with communities and civil society”, which involves guaranteeing “better and decent jobs, social protection, more training opportunities and greater job security for all workers affected by global warming and climate change policies.” Among other demands, ITUC notes a just transition pathway involves measures such as collective bargaining with workers and their unions and the monitoring of agreements which are public and legally enforceable; guaranteeing essential social protection and human rights; and the involvement of workers in the sectoral plans.

Other literature, such as the 2019 Trades Union Congress (TUC) pamphlet ‘A just transition to a greener, fairer economy’, centres the importance of giving workers directly affected by industrial change a sense of voice and control. A just transition, the TUC stipulates, should focus on delivering the following criteria: a clear and funded path to a low-carbon economy, that workers are at the heart of delivering these plans, that every worker has access to funding to improve their skills, and that new jobs must be good jobs.

A just transition in Scotland 

The Scottish Government has committed to delivering a just transition to net zero by 2045. It defines a just transition as both the outcome of a “fairer, greener future for all”, and the process of getting there through partnerships with those impacted by the transition to net zero, which should be “co-designed and co-delivered by communities, businesses, unions and workers, and all society.” The goal is to end Scotland’s contribution to climate change in a way that is “fair and leaves no one behind.”

The 2009 Climate Change (Scotland) Act was amended in 2019 with the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, with the primary aim of elevating the ambition of reaching the 2045 net zero target. The Act sets out “just transition principles” to reduce net Scottish emissions of greenhouse gases which:

  • supports environmentally and socially sustainable jobs; 
  • supports low-carbon investment and infrastructure; 
  • develops and maintains social consensus through engagement with workers, trade unions, communities, non-governmental organisations, representatives of the interests of business and industry and such other persons as the Scottish Ministers consider appropriate; 
  • creates decent, fair and high-value work in a way which does not negatively affect the current workforce and overall economy; and 
  • contributes to resource efficient and sustainable economic approaches which help to address inequality and poverty.

Further, the Just Transition Commission was established by the Scottish Government in early 2019 with the remit of supporting a net zero and climate resilient economy in a way that delivers fairness and tackles inequality and injustice by supporting the production and monitoring of just transition plans and providing expert advice. The Commission’s working definition of a just transition is as follows: “Governments design policies in a way that ensures the benefits of climate change action are shared widely, while the costs do not unfairly burden those least able to pay, or whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly at risk as the economy shifts and changes.” This involves avoiding outcomes whereby the transition creates injustices and inequalities through fairly sharing benefits and burdens and considering adaptation interventions and climate impacts.

Future Economy Scotland’s just transition definition 

There is already a great deal of work being done by campaigners, organisers, coalitions, and trade unions on a just transition in Scotland. This includes Living Rent’s work on retrofitting homes, the Scottish Trade Union Congress’s (STUC) demands for a coherent low-carbon industrial strategy, and Friends of the Earth Scotland championing offshore workers’ priorities being put at the heart of the transition.

Throughout the next two years, Future Economy Scotland’s just transition project aims to strengthen the evidence base for transformative change through rigorous policy analysis and proposals that complement work carried out in the wider new economy and climate movement. 

As such, we have created a working definition of just transition. We define just transition as a coordinated plan to decarbonise Scotland’s economy and tackle the nature crisis while:

  • Creating well-paid, secure, unionised, green jobs throughout urban and rural Scotland alike.
  • Supporting the reskilling and retraining of workers as part of a managed decline of carbon-intensive industries.
  • Actively reducing social, economic and regional inequalities, alleviating poverty, and increasing living standards – particularly for low and middle income households.
  • Ensuring that impacted communities, trade unions, workers and businesses are given a meaningful stake and say over decisions that affect them.
  • Fairly sharing the costs and benefits of decarbonisation, including by embracing more democratic forms of ownership and governance.
  • Ensuring that Scotland, as a high historic and current emitter, recognises global imbalances created by climate and environmental breakdown and builds a reparative approach.

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