Photo via Envato

What would a just transition look like?

The green transition could wipe out millions of jobs and livelihoods. What can we do?

If you’ve been following climate issues for a while, you’ve probably heard the term “just transition” before.

We know that the world urgently needs to move away from fossil fuels and towards a low-carbon future. But how can we ensure that this transition is achieved in a fair and equitable way?

As carbon-intensive industries are phased out, they risk wiping out millions of jobs and livelihoods around the world. Globally, over 32 million workers are employed in fossil fuels alone, according to the International Energy Agency.

At the same time, key elements of the green transition, such as renewable energy and tree planting, could create their own injustices that need to be addressed.

For instance, rapid growth in electric vehicles is driving demand for lithium and cobalt, but mining for these elements is polluting Indigenous lands and waters in South America and threatening the habitat of Africa’s great apes.

Similarly, the growing market for carbon credits is fueling corporate land grabs across the Global South.

Proponents say a just transition must involve corporations, governments, financial institutions – but most importantly, individuals worldwide, who must have a choice and a voice every step of the way to ensure sustainable livelihoods and futures for everyone.

Abandoned warehouse
Millions of jobs could be at risk globally if polluting industries are phased out unjustly. Hieu Vu Minh, Unsplash

What is a “just transition”?

In its Sixth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines a just transition as follows:

A set of principles, processes and practices that aim to ensure that no people, workers, places, sectors, countries or regions are left behind in the transition from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy.

Climate justice advocates say the world’s most vulnerable – women and children, in particular – must be actively involved in devising measures to ensure that clean energy is produced and distributed equitably.

This, in turn, can provide growth, development and employment to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the years to come.

“Inclusivity is critical,” says Jitsai Santaputra, a consultant at The Lantau Group, co-founder of Youth for Energy Southeast Asia and SDG 7 Global Youth Ambassador for Southeast Asia.

“Hearing from young, old, men and women – that’s essential. Everyone’s voices should be heard and valued, and everyone should have the right to access resources needed to live a dignified life: resources such as food, water, housing, health care, energy, education.”

A just transition is critically important to achieving social and environmental justice as well as success in shifting the planet towards a sustainable future, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“If done right, the transition offers immense opportunities: a systems change in which all communities, workers and countries are lifted up,” it says.

“What is important is to develop a common vision for what a just transition means for their impacted workers, communities and businesses.”

A slum area in Lagos, Nigeria. Rémy Ajenifuja, Unsplash

Putting the “just” in “just transition”

Given the vast levels of inequality in the world today, what humanity needs is not one but multiple just transitions, all coordinated to address the uneven impacts of the climate crisis, says Sabrina Fernandes, sociologist and head of research at the Alameda Institute.

“This requires taking the “just” in the “just transition” very seriously – to the point of rejecting projects if they intend on maintaining very high levels of energy and resource expenditure in richer societies, whereas poorer parts of the world still have to choose between external debt servicing, basic sanitation and wind and solar power,” she explains.

Fernandes calls for an “internationalist just transition” that provides resources for poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis while preventing further harm.

“Some key tools for leveling capacities include external debt cancellation, technological transfer and a green fund provided by the richest countries through grants, rather than loans, to developing nations,” she says.

This would include a loss and damage fund, while funding for adaptation should prioritize places where the climate crisis threatens to cause significant habitat loss and the mass displacement of people.

Energy label
Amid sky-high energy prices, companies can tap into growing demand for energy-efficient products. via Envato

The business case for a just transition

Corporations can play a crucial role in supporting a just transition, and it could even be in their own interest to do more.

By shifting energy and money away from greenwashing, they could instead focus on long-lasting and impactful activities that truly support their workers and communities after listening to their needs, says Santaputra.

“That’s good for everyone. People are educated, healthy, and happy, they have higher incomes and therefore more to spend to contribute to national GDP.”

A key way businesses can contribute to a just transition is by providing choice. Consumers and businesses need options to make an informed decision about, say, which energy provider to choose based on its green credentials, Santaputra says.

That, in turn, heightens awareness of a product’s origins. Consumers can use that choice to analyze and better understand the impacts of their choices on the climate. They may choose to pay a price premium if their energy is derived from renewables, but only if these choices are available, she says.

“Demanding change is part of a just transition, so if you don’t know that injustice is occurring or you don’t have choices, then it’s hard to stand up and say: ‘I want this’ or ‘I don’t want that – I want something better.’”

Salt pool
Will South America’s Indigenous lands become “sacrifice zones” for lithium mining? via Envato

Can world leaders pave the way forward?

But someone needs to steer businesses in the right direction to achieve impact, which is where policymakers come in.

And it’s vital that governments consider social justice when making green public investments, says Nick Robins, professor in practice at the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics.

“We need to show that this process is respectful of [people], recognizing that it’s a huge opportunity not just for business but also for workers in terms of better jobs: improving the gender balance within the energy workforce, for example,” he says in a recently published essay.

Robins believes the European Green Deal shows promise with its Just Transition Mechanism, while the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act features provisions for environmental justice.

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But Fernandes argues that much more needs to be done to create just supply chains for minerals like lithium, cobalt and copper, which are required in vast quantities for renewable energy. She points to the Ecosocial and Intercultural Pact of the South, which calls for a just energy transition and rejects “green colonialism” in Global South countries.

“Resources and technology needed for new infrastructure often relies on damaging processes that create ‘sacrifice zones’ in marginalized communities,” says Fernandes. “This normalization should not be tolerated.”

Santaputra believes world leaders are starting to recognize the importance of hearing from ordinary people. A prime example is the UN’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, which incorporates the views of seven young climate leaders – underscoring the role of youth advocates in climate action.

“At the highest level, it’s setting such a great symbol,” she says. “It’s sending a strong signal to other countries worldwide that the advice from young people and everyday communities has value.”



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