The “just transition” is widely – and erroneously – understood to refer to the global shift from fossil fuel-based to low-carbon, mainly renewable energy systems. While this shift is crucial to preventing the worst impacts of climate change, the concept is much broader than the current focus on energy.

What is a just transition?

The concept of a just transition originates in the labour movement in the United States, and dates back at least to the 1980s, long before climate change became a mainstream issue. The phrase was coined by unions in response to the growing understanding that workers must be moved out of environmentally hazardous jobs, and that the process of doing so would need to be carefully considered to protect their rights and interests.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines a just transition as “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”.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says that a just transition “means 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”.

Note the use of the word “economy”. The just transition is not merely the techno-economic process of replacing coal-, oil- and gas- driven energy systems with renewable, low-carbon sources of power.

Just transition threatens the interests of powerful elites

Just transition is centred on the concept of justice across the economy, which requires a total reordering of our economic system: to distribute all resources more equitably, to conserve and protect natural resources, and to provide all people with the opportunity to earn a living in a way that enables them to lead dignified lives.

The economic system that a just transition seeks to achieve is the opposite of our current one. The neoliberal capitalist system has created the conditions which now threaten the very existence of our species. It is a system based on resource-grabbing and extractivism; maximum profit, greed, competition, and winner-takes-all power. It relies on convincing all of us that there is no such thing as “too much”, and that consumerism that drives endless growth is the only way to run a modern society.

The extreme wealth generated for a powerful elite by fossil fuel-driven capitalism has been marshalled to buy power and influence in governments across the globe. Vested interests in the status quo, those who are most threatened by a shift to a fairer, more equal, and sustainable society, have muscled their way into domestic and international policymaking. Their influence is tangible in our apparently endless failure to make progress in reducing emissions and tackling the climate crisis.

But we also need more honesty about the impacts of the changes required

However, those who advocate for a “just transition” contribute to these failures by maintaining a pretence that no-one will lose out, that no-one will need to give anything up. It is becoming patently obvious that this is not true.

In Europe, protests by the gilets jaunes in France, and road blockades by farmers in the Netherlands (protesting the government’s crackdown on nitrogen pollution) and Germany (where there are plans to scrap tax breaks on diesel for agriculture) illustrate the growing realisation that sacrifices will have to be made.

In the “developing world”, resentment towards “the West” is running high. People in the global South decry the hypocrisy of economically developed nations which have caused the problem, but which they now see as dictating change for others which they are unwilling to undergo themselves.

Everyone will have to make changes to their current way of life. For some, the shift will be harder than others, and this is where the justice element of the transition really comes into play. Those who bear the brunt of the transition must be protected and supported, and we must make sure that one set of elites is not simply replaced by another, leaving existing inequalities and injustices intact.

“Power does not concede anything without a demand”

Discontent and resentment about real or perceived threats to livelihoods play into the hands of the vested interests of that powerful elite, who are exceptionally skilled at amplification and manipulation of messaging that suits their agenda: messaging that says that the transition is too hard, or unnecessary, or unfair. This is why it is so crucial to communicate effectively that failing to transition will be much more devastating than the transition itself.

While sacrifices will be necessary from everyone, we must not for a moment pretend that the fossil fuel industry will willingly or voluntarily do anything for the good of society, even when the future of the planet is at stake: we have more than enough evidence of this already.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave and later high-profile American official and diplomat, famously said that “Power does not concede anything without a demand – it never has, and it never will”.

The just transition will remain difficult to achieve until there is a shared understanding of what is required to prevent the human species from self-destructing, which must include a thunderous, global demand for an end to the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry, and a radical reimagining of the way we structure our economy.

This article was first published on 30 January 2024 as a blog for the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.

By Tracey Davies

Davies is a contributor to the CISL’s online course: Business and Social Justice: A Force for Social Change | Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

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