What is the Just Transition?

If the aim is to cut emissions to net zero by 2050, where does that leave workers in polluting industries?

With the UK’s 2050 net zero pledge, we have to wonder what their plans are for ensuring no one gets left behind. Other countries have adopted various plans, with one of the most noteworthy being the Just Transition.

The aim with the Just Transition is to ensure that the journey towards a green and sustainable future is fair and inclusive for everyone, including for those who stand to lose out.

How does the Just Transition play out, and is it really realistic?

Where did the term come from?

It’s widely believed that the concept of the Just Transition came from the USA during the labour movement in the 70s1. At this point, they were facing increased regulation in the following notable polluting industries:

  • Oil
  • Chemical
  • Nuclear

While the regulations were necessary to keep both people and the environment secure, many industry workers faced significant job losses. This started a push for worker retraining, more support for affected communities and more environmentally friendly production methods.

From this, we saw the growth of groups like the Just Transition Alliance in 1997, as well as the Climate Justice Alliance in 2012. On our side of the pond, we saw the European Union considering its own transition policies, and the United Nations incorporating policies into their own strategies.

A great example of this is the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, as it not only uses the language of just transition, but has concrete principles in place to support it.

Why the Just Transition is important

The Just Transition is a key in the climate strategy’s support system. Not only does it help us understand where the impact of new policies will be felt, it highlights who is going to be most affected by it.

With the scale of change that needs to happen in the coming years, it’s important to realise that many people could face redundancies, lose out on job opportunities and find little to no support for their current skills.

This is not something anybody wants, because without social support, the climate change strategy simply will not work. The goal with the Just Transition is to ensure that any new changes facilitate the creation of jobs, encourage sustainable growth and tackle issues of fairness and equity during the move.

How it could work

While there are currently no formal processes in place, there are enough people talking about the Just Transition that there are plenty of ideas circulating around. The Climate Justice Alliance has worked hard to bring together a set of principles that they believe should be a core part of any transition strategy.

These were brought together from works like Principles of Environmental Justice and the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organising. They understand a transition will look different all over the world, which is why the following principles2 try to remain as borderless as possible:

Buen vivir

A Spanish phrase that means “living well”, and in this context implies doing so without compromising anyone’s access to basic rights while protecting the environment.

Meaningful work

Defined as “life-affirming” work and means helping people learn and develop to their full potential.

Self determination

People must always have the right to participate in discussions and decisions that affect them and their communities at large, including in the workplace. This must happen democratically and places special emphasis on the rights of frontline workers and those most affected by resource extraction.

Equitable redistribution of resources and power

A just transition cannot happen without working to correct social inequalities based on race, gender, class, immigration status or other forms of social oppression.

Regenerative ecological economics

A transition that is truly just must achieve its goals in a way that supports ecological resilience and sustainability. It specifically calls out capitalistic approaches that undermine these efforts.

Culture and tradition

Every culture and tradition must be respected and valued at each stage of the process to ensure a healthy, fair and sustainable economy.


Any solutions made to combat resource extraction must be made with local, regional, national and global solidarity.

Build what we need now

While solutions may start small and grow over time, we cannot delay action until a more convenient time.

Bringing the Just Transition into daily life

The Just Transition isn’t just about creating green jobs, though that’s an important part of the process. It’s about embracing everyone’s unique needs and catering to communities, not corporations.

These are things we can all do daily, as in just being more aware of what’s going on in the world. For example, there’s been a lot of criticism around the recent removal of the fracking ban3, which was originally placed into a moratorium in 2019 following community concerns about earth tremors. Following the U-turn on various other new government policies4 this may still change but as of October 2022 it’s still moving ahead.

Ideally events like this would be monitored and regulated by the UK’s Transition Plan Taskforce5, but they have only recently started working on a technical briefing paper outlining their goals.

Decisions like the lifting of the fracking ban must be made not just with the community in mind, but with the community present. Perhaps we will see more inclusion in matters like this moving forward, but for now we can only wait with bated breath and hope that we as a society become more open to community discussions when making decisions that impact those communities.

1Treehugger, 2021
2Climate Justice Alliance, 2022
3BBC, 2022
4BBC, 2022
5Responsible Investor, 2022

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