The Just Transition is both a movement and process to transition our society from an economy that relies on fossil fuels, resource extraction, and labor exploitation to one that is decarbonized, regenerative, and that prioritizes social and ecological wellbeing, equity, and justice.
The just transition movement has roots in both the labor and the environmental justice movements in the United States. The focus has often been on transitioning fossil fuel industry workers, who lose their jobs as a result of the clean energy transition, to new jobs in a green economy. Fossil fuel facilities can be found in almost half of all counties in the United States. These anchor tenants in their communities contribute to local tax bases, employing 157,000 people directly in the United States (and many more world wide), and far more indirectly through the economic development they create. As countries move towards decarbonized economies to mitigate the effects of climate change, many of these facilities will need to close. Additionally, these facilities are disproportionately sited in low-income and communities of color who are exposed to the pollution, health hazards, environmental hazards, and socio-economic consequences that come with sharing a fence line with industry.
Coal is one of the first industries at the center of the just transition movement. As coal mines, power plants, and processing facilities close, communities are taking action so that workers, residents supported by an industrial tax base, and individuals who have been exposed to occupational and environmental health hazards are able to transition to new sources of jobs, economic growth, clean energy, and secure and healthy livelihoods. This vision of a just transition that includes both workers and residents that have been disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel operations is sometimes also called a just and equitable transition. A key component of any just and equitable transition is that the people who are impacted are fully empowered to lead the transition and to create and build the vision for their community in the future. As we look towards a decarbonized future, communities and organizations are applying lessons learned from coal community transitions to a just transition for other industries and sectors such as oil and gas, electrification, transportation, and manufacturing.
Yale School of the Environment & Yale Law School
Just Transition Advocate
Environmental Justice Fellow at the Yale Environmental Protection Clinic
Yale Law School Class of 2023
Just Transition Fund
Image source: https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/environmental-justice
Research article: https://www.pnas.org/content/116/13/6001
Polluting facilities like fossil fuel fired power plants are disproportionately located in communities of color and low income communities. A just transition would shift communities to economies that don’t inequitably expose communities to pollutants along the lines of race and class.
The whole idea of a just transition is that the approach to designing transition efforts or responding to the imperative to reduce fossil fuels has got to have justice at the center of it.
- Professor Gerald Torres, Faculty Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Justice
People think Just Transition is an environmental justice problem, a labor problem. The truth is it’s a much much broader problem. It’s an economic problem. And it is a crazy hard problem, complicated. An economic problem that has its beginnings in education systems and other kinds of social disparities.
- Heidi Binko, Executive Director of Just Transition Fund
A just transition describes an economic transition.
The Climate Justice Alliance is a collective of over 60 organizations, including UPROSE, that have created a vision and platform for a just transition movement that centers equity and economic transformation. The vision goes beyond finding new jobs for former fossil fuel workers. For this collective of organizations, this means building a “visionary economy that is very different than the one we now are in. This requires stopping the bad at the same time as building the new. We must change the rules to redistribute resources and power to local communities. Just transition initiatives are shifting from dirty energy to energy democracy, from funding highways to expanding public transit, from incinerators and landfills to zero waste, from industrial food systems to food sovereignty, from gentrification to community land rights, from military violence to peaceful resolution, and from rampant destructive development to ecosystem restoration. Core to a just transition is deep democracy in which workers and communities have control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.”
Deep democracy or procedural justice is a critical core tenant of just transition work. Communities should not just be engaged as stakeholders in identifying the vision and pathway for their economic transition, but disproportionately impacted peoples should be leading efforts to build a new, more equitable economy.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. ‘Every location is different.’ But there are a few things that are needed in every situation: diverse local representation to ensure the transition plan is equitably designed by and for the community, accessible job training with connections to high-quality jobs, and sufficient funding to make the transition plan possible.
- Lara Ettenson, Director of the Energy Efficiency Initiative in NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program in “This is What a Just Transition Looks Like” published by NRDC
llustration: Just transition framework used by Climate Justice Alliance and its partner organizations.
The Just Transition is a framework that guides economic shifts and social policy. It also guides the way you interact with people, your world view, and your theoretical lens when approaching climate change. The Just Transition allows us to see that climate change is about more than carbon emissions, that our society is extremely precarious, that our economy is rooted in unsustainable and unjust practices, and that human and resource exploitation has consequences for people and the planet. The transition will happen one way or another, our society will change, but without intentional and consistent effort to make it just, that transition will only reinforce the inequality that plagues our society. A Just Transition means climate change becomes an opportunity to fix the very problems that led us to this precipice.
- AJ Hudson, Just Transition Advocate at UPROSE
This dedication to a Just Transition is a central difference between the mainstream climate change movement and the Climate Justice movement that I have joined: we know that a world with less carbon in the air isn’t necessarily a better world. Yet in fighting to keep carbon in the ground, not just with technology or market manipulation, but by changing who we are, how we live, what we stand for, and who gets a voice… we can build a world that is truly better for everyone.
- AJ Hudson
Image: Locust Avenue, the main street of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a former coal mining town, in October 1983, and later in June 2000. REUTERS/David Dekok
What is an example of an unjust transition?
We know from history that it is not a good idea to leave people behind in an “unjust transition.” In Appalachia specifically, we have seen the impacts of an anchor industry leaving a community or closing down without a just transition plan in place and without community engagement about the future. Communities in Appalachia have suffered from economic decline, job loss, lack of investment in schools and infrastructure, health impacts including diseases of despair, environmental pollution and degradation, brain drain, persistent poverty, and an aging population due to the decline of the coal industry [Appalachian Voices]. As a result, organizations and coalitions, like Appalachian Voices and the Solar Workgroup for Southwest Virginia have emerged and formed a region-wide vision and set of initiatives for transition.
Just transitions are happening around the globe. It’s an international issue.
Just transition is an international movement and process. Many countries, beyond the United States, are working on just transition policies and practices in their communities. The International Trade Union Confederation and International Labor Organization have published reports and recommendations on just transition principles and best practices. Countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand are actively developing governance structures and funding mechanisms to support just transition efforts in their countries. In 2020, the European Commission commissioned a report on just transition in preparation for the 8th Environment Action Programme (EAP).
When you deal with environmental justice in the academy, the categories can get ossified. But the ways in which communities think about justice is often broader, is category challenging, and causes us to think about things differently. The impact of losing an anchor economic player is going to have a number of reverberations. Not just the economic dislocations that will need to be addressed by a plant leaving, but the economic consequences that may bleed over and have an impact on the infrastructure the community has to live with. These may not be thought of as directly related to economic consequences but are an important part of the reverberations. Communities will be deeply concerned about things like pedestrian transport pathways, air quality issues, and safety.
- Professor Gerald Torres, Faculty Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Justice
Many organizations and policy makers in the United States are looking abroad for examples of just transition work in action.