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A Framework for Just Transitions

View of solar panels at Cerro Dominador, the first thermosolar power plant in Latin America, in Antofagasta, Chile (Photo by Martin BERNETTI / AFP via Getty Images)

Climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, requiring rapid economic and social transformations that will affect workers and communities and will have broader impacts on society. Over the past decade, there has been a growing focus on ensuring that workers and communities are not left behind as the world transitions toward a cleaner and more resilient future. With more countries and regions setting net-zero targets and ambitious climate and energy goals, it is all the more important to develop plans for the communities that will be affected by climate change and the changes, opportunities, and risks associated with responses to it.

Governments, labor groups, investors, business, civil society, and environmental organizations are increasingly using the principles and practices of “just transitions” to address the economic and social implications of climate policy. Yet the term itself is unfamiliar to many and elicits many different responses from diverse stakeholders. The Just Transition Initiative (JTI)—a partnership between the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)—has developed a framework that incorporates many definitions of and perspectives on just transitions.

History and Context

In the 1980s, organized labor and environmental groups in the United States began to advocate for public policies that protected the natural environment as well as workers. By the late 1990s, following interaction between labor and environmental justice groups, this advocacy was reflected in the new term “just transition.” In the early 2000s, organized labor became increasingly concerned that international climate negotiations were not addressing the social and employment impacts of climate policy and led a coordinated effort to mainstream the just transitions concept. The goal of a just transition was incorporated into the negotiating text for the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 and later the preamble to the historic Paris Agreement adopted in December 2015.

While labor issues remain essential to the just transition discourse, the use of the term has expanded to highlight a variety of risks and equity issues associated with climate change impacts and mitigation and adaptation policies.

A number of questions underpin the just transitions discourse, but there is limited convergence on the answers to these fundamental challenges:

  • Whose values and understandings of the world are recognized and legitimized?
  • Who decides what kinds of transitions are needed and how are different groups included in the decision making processes?
  • Who benefits and loses in change processes?
  • How can competing perspectives and the resulting allocation of benefits and harms be allocated in ways that are safe and just for diverse stakeholders over extended geographic areas and time periods?

A New Framework for Just Transitions

In its first phase of research, the JTI developed a preliminary framework to reflect the broad range of definitions and perspectives on just transitions. Through feedback and application in country case studies, the framework has been refined as a tool to help stakeholders think through key dimensions of just transitions.

This framework can be used to assess current just transition principles and processes and support more transformative practices. It can be applied at different geographical scales (local, national, regional, and global) and time horizons (short-, medium-, and long-run) and is located within a global ambition of limiting climate change-related temperature rise to below 2°C. The framework illustrates how achieving this ambition will require actions across two critical dimensions: social inclusion and distributional impacts.

EmpowermentIntention: transformation

Social Inclusion

Participation Intention: Reform

Focused Intention: Reform

Distributional Impacts

Expansive Intention: Transformation

II: Narrow Transition

Inclusive but focused approach

Social Inclusion: recognizes, includes, and empowers a diverse range of stakeholders throughout transition processes.

Distributional Impacts: considers a narrow range of impacts for specific sectors and stakeholders.

Intention: seeks transformation through inclusive and empowering processes.

III: Incremental Reform

Less inclusive and focused approach

Social Inclusion: recognizes and includes select stakeholders in aspects of the transition process.

Distributional Impacts: considers a narrow range of impacts for specific sectors and stakeholders.

Intention: seeks reform via changes within existing social and economic systems.

I: Systems Change

Inclusive process and broad impact

Social Inclusion: recognizes, includes, and empowers a diverse range of stakeholders throughout transition processes.

Distributional Impacts: considers a broad range of impacts across sectors and stakeholders.

Intention: seeks transformation through the overhaul of systems incompatible with sustainable development and social equity.

IV: Top-Down Transition

Less inclusive process but broad impact

Social Inclusion: recognizes and includes select stakeholders in aspects of the transition process.

Distributional Impacts: considers a broad range of impacts across sectors and stakeholders.

Intention: seeks transformation through consideration of a broad range of distributional impacts.

Social inclusion refers to the types of groups that take part in decision making processes related to the transition. At one end of the spectrum, socially inclusive actions ensure the recognition and participation of a diverse set of stakeholders and vulnerable groups to allow them some degree of influence, although this consultation may be relatively superficial. A more expansive approach to social inclusion in just transitions empowers these groups to influence and potentially own decision making processes that affect their economic and social well-being. This requires governance structures and institutions at the local, national, and international levels that enable social inclusion in transition processes. In this type of expansive approach, just transitions would allow marginalized and vulnerable groups to challenge and overcome unequal power relations. Genuine recognition also allows diverse identities to exist alongside each other without discrimination.

Distributional impacts concern the fair allocation of the benefits and harms associated with transitions. This includes addressing issues of access, historical injustices (restorative justice), the current allocation of transition outcomes, and the consideration of future impacts. In a narrower interpretation, the distributional impacts of just transitions would focus on the direct impacts associated with transitions, for example, the workers in specific sectors whose jobs may be jeopardized. A broader approach to distributional impacts would encompass impacts across many sectors and groups, including concerns over economic, social, and environmental justice.

A third, cross-cutting element of just transitions is intention or the underlying vision for transition planning and action. This is a critical aspect of just transitions because it captures the range of perspectives and approaches to driving the social, political, and economic change that can be realized through just transitions. In the “reform” approach outlined in the framework above, the preference is to achieve change through existing social and economic systems, via incremental rather than radical change. At the other end of the spectrum, a “transformation” approach indicates an ambition to overhaul existing political and economic systems that are incompatible with sustainable development and social equity.

Approaches to Just Transitions

It is difficult to find real world examples of just transitions that perfectly illustrate these three key dimensions of social inclusion, distributional impacts, and intention—but below are hypothetical examples indicating a range of approaches.

Quadrant I: Systems Change

Example: an effort to remediate and redevelop environmentally degraded lands for sustainable industries. The effort is part of a larger, community-led initiative to address environmental injustice and develop a sustainable, locally based economy that promotes social equity by empowering vulnerable or marginalized community members.

Quadrant II: Narrow Transition

Example: a group of workers gains ownership of a solar panel manufacturing facility as a cooperative. The cooperative promotes equal opportunity and compensation for women and provides technical training and skills development targeted at women in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Quadrant III: Incremental Reform

Example: a government phase-out of coal mining in accordance with international climate targets, coupled with strategic investments in low-carbon industries. The phase-out is negotiated through formal dialogue between workers, ownership, and government, and includes financial support for affected workers, as well as plant operators.

Quadrant IV: Top-Down Transition

Example: large-scale wind investments in an authoritarian political system intended to mitigate climate change and increase access to affordable energy. Affected workers and communities have minimal input on siting and other issues, but displaced residents are compensated, and local workers are offered financial and educational assistance.

Taken together, these components of social inclusion, distributional impacts, and intention across different geographic scales and time horizons show how widely perceptions of just transitions vary. They also capture the range of perspectives on what just transitions can accomplish and how these changes should be carried out. Some groups—for example, a national or local labor union in a particular industry—may regard just transitions as a vehicle to accomplish aims such as protection for workers in their own industry. These stakeholders may have very different views on how transformative these changes should be (with the variance captured by Quadrants II and III in the diagram above), but ultimately their main concern is likely a narrower set of impacts for particular interest groups. At the opposite end of the spectrum, many climate justice activists, environmental groups, labor confederations, and others view just transitions as the means to address many inequalities and injustices. Quadrant I in the framework diagram indicates a view that the social, environmental, and economic change promised by just transitions cannot be achieved without a radical overhaul of our institutions and governance.

Dimension: Social Inclusion

Recognition and participation of stakeholders and vulnerable groups that afford some degree of influence in the decision-making process.

Challenging unequal power relations and empowering vulnerable populations to influence and collectively own decision-making processes.

Dimension: Distributional Impacts

A focus on direct impacts associated with transitions, most commonly related to jobs in specific sectors.

An expansive or broad approach that incorporates impacts across sectors and stakeholders, related to economic, social and environmental justice.

Cross-Cutting Element: Intention

Reform indicates the desire to achieve change within existing social and economic systems. Reform may be needed for incremental steps towards transformation.

Transformation indicates an ambition to overhaul existing social and economic systems that are incompatible with sustainable development and social equity.

Part of the appeal of just transitions is that the concept encompasses a range of concerns over climate change-related responses, social justice, and economic equity. Yet the all-encompassing nature of just transitions raises the risk of making it an empty term that creates the appearance of change or a commitment to change while undermining the transformative intent that has informed its development. The term also faces the burden of unrealistic expectations. It is asking a great deal for just transitions to create a pathway to sustainability, economic equality, and justice and to resolve many complex societal failures. But applying just transitions principles can help to alleviate legitimate concerns and potential resistance to effective climate policy by addressing risks to affected communities and opening opportunities for them while protecting their rights. Delivering on the key principles of just transitions—inclusive decision-making and the fair distribution of the benefits and burdens produced through climate action—is imperative to achieving climate goals.

It is with this intention that the CIF is applying this framework in country case studies. These studies explore how the CIF’s investments have interacted with just transition efforts in different countries and use the framework to understand and reflect diverse perspectives, approaches, and possibilities associated with key actors. Applying the framework in these case studies has highlighted several implications in terms of social inclusion and distributional impacts:

  • The importance of recognizing groups subject to discrimination on the basis of race, caste, and gender, and ensuring that their perspectives are included in transition processes.
  • Revealing how participatory development of key plans can lead to positive outcomes related to social inclusion.
  • Demonstrating how an expansive scope when considering distributional impacts can lead to a broad range of benefits through value chains and wider geographic areas.
  • Illustrating the importance of considering the different impacts of change initiatives between geographic areas and across different time horizons.

Justice requires that the benefits and burdens associated with change processes are fairly allocated between individuals and groups. The urgent and complex nature of responses to climate change requires that new principles, processes, and practices be developed and implemented to ensure just transitions associated with climate action. The consolidation of many aspects of justice in the proposed just transitions framework shared here and the use of this framework to reflect on and inform climate action is part of the ongoing work of the JTI. As additional case studies are conducted and new insights are developed, these will be shared with partners and the broader community seeking to ensure just transitions associated with economic, social, and environmental change.

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from the Resource Library

Supporting Just Transitions in South Africa: A Case Study

This case study explores key dimensions of just transitions and draws lessons from the Climate Investment Funds (CIF)’s contributions to the energy transition, the expansion of renewable energy, and the implications for workers and communities in South Africa.


This case study explores key dimensions of just transition in South Africa, which has a long engagement with the concept and was one of the first countries to include an explicit reference to just transitions in its Nationally Determined Contribution. The case study reflects on the contributions of the Climate Investment Funds (CIF), through its partner multilateral development banks, to the energy transition in South Africa.

The document uses the just transitions framework developed by the CIF and the Center for Strategic and International Studies to explore issues of social inclusion and distributional justice in South Africa’s energy transition. It provides a broader review of South Africa’s energy transition implications for national planning, and discusses social inclusion, financing, Covid-19 recovery programs, skills development and geographic disparities.

Just Transition Concepts and Relevance for Climate Action

This report explains the origins and evolution of just transitions, and offers a framework to represent the range of definitions as well as underlying ideologies and approaches.


This report outlines the origins of just transitions in the US labor movement, the later adoption of the concept by the environmental and climate justice movements, and its role in international climate negotiations. The authors note that the term “just transitions” evokes a range of responses, from enthusiasm to confusion to outright skepticism, suggesting the need for a clear definition.

The paper presents a framework to capture the range of definitions and interpretations of just transitions. One key dimension is scope, including both distributional impacts—or who and what is affected in transitions—as well as intention (the ideological preference between reforming or transforming existing political and economic systems through just transitions). The other dimension in the framework is social inclusion, or the range of recognition and procedural justice for various groups. The framework does not seek to identify a single “correct” definitions of just transitions, but rather captures a range of ideologies and approaches to the concept.

A final section of the paper suggests that the next stage of just transitions work will be to advance solutions and to apply lessons learned. The authors list several priorities for future research including concrete tools and strategies, more case studies of developing countries, more effective social engagement, and new financing methods.

Mapping Just Transition(s) to a Low-carbon World

This paper defines just transitions and emphasizes the term’s roots in social and environmental justice, especially for those in the climate sphere who are less familiar with these underpinnings.


This paper helps define just transitions, emphasizing the origins of the concept in the labor movement and in social and environmental justice. The paper includes a schematic of the approaches of various groups to just transitions, mapping the views of various stakeholders and broadly grouping them under four approaches: status quo maintenance, managerial reform, structural reform, and transformative reform.

The authors review the origins of the concept of just transitions in the U.S. labor movement in the 1970s and discuss how it spread in the 2000s, largely under the rubric of climate policy and with more support from UN agencies and the International Labor Organization (ILO). The authors also explore the evolution of the just transition concept through case studies of six countries: Brazil, Canada, Germany, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States.

Guiding Principles & Lessons Learnt for a Just Energy Transition in the Global South

This report suggests eight principles for measuring justice dimensions of energy transition processes in developing countries and applies this rubric to twelve countries in the Global South.


This report discusses the various stakeholder narratives of “just energy transitions” and their claims to justice. The authors promote transformative alliances among these stakeholders to align their sustainable development strategies. They offer a set of eight principles to encourage and assess justice dimensions of energy transition processes in developing countries.

Using the proposed principles and their respective indicators, the authors evaluate twelve countries: China, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Vietnam, Fiji, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Mexico. These countries were identified based on justice terminology within their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Performance among these countries was generally strongest in terms of their ambitious targets regarding climate and the alignment of their NDCs with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These countries generally scored lower with respect to the socioeconomic dimension—such as ensuring or fostering “decent work and resilience,” “social equity,” and “gender equality”—and even lower in regard to the political dimension.

The paper concludes that countries claiming to be pioneers of just energy transitions do not necessarily perform better in terms of the social and political dimension, nor do those who claim to be pioneers regarding justice necessarily lead when it comes to climate ambition. The authors offer recommendations specific to each of the twelve countries and conclude with broadly applicable policy recommendations to better apply justice to energy transitions.