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About Just Transitions

There is no single, universally accepted definition of just transitions. We have developed a framework to describe the range of definitions among stakeholders and their underlying perspectives and priorities.
Worker stands at the top of a wind turbine during installation.
Project lead Jon White oversees the installation of turbines at SWIFT (Scaled Wind Farm Technology Facility) in Lubbock, Texas.

Just transitions towards low-carbon and climate-resilient development create opportunities for environmental sustainability, social equity, and economic prosperity.

Humanity’s continued acceleration into the climate crisis has prompted an urgent call for deep and multi-dimensional change to keep the warming of the planet as far below 2 degrees as possible. The social and economic transformations required for this to happen are of a scale and speed unexperienced in human history. Such disruptive change is likely to impact large sections of society, particularly workers and communities reliant on fossil fuel and other natural resources for their livelihoods.

In addition to being a moral duty, addressing the risks to and rights of affected communities will alleviate legitimate concerns and potential resistance to imminent changes. Inclusive decision-making and the fair distribution of emerging opportunities in a green economy are therefore imperative to achieving climate goals.

Governments, labor groups, investors, business, civil society, and multilateral agencies are increasingly using principles of ‘just transitions’ to better understand where the impacts of systemic shifts will be felt and what actions can be taken to best mitigate losses and distribute gains fairly. The utility of a just transition lens has come into sharper focus as governments consider opportunities to channel COVID-19 recovery stimulus packages in ways that structurally transform economies while reducing the risks of climate change and realizing the potential of sustainable development.

The key questions that underpin the just transitions discourse include:

  • Who decides what kind of transitions are needed?
  • How are different groups included in the decision-making processes?
  • Who benefits and loses in change processes?
  • How can benefits be distributed and losses mitigated in both safe and just ways?

There is, however, limited convergence on the answers to these fundamental questions. In fact, there is no single, universally accepted approach or definition of just transitions to date.

History and Context

Plenary session at COP15 UN Climate Change Conference, December, 2009. Source: OLIVIER MORIN/AFP via Getty Images

The concept of just transitions originated in the U.S. in the 1980s when organized labor and environmental groups began to advocate for  public policies that protected the natural environment as well as workers. This concept, described as a “just transition,” gained prominence in the international climate policy arena. In the early 2000s, organized labor was 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 concept 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 movement in the context of climate change has expanded to highlight a variety of risks and equity issues associated with climate change impacts and mitigation and adaptation policies. Just transitions should enable workers and disadvantaged communities that are vulnerable to climate change or climate interventions to access decent work and sustainable livelihoods.

Just Transitions Framework

In its first phase of research, the Just Transition Initiative (JTI) described the origins of the just transition concept and its evolution over time, and developed a preliminary framework to help understand the broad range of definition and perspectives on just transitions. Through feedback and application in country case studies, the framework has been recalibrated as a practical tool to help stakeholders think through key dimensions of just transitions.

The JTI framework can be used to assess current just transition principles and processes and help inform transformative practices. It can be applied at different geographical scales (local, national, regional, 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 2oC. The framework illustrates how achieving this ambition will require actions across two critical dimensions: social inclusion and distributional impacts.

Social Inclusion refers to the recognition of marginalized groups by including them in discussions and decision-making processes; enabling broad stakeholder participation and the ability to shape the outcomes of change processes; and ensuring that governance structures are in place to influence local, national, and international transitions.

Spectrum of Social Inclusion actions can range from:

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.

Distributional impacts refers to the fair allocation of the benefits and harms associated with transitions including addressing issues of access, historical injustices (restorative justice), the current allocation of transition outcomes, and the consideration of future impacts of transition processes.

Spectrum of Distributional Impact actions can range from:

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.

A cross-cutting theme across these two dimensions is the preferred vision or approach to transition planning and action, called “Intention”.

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.

A Framework for Just Transitions

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.

This library provides a curated list of resources on just transitions, to help users locate key research material and policy guidance on just transitions.

Browse the Resource Library for in-depth analysis