FacebookTwitterLinkedInCopy LinkEmailPrint

Just Transitions: Lessons Learned in South Africa and Eastern Europe

This commentary summarizes critical elements of case studies on just transitions to help guide future research, and includes lessons learned in just transitions work in South Africa and Eastern Europe.
Source: CIF Action

CSIS and the CIF recently held a second workshop to discuss just transitions—an approach that seeks to ensure workers and communities are both protected and benefit from the deep and rapid changes to come in the transition to a new climate economy. Experts discussed case studies from countries where just transitions approaches are advancing and shared ongoing research and lessons learned that can further inform the next phases of the Just Transition Initiative.

There is a growing body of research on just transitions, but case studies tend to focus on developed economies. More case studies on sub-Saharan Africa, developing Asia, and Latin America would help illuminate how to achieve just transitions in countries with particularly vulnerable populations, fewer economic resources, and more limited social safety nets. Case studies can also deliver deeper insights on issues such as planning processes, financing options, and impact assessments in all regions (see the summary below).

Critical Elements of Case Studies
  • Economic, social and political context
  • Is the transition in question driven by policy, markets or both?
  • Who participates in just transitions efforts? Are certain groups excluded?
  • Who are the enablers and blockers, and how does this affect outcomes?
  • What is the quality of coordination between stakeholders, and between levels of government?
  • Evaluation of direct and indirect financing, and short-term aid vs. long-term investment plans
  • How effective are various options (reallocating subsidies, green bonds, new taxes, dedicated funds)?
  • Unique approaches in planning, social dialogue, gender dimensions, financing
  • Are countries implementing lessons learned from elsewhere?
Success or Failure
  • Quantitative and qualitative data to help assess what works: jobs lost and gained, but also quality of employment (salaries, duration, safety). Direct and indirect employment.
  • New approaches to measuring social impact and social equity goals.
Lessons Learned
  • How can stakeholders in other regions or sectors learn from this example?
  • How well can successes be replicated, given the unique context of each setting?
Source: Just Transition Initiative, CSIS, and CIF

South Africa

The first discussion focused on South Africa, where the need for just transitions is especially urgent, driven in part by the country’s reliance on coal. Accounting for about 89 percent of South Africa’s electricity generation and 74 percent of its total primary energy supply, coal has been a critical part of South Africa’s economy for decades. It provides inexpensive inputs for electricity generation, an important source of export revenue, and employment for some 200,000 people through mining, power stations, and transport. But the environmental impact has been significant. The country’s carbon dioxide emissions per capita in 2017 were the tenth-highest in the world.

Market and policy signals indicate an inevitable decline of the coal sector, but a transition from coal presents numerous economic, social, and political challenges. Coal mining and coal power generation are heavily concentrated in four municipalities of a single province, Mpumalanga, where the industry is critical to workers and the broader community. Unemployment in South Africa reached 30 percent in the first quarter of this year, so any program that has the potential to lead to job losses is likely to trigger concern and a strong response from influential coal-linked unions. Meanwhile, the state-owned power company Eskom continues to struggle with financial and management issues that have contributed to increased costs, high emissions, and frequent load shedding, all while 2.2 million households still lack access to power. Yet many trade unions, including the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA), criticize efforts to increase the role of privately owned independent power producers.

The threats to coal in South Africa have been clear for many years, and the need for a just transition for coal workers and communities is well understood. Indeed, the just transitions discourse is long established in South Africa, with the country’s largest trade confederation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, calling for a just transition as early as 2011. The following year, the National Development Plan (NDP) included a chapter on just transitions

One commentator in the workshop emphasized the need for just transitions efforts to address South Africa’s socioeconomic realities, especially issues of racial justice. He emphasized that black communities currently carry disproportionate negative externalities from business-as-usual policies in the energy sector, and many lack access to basic public goods such as water and electricity. But policies that elevate renewable energy—while failing to support local ownership and socioeconomic transformation—are unlikely to address these underlying issues. The high concentration of coal mines and power stations in one region of South Africa provides an opportunity to support economic diversification in ways that create environmental, social, and economic benefits and thus unlock support for a transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient, and inclusive economy.

Speakers and commentators in the workshop suggested that the just transitions discourse needs to address issues of inclusivity, power relations, and the allocation of benefits and harms related to energy production, ownership, and distribution. The dialogue on just transitions should also broaden beyond the energy sector to include the allocation of water, access to land, mobility, and equitable food systems.

In terms of planning for a just transition from coal, one speaker emphasized the need for cross-sectoral dialogue, including the recognition and participation of all affected groups. This requires both local-level engagement and national-level dialogue and action.

Central and Eastern Europe

The pace of technological change as well as more ambitious climate policies are accelerating threats to coal in Central and Eastern Europe, making it all the more urgent for countries to plan ahead rather than wait for a crisis to occur. Numerous countries in this region anticipate phasing out coal in the coming decades, and the recently introduced European Green Deal and the Just Transition Mechanism are increasing attention on just transition efforts.

cross-country comparison shows variations in approach. Slovakia aims to phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2023 and has signed on to the Powering Past Coal Alliance. An action plan for the country’s coal-producing Upper Nitra region was cited as an effective bottom-up approach since it enjoyed strong support from local officials. The Czech Republic, where coal accounted for half of power generation capacity in 2018, has formed a government commission to phase out coal and created an office to chart future development plans for coal-producing regions. The European Commission has praised the Czech Republic’s “RE:START” strategy, which created a governance structure combining national planning with representation and input from affected regions. Still, one participant suggested more could be done to ensure sufficient input from the local level.

Active participation at the local level is critical for just transitions. One participant noted, however, that just transitions efforts involving mayors, environmental groups, philanthropists, and civil society run the risk of disrupting well-established social dialogue mechanisms between companies, workers, and governments. This discussion prompted questions over why some civil society groups and environmental constituencies believe other avenues aside from social dialogue are needed, or why they do not always feel included in more formal social dialogue mechanisms. Last, workshop participants noted the need for just transitions to consider other sectors aside from coal, including emissions-intensive heavy industry and the automotive sector.

As the Just Transition Initiative enters its next phase of research, we are compiling a library of public resources on just transitions, including numerous case studies. Our final research paper and a public event this fall will incorporate lessons learned from our literature review as well as discussions with experts over the past few months. We will suggest policy tools and strategies that can help to achieve just transitions, including a focus on distributional impacts and the role of place-based investment.   

FacebookTwitterLinkedInCopy LinkEmailPrint

from the Resource Library

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.

Just Transitions: Progress to Date and Challenges Ahead

This commentary focuses on gaps in knowledge and key research questions related to just transitions, identifying eight areas that merit more research and policy guidance.


This commentary summarizes a workshop held by the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on just transitions. It identifies eight topics that merit new research and practical guidance. Several of these themes center on implementation. Most case studies focus on Western countries, but case studies and guidance should account for the political, economic, social, and environmental context in the Global South. Just transitions proponents should also focus on power dynamics and political economy issues, to identify potential blockers and enablers.

The authors note that cities, regional governments, and local actors are often left out of planning processes. The commentary suggests that workers in the informal sector should have greater prominence in just transitions plans. Social protections and worker assistance should also account for the needs of women as well as indigenous people and ethnic minorities.

The commentary identifies critical questions related to financing a just transition. It notes the importance of place-based investment for affected regions, as well as the need for new financing instruments to meet the scale of the climate challenge. Although private investors have a key role to play in financing just transitions, there is more work to be done on educating investors on just transitions principles, especially in terms of social as opposed to environmental goals.

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.

The Political Economy of Energy in Central and Eastern Europe: Supporting the New Zero Transition

This report compares the political economy of the energy transition in Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia to inform policy interventions that will accelerate the energy transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).


This report examines the political economy of the energy transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), providing country-level insights into Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. The authors use their political economy mapping methodology (PEMM) to examine trends in expanding renewable energy, using coal for energy production, planning for transitions, ensuring energy security, promoting energy efficiency, and responding to public concern for climate action. These insights inform the authors’ recommendations to support the European Green Deal and to accelerate the energy transition in the CEE.

The authors discuss the untapped potential of renewable energy in the CEE, detailing each country’s renewable energy plans and how improvements in energy efficiency could significantly reduce emissions in the region given the current energy-intensive state of their economies. They argue that domestically produced wind and solar energy could not only address air pollution but also help CEE countries achieve greater energy independence from Russia.

The authors discuss each country’s reliance on coal for energy production. While Slovakia, Hungary, and Czechia have recently decided to accelerate the transition away from coal, only Czechia and Slovakia have reportedly laid the foundation for a managed transition and developed transition strategies for their coal regions. The government of Hungary, as well as those of Bulgaria and Poland, has yet to plan for the transition of coal regions.

While public concern over climate change and other environmental issues such as air pollution is reportedly low in the CEE, it seems to be increasing in response to youth protests, extreme weather events, and energy access concerns. That said, the European Union remains the main driver of energy transition policies and funding in the CEE, and there have been recent tensions between the European Union and some CEE member states regarding climate plans. The authors conclude by providing recommendations on how to support sustainable energy, finance the transition, and establish inclusive policymaking processes.