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Who Needs a Just Transition?

This commentary introduces the just transitions concept, summarizes its importance in meeting climate and social equity goals, and emphasizes the need to define the term more clearly and increase its appeal.
Men putting up mosquito netting.
Source: CIF Action

To some people, the term “just transition” sounds like a promise—an opportunity to realize a future fundamentally more attuned to remedying the economic, social, and environmental imbalances that plague all too many communities today. To others, it seems like a threat—a euphemism used to signal disapproval of the only life and livelihood that many communities have ever known and the intent to move them to something new and far less certain. To others still, the very idea is either so irrelevant and abstract that it seems meaningless or so ambitious it seems unachievable. For a growing number of people deeply invested in addressing global climate change, however, it seems like the only plausible path to a future that is safe and just.

So, what is a just transition, and who really needs it? In its current form, the term is an acknowledgment of three fundamental things. First, that climate change will lead to unavoidable economic and social changes. Second, that those changes will unfold in very uneven ways for much of the world. And third, as different groups make conscious choices about how to respond to these changes, there is a moral responsibility to ensure a more equitable distribution of the benefits and risks associated with the choices that we make. The notion of just transitions suggests that these diverse changes should be managed so as to bring about environmental sustainability, social equity, and economic development in ways that “leave no-one behind.”

The term has roots in the modern-day labor movement, designed as a tool to advocate for and promote standards of engagement and outcomes when transitioning workers from one industry and activity to another. It is closely associated with and often combined with elements of the broader social justice, environmental justice, and equity worlds, and, contemporarily, the fraught world of economic planning and the urgent challenges associated with climate change. In practical terms, just transitions describe how communities around the world are grappling with challenges related to climate change, the allocation of scarce water resources, and unsustainable food systems, often by protecting their workers and the ecosystems upon which they depend. Covid-19 has shown clearly that a planned and just response is preferable to a crisis-induced reaction in which marginalized and vulnerable groups bear the brunt of environmental, economic, and social fallout. Just transitions are a proactive approach to emerging crises and the impacts of the decisions we make in dealing with or averting these crises.

It was picked up by the international climate community and included in the Paris Agreement as a commitment to take into account “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.” This commitment was furthered through a Just Transition Declaration at the Katowice summit (COP 24) in 2018, and many countries are beginning to actively work to incorporate the basic notion, tools, and processes of a just transition into nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and national development plans. This includes thinking about how the process and outcomes of deep decarbonization could provide employment opportunities on a widespread and equitable basis.

In climate negotiations, just transitions are now often considered a necessary condition for large-scale support for climate action. Failure to recognize or engage with labor unions, marginalized groups in local communities, threatened business sectors, and government structures has led to significant resistance to renewable energy and decarbonization plans. Recent high-profile examples include the opposition to climate policies that were perceived as unjust in places like France and Chile. However, the reality is that the term means different things to different people and elicits a wide range of responses depending on the contexts within which it is mobilized and the interests of the groups involved. Just transition processes and outcomes will, therefore, require a commitment to meaningful engagement with diverse stakeholders and the possibility for these stakeholders to influence the distribution of benefits and losses in context sensitive ways. It is for this reason that we refer to “just transitions” and not a just transition.

Another important consideration is the scope of just transition policies. Should these policies only target workers displaced by shifting away from a certain type of energy use or emissions-intensive sector of the economy? Should the policies take into account communities affected by job losses along extended value chains? Or should the policies place emphasis on the broader economic and social impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities? Even in the context of expected economic and employment gains associated with the transition, estimated by the New Climate Economy to be around $26 trillion and 65 million new jobs over business as usual by 2030, it is important to address constituent concerns about who benefits from those gains, how and at what pace. If one of the goals of promoting just transitions is to secure broad-based buy-in for climate action, then navigating very different sets of expectations will be a critical step toward achieving that objective.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for decisive action, the significance of ensuring that the transition pathways that we choose are both safe and just is being recognized as imperative at the local, national, and global levels. As such, there is a growing urgency to develop more concrete tools and strategies, especially since the Paris Agreement and NDCs require countries to start moving faster in setting out targets, action plans, and concrete steps.

Much of what exists today is in the realm of theory, with few examples of success and critical analysis of lessons learned. The principles of just transitions have been discussed for many years, but there is great uncertainty over who to involve in consultations, the speed and depth of transitions, and how to finance them. Practical plans and resources for policymakers are also lacking. 

As we recognize that just transitions are important to advancing climate objectives, two critical areas require urgent attention. First, proponents of just transitions must ensure that the concept is better understood and more appealing to a range of stakeholders. This requires acknowledging the various interests and agendas of diverse groups while simultaneously seeking areas of convergence, collaboration, and learning. Second, policymakers, investors, and the private sector must figure out how to deliver on the promises of just transitions in more effective and context-sensitive ways. Both of these things require a careful review of what we do and do not know and the development of tools and strategies to advance just transitions. Drawing on the rich history of the concept and the emerging cases of just transitions we intend to do just that.

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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.

Strengthening Just Transition Policies in International Climate Governance

This document provides a brief history of just transitions in the context of climate action, identifies key policy areas of a just transition, and offers recommendations for incorporating the concept into international climate change policy.


This policy analysis brief provides a succinct but comprehensive overview of just transitions in the context of international climate governance. It explains the history and growth of the concept of a just transition, exploring its current meaning(s) and significance as a tool to garner support for ambitious climate action. It identifies areas where policies are needed to protect workers and communities from the potential impacts of specific climate actions and to develop different economic models.

Drawing on International Labor Organization (ILO) guidelines, it identifies key policies that are critical to a just transition strategy and provides brief examples of their implementation in climate and energy transitions. Lastly, it provides recommendations on how to further incorporate the concept of a just transition into international forums to advance a positive, pro-people vision of the international climate regime.

Guidelines for a Just Transition towards Environmentally Sustainable Economies and Societies for All

These guidelines, developed through tripartite dialogue, provide a general policy framework for governments and social partners seeking a just transition to sustainable development.


These guidelines were developed through tripartite dialogue. They provide general guidance on how to formulate, implement, and monitor a just transition in accordance with national circumstances and priorities. It is a commonly referenced document in the just transitions discourse and, in many respects, outlines the foundational elements of just transitions in the context of climate action.

This document briefly summarizes the vision, opportunities and challenges, and guiding principles of a just transition, which were first outlined in conclusions by the 102nd session of the International Labor Conference in 2013. It then builds on these conclusions to outline the elements of a basic framework for a just transition. These elements include institutional arrangements and key policy areas that serve to mainstream and promote environmental, economic, and social sustainability. The guidance is directed at both governments and social partners, which have an active and significant role to play in the transition.

Just Transitions: An Introduction

This podcast discusses the importance of a just transition in the context of climate change policies and investments and explores the impact of Covid-19 on just transitions.


This podcast provides an accessible introduction to concept and importance of a just transition in the context of climate change policies and investments. Mafalda Duarte, head of the Climate Investment Funds, and Nick Robins, Professor in Sustainable Finance with the Grantham Institute, join Sarah Ladislaw with the CSIS Energy Security and Climate Change Program to explain the meaning and importance of a just transition in the context of their work. They move on to discuss how investors can support just transitions and close by examining the potential impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the just transition agenda.