#Back2Basics: A Just Transition

Our take on key climate justice terminology

At the Third Generation Project we, along with others in the climate justice space, advocate for a ‘Just Transition.’ Although talk of ‘Just Transition’ is relatively new to policy-making circles, grassroots movements (particularly US labour movements and environmental justice campaigns) have championed the idea for decades. So, what is the thinking behind this idea and what might a ‘Just Transition’ look like?

Transitioning from a fossil-fuel dependent economy to an ecologically regenerative one is vital to slow global heating, the effects of which millions of people – particularly in the Global South – as well as animals and plants are suffering from already. When it comes to energy, for example, the transition implies moving away from oil, coal, and gas to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, and rethinking how much energy we consume in the first place. A Just Transition fundamentally puts justice at the heart of this work. It leads us to rethink not only the materials our economy relies on but the relationships of exploitation and inequity which power them, too.

This transition itself carries many risks and therefore must be carefully managed. For instance, shutting down fossil fuel industries risks devastating local communities whose livelihoods depend on them. A Just Transition means not allowing these communities to be left behind but rather working together with them so that they can thrive in the new regenerative economy. This could involve, for example, government-funded programs to help retrain people and create new, green jobs locally, which meet the needs of the community.

Furthermore, if done badly, the necessary shift to renewables could produce new, or worsen existing, social injustices. For example, the process of mining the raw materials used in renewable energy technology often leads to human rights abuses, and the land used for wind farms or “biofuels” (e.g. trees) is increasingly taken from marginalised communities against their will and without adequate compensation. A true Just Transition in the energy sector means moving to sustainable energy in a way that strengthens human rights and respects and benefits local communities.

The Just Transition is not limited to the energy sector, nor to the communities directly impacted by changing industries. It prioritises justice in its many shapes and forms, ensuring that the benefits of a regenerative economy are shared widely, and that the transition does not simply reconfigure forms of exploitation (of both humans and nature). If done thoroughly, it will challenge the very fundaments upon which our present global economy is based. The highly interlinked state of our national economies, and the scale of the climate and biodiversity crisis, means that the Just Transition must happen globally. Justice takes shape on an international level, as well as local and national one. Developed countries, sometimes described as the Global North, have historically built their wealth through imperialism, slavery, mineral extraction, and fossil-fuel driven industrialisation. The legacies of these histories continue to shape our societies, natural environments, and global climate today. As such, the Global North has a moral imperative to discontinue and redress these harmful actions.

This redress can take many forms, such as the reparations which Global South countries have long been calling for. One important aspect of this is ‘Loss and Damage’ funding, which is intended to compensate for, and help Global South countries to cope with the harmful consequences of climate change that they are experiencing. For a start, Global North countries must provide the finances they have promised at international summits for years. Furthermore, this financial support should not burden these countries with debt as North-South development finance historically has. 

The increasing inclusion of references to a Just Transition in national policy and international agreements is positive, however it must not become an empty phrase or a box-ticking exercise. Implementing a Just Transition requires applying a critical lens to transition policies and climate action, asking: ‘Who benefits?’ ‘Who stands to lose?’ It is about ensuring that those people who are the most disadvantaged today are meaningfully included in the decision-making and supported through the transition to ensure that nobody is left behind. It is about addressing oppressive power structures and systems, in order to transition together to a fair and regenerative future.

Given the challenges of a Just Transition, one may worry that prioritising justice might impede climate action. However, we, and others in the climate justice space, argue that you cannot properly address the climate crisis without addressing the unjust social systems which produced it. The unbounded pursuit of profit and power has deeply distorted our relationships to each other and to nature. Only by building relationships of trust and mutual respect will we be able to create societies and economies, which are regenerative in the long term.

~ written by Laoise Rogers