November 11, 2021

Fighting for Just Transition(s)

Nessim Achouche, Ndivile Mokoena

Fairness and justice are at stake in the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow

Nessim Achouche is Project manager, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Brussels. Ndivile Mokoena is Project Coordinator for Gender CC Southern Africa based in South Africa.

March St Mary Street – COP26 Coalition Rally. Photo: Stephen and Helen Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0

The concept of a “just transition” was originally developed by the trade union movement in the early 1990s as a response to calls to halt the exploitation of coal and gas and find new and clean jobs for workers in that sector. Together with environmental groups and communities, there was an ongoing process to define what exactly just transition meant and introduce it in various international arenas. With its growing importance, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) became a relevant arena for the inclusion of just transition in the language of international negotiations. The term appeared in the final text of COP16 in Cancun for the first time, and the Paris Agreement negotiated at COP21 in 2015 affirmed “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce”.

Civil society organizations have criticized that just transition is only used in negotiations narrowly centred on the workforce and the labour sector. While the term is legitimately driven by the fear that the transition to a low-carbon economy will simply replace the current form of exploitation of workers with a new version, and its inclusion in the UNFCCC thus marks a growing awareness of social inequalities related to climate change, it is important to understand that the concept is highly contested, and can be understood and used differently with far-reaching implications.

Expanding the Lens

More recently, just transition has seen the development of two interlinked developments.

First, communities and movements of the Global South that were long excluded from discussions and left out of the demands related to a just transition, which were often restricted to the national scale, are now advocating for a programme anchored in historical fairness and pushing for the end of neo-colonial practices. The transition to a low-carbon economy, they have made clear, can happen in two ways: it can prioritize the poorest and most vulnerable populations in order to create a more inclusive world for all, or it can take place in a manner that entrenches existing power imbalances and ensures that, while the future might be greener, it will still be characterized by insurmountable barriers to economic opportunities for the majority.

Second, the gender perspective is also a strong focus of many civil society groups in the Global South, placing frontline and indigenous communities at the core of just transition discussions and negotiations. A just transition, they argue, should not only place care and domestic work at the core of the envisioned “green” economy, but rather should re-interrogate the very notion of labour so that care and domestic work, largely taken on by marginalized people, especially women, is fairly paid, valued, recognized, reduced, and redistributed. Increasing non-work time, growth of community, expanding the commons, and enhanced civic engagement should all be objectives of this just and equitable transition. They stress the need for energy and resource democracy, where marginalized people, particularly women, are allowed to make decisions over the use of local resources and the best way to fulfil their needs. 

The concept of Just Transition thus constitutes a field of struggle in which maintaining the status quo or marginal changes within the current framework are being challenged by more radical demands. The capacity of workers’ and feminist movements and representatives from the Global South to challenge the mainstream narrative and advocate inside and outside the COP for transformative and historically just and fair understandings of a just transition will be a key development at the upcoming COP.

What Does This Mean for Glasgow?

The COP26’s official focus on enacting a just transition will be narrowed down towards a green jobs and green economy focus. Within this framework, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), organized labour’s main international forum representative, will focus on raising climate and social commitments in the agreed upon Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). One of the ITUC’s mean demands is to move towards universal social protection through the creation of a Social Protection Fund. Another aspect defended by the ITUC will be the automatic inclusion of labour and human rights in the key COP negotiations around article 6 on carbon markets, but also on talks around loss and damages or the gender action plan.

The official space for just transition negotiations at COP26 leaves out more inclusive and transformative visions pushed by a wide range of actors. To achieve this goal, a Just Transition Fund is required. Here, a central question is the terms and conditions of such funding. Rather than imposing undue fiscal pressure, such conditions must ensure a weaning off of fossil fuels at a faster pace, i.e. avoiding imposing further debt burdens on sovereign states. A faster and just pace means an inclusive process and a managed phase-out that reconciles development needs with principles of social and environmental justice—and includes affected communities and workers in the decision-making.

All parties must commit to immediately halting new investments in fossil fuels and nuclear energy, with a clear and urgent shift from a fossil fuel-based economy to an economy based on energy democracy and sustainability. Strategies for sustainable and gender-responsive production and use of renewable energies alongside phase-out should take historical and current inequalities within the global energy value chain into account, and seek to end neo-colonial extractive and externalization practices in the Global South. The transition to a regenerative energy economy based on 100-percent safe and renewable sources by 2035, and the decentralization and democratization of ownership of this new energy economy including a just and equitable transition plan that protects livelihoods and supports green jobs, must also challenge the gendered division of labour in low-wage work, insecure and informal subsistence, and service industries.

In this context, it is crucial to also include the agricultural sector, given that it is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and remains the most important source of employment for women in low- and middle-income countries. The International Labour Organization estimates that over 60 percent of all working women in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa remain in agriculture, often unpaid or poorly paid, while being concentrated in time- and labour-intensive activities.

While building a low-carbon and sustainable economy, a broadly conceived just transition can ensure that women are not left behind and that their existing and potential contributions, which are essential for stimulating green growth and achieving sustainable development for all, are not undermined. The Lima Work Programme and its Gender Action Plan must be a means to support the overall goal of an urgent transition from a deeply unjust fossil-fuel based economy to a more sustainable, just, and equitable model of development that ensures women’s human rights and gender equality. This requires the right policies that respond to country-specific challenges to integrate environmental, social, and decent work elements. Such an approach presents an opportunity to ensure that sectoral and occupational segregation is not perpetuated, wage and skills gaps are eradicated, inclusive social dialogue is established, working conditions are improved, and social protection enhanced.