Just transition works and there are already many lessons learned. The most important is that workers must see a positive pathway ahead.
Twenty twenty started with catastrophic bushfires in Australia, floods in Indonesia and record temperatures across much of the northern hemisphere. As wildfires, heatwaves and floods accumulate, people are demanding climate action. There is growing understanding that a real response to climate change requires deep, rapid and just transformations of economies and sectors. It requires a ‘just transition’.
The good news is that such transformations are still possible and they are happening. Zero- and low-emissions technologies and know-how exist for every sector, from power to heavy industry, aviation, buildings and transport. In an increasingly fractured and unequal world, we know how to bring people security—with decent jobs, social protection, quality public services and fair tax and investment.
Just transition brings people on board and leaves no one behind. Through social dialogue between workers and their unions, businesses and governments, just transition delivers climate ambition along with real plans for decent jobs, regional redevelopment and social protection. In countries such as Germany and Spain, strong plans for just transition and climate action are already bringing down emissions while offering workers and communities hope for the future.
Unions have solutions. Together, the union movement fought for just transition in the International Labor Organization and the global climate negotiations. We now have a global United Nations framework, along with the launch of a European one. Now, we are fighting for just transition on the ground.
To support and accelerate action, in 2016 the International Trade Union Confederation and the European Trade Union Confederation launched the Just Transition Centre. The centre works directly with unions and allies around the world to help unions secure concrete and binding plans for their members on climate action and just transition. We work in a practical way providing best practice and learning and, for those who want it, hands-on help to start, support and document social dialogue that leads to collective agreements, laws or regulations.
What we have seen so far is that just transition works. With unions at the table in social dialogue, workers and communities get hope for the future, there are decent new jobs, climate action gains support and emissions start to go down. Strong unions and social dialogue are key, along with making sure the new jobs are indeed good jobs and leaving no one behind. We have real examples in countries ranging from Canada to the Netherlands to New Zealand.
We have also learnt a lot from working with unions that are winning plans for just transition on the ground. The single most important lesson is that it must not just be about shutting stuff down—phasing out high-emitting sectors and processes. A real just transition puts at least as much emphasis on greening today’s jobs, on creating good new jobs and on making investments and plans for vulnerable regions.
People need hope for the future and prospects for decent work. If they don’t see how they will feed their families, they will fight hard to keep the jobs they have. These concerns are reflected in three questions we hear from workers everywhere. What are the new jobs? How do I get from here to there? And what does ‘just transition’ mean for me and my colleagues, and my community?
From the perspective of workers who today have good jobs in high-emitting industries, the best transition is one in which they keep their current jobs but emissions go down and conditions of work improve. Workers would like to see today’s industrial companies transform rather than go out of business, while taking workers with them. Thus one priority for just transition must be to support traditional industries in bringing emissions down, while maintaining job quality and union density.
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Three key steps
Getting a just transition in existing industries takes three key steps. First, employers should commit to a policy of ‘retain, retrain and redeploy’. Power-sector unions and national federations have successfully bargained for exactly this principle in companies in transition from thermal to renewable power generation. It is also a key principle of Germany’s recent agreement on coal transition.
Secondly, labour-management collaboration on emissions-reductions plans builds worker confidence and leverages workers’ knowledge about their sectors. Thirdly, government targets, investments and research and development bolster industry and labour confidence and draw in new capital.
At the same time, workers and particularly young workers need new, quality, low-emissions jobs. Creating new jobs requires broader plans, targets and investment for sectoral and regional development. These should be based on social dialogue and codetermination, as opposed to being imposed from outside. There can be immediate gains in new jobs—for example in coalmine workers moving to mine remediation and cleanup—while others may take more time to materialise.
In regional development, both ‘hard’ infrastructure, such as public transport, broadband, grids and storage, and the ‘soft’, such as schools and hospitals, can be rich in good new jobs. Governments should use the power of procurement to require high job standards in regional plans and investments.
More broadly, government policy can apply such job standards to every part of the value chain, for every climate target. For example, in setting targets for wind energy, governments can require companies to guarantee decent job standards from mine to manufacturing, and from construction to maintenance, sales and customer support.
A pathway for every worker
Nonetheless, despite the best efforts some jobs will disappear. Not every industry or sector can get its emissions down and we have to be prepared for that. A just transition must leave no one behind, which means a pathway for every single worker in vulnerable sectors, to a good new job or early retirement.
Key measures include enhanced social protection (particularly with respect to income replacement), health care and education, and skills training for which workers do not have to pay themselves. No one likes to lose their job, but our experience is that workers become more favourable to transition as they see concrete benefits from just-transition agreements, with significant investments and clear political commitment.
A final lesson is that though the power sector and particularly coal are today’s frontline, all jobs and all sectors will have to change to respond to climate change and inequality. It is possible and important to get today’s power-sector transition right—it will set a precedent for much bigger transitions yet to come in other sectors.
Samantha Smith is director of the Just Transition Centre, working for a just transition for workers and communities. The centre was established by the International Trade Union Confederation and partners to help unions and their allies secure concrete plans for just transition at all levels.