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The Just Transition: Making Sure a Low-Carbon Economy Leaves No One Behind

2 Nov 2016

The Just Transition: Making Sure a Low-Carbon Economy Leaves No One Behind
This blog is published as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are the part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.

Climate change is without doubt the most urgent and critical issue of our times. Given the scale of the problem and its consequences—which are already being felt, especially by the world’s most vulnerable populations—the climate challenge requires us to adopt a holistic approach and to rethink our growth and development models. The urgency of the situation forces us to move away from simple declarations of good intentions and to actually and collectively embark on a new low-carbon and climate-resilient trajectory.

Adopted in 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement—and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS)—signal the international community’s recognition of the urgency of the climate problem. By setting ambitious and collectively agreed targets, the Paris Agreement was intended to play a catalytic role and act as a beacon for actors on the ground: businesses, NGOs, civil society, local governments. For its supporters and architects, its purpose was to send “unambiguous signals that the world will shift its economic and social activity toward more climate-friendly and sustainable pathways.” As Laurence Tubiana, lead negotiator for France in the climate talks explained in a newspaper interview (in French), “words contribute as much to change as the Agreement itself: it is what I call the convergence of rational anticipations.” And she added, “the [Paris] Agreement has to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

While the Paris Agreement can rightfully be seen as an important victory for multilateralism—especially given the hostile global economic and political environment—the greatest challenge still lies ahead: actually achieving the targets laid out in the Agreement. Another associated challenge relates to the social implications of the policy responses to climate change, particularly in the field of employment. How do we ensure that the shift towards a low-carbon economy leaves no one behind? How do we make sure that the structural transformations of entire sections of the economy—especially the energy sector—do not lead to more poverty, the breakup of local communities, greater job insecurity and deteriorating working conditions?

In the face of this challenge, a growing number of stakeholders involved in the international climate debate are demanding climate policies that secure a “just transition” for workers and their communities. Originally born out of and developed by the international trade union movement, the “just transition” concept refers to policies that ensure “a fair pathway to protect the climate.” While it had already been referred to in various trade union publications in the late 1990s, it was during the mid-2000s that the concept took on its current meaning and was promoted by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) during various international environmental processes, such as Rio+20 (UNCSD) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (Morena, 2015). As the ITUC’s environmental officer Annabella Rozemberg explains, the “just transition” concept aims to “strengthen the idea that environmental and social policies are not contradictory but, on the contrary, can reinforce each other”.

The inclusion of the “just transition” concept in the Paris Agreement marks a historic victory for those who believe that by adopting an inclusive approach to climate action we can not only prevent catastrophic climate change but also secure a better future for the world’s workers and their communities. UNRISD’s focus on eco-social policies, which refer to the importance of a just transition, in its 2016 Flagship Report recognizes the value and importance of adopting a holistic approach to policy change in the sustainable development field; an approach that accounts for the particular challenges facing the world of work and that charts a path towards a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

Edouard Morena is lecturer in French and European studies at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). This post is based on his 2015 publication ‘Les reconfigurations environnementales du syndicalisme: la construction de positions et de stratégies globales’, in Foyer, J. (dir.), Regards croisés sur Rio+20: la modernisation écologique à l’épreuve, Paris: CNRS Editions.

Photo: Alan Greig (Creative Commons via Flickr)


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.