Just Transition: History, Principles, and Examples

Rows of solar panels gleam in the sun, part of the Kayenta II Solar project on the Navajo Nation.
Part of the Kayenta II Solar project on the Navajo Nation.

Timothy Hearsum/ Getty Images

Just transition is a framework that seeks to ensure more equitable shifts to a regenerative, low-carbon economy through social inclusion and poverty eradication. It aims to protect the environment as well as worker rights and livelihoods, providing transitional support and retraining to workers as necessary. In short, it asserts that a healthy economy and healthy communities can and should go hand in hand with a healthy environment. 

The concept grew out of efforts by the labor and environmental justice movements to ensure that the shift toward a low-carbon economy benefited everyone rather than assuming that winners and losers are inevitable in such a dramatic transformation. It emphasizes healthy communities and good, sustainable jobs.

History and Evolution of Framework

The concept of a just transition in the United States emerged from the labor movement in the 1970s as a response to increased regulation of polluting industries under environmental statutes like the National Environmental Policy Act and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund). Oil, chemical, and nuclear industry employees working at contaminated sites faced job losses and advocated for worker retraining, support for affected communities, and more environmentally-friendly production methods. Labor organizations began to form alliances with environmental justice groups in the 1990s; over time, these alliances included collaboration on sustainable development and green jobs

Two organizations have played particularly prominent roles in shaping the just transition movement in the medium and long term. The first is the Just Transition Alliance, a coalition of environmental justice and labor groups founded in 1997. The group’s work extends to chemical regulation in manufacturing, workplace safety and worker protection, sustainable job growth, public health, and support for communities impacted when polluting industries shut down. The other is the Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of grassroots environmental justice organizations founded in 2012. CJA centers on social justice, traditional ecological knowledge, and the dismantling of structural inequalities.

In the late 1990s, the European Union began considering just transition principles in its own policies. Some European countries, like Spain, as well as some European cities, have since integrated the principles into their respective transition plans. In the past decade, international labor organizations, the United Nations, and other international entities have also incorporated just transition language and strategies into policy platforms and action plans. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and the Green New Deal proposed by Democratic lawmakers in the United States both integrate just transition principles and language. 

Principles

While there is no single, universal framework, most just transition principles fall into clear themes. These include emphasizing community well-being; democratic, participatory processes in developing solutions; sustainable employment and support for workers transitioning to new industries; socially and environmentally-friendly economic practices; equitable distribution of resources; respect for the culture and traditional knowledge; and building solidarity to challenge harmful extractive processes. The Climate Justice Alliance has consolidated widely-held principles into the following eight points. 

Buen Vivir

This Spanish phrase means “living well”, and in this context it implies doing so without compromising nature or others’ basic rights, including the right to clean air, water, and land, adequate food, education, and shelter. This includes groups like workers, women, Indigenous peoples, and communities that have been historically marginalized, exploited, or discriminated against. 

Meaningful Work

Meaningful work is defined as work that is “life-affirming,” helping people to learn and develop to their full potential, pursue their interests, and serve as leaders with the ability to transform themselves and their community in positive ways. 

Self-Determination

People have the right to participate in decisions that affect them and affect their communities through democratic processes, including in the workplace. This principle places special emphasis on the rights of frontline and fenceline communities—those most affected by resource extraction—to participate in decisions that achieve fair, equitable solutions. 

Equitable Redistribution of Resources and Power

A just transition necessitates working to correct social inequities based on race, gender, class, immigrant status, and other forms of oppression. In the process, it entails the creation of new systems that work for everyone—not just the rich or powerful. This suggests reinvesting resources in parts of the economy where these disparities are most pronounced. 

Regenerative Ecological Economics

A truly just transition must achieve a sustainable economic system that supports ecological resilience. It specifically calls out capitalism for undermining these efforts, and works toward local, small-scale systems of production and consumption rather than global systems that waste resources and exploit people and the environment. 

Culture and Tradition

All traditions and cultures must be valued and respected as essential to a healthy, sustainable economy. A just transition means reparations for lands stolen and destroyed by capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, genocide, and slavery.

Solidarity

Solutions to resource extraction and environmental degradation require local, regional, national, and global solidarity that challenges imperialism and militarism.

Build What We Need Now

Solutions may begin small and grow, but extractive practices must be eliminated and action cannot be delayed until a more convenient time. 

Modern Examples of Just Transition

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new opportunities and a new impetus for integrating just transition principles into efforts to achieve a low-carbon economy. Countries around the world have released trillions of dollars in relief funds to support recovery from an unprecedented economic crisis in the wake of the deadly pandemic. Just transition advocates have helped direct resources toward new and existing programs that nurture economic development using principles of sustainability, equity, and community-driven solutions. Here are a few examples of recent actions taken to achieve those aims.

Beyond Coal in Appalachia

Charleston, West Virginia, USA city with industrial factory coal conveyor belt power plant exterior architecture with elevator lift
Industry coal factory in West Virginia. krblokhin / Getty Images

Following a long slide, the coal industry decline accelerated a decade ago when cheap natural gas significantly reduced coal demand. The decline has hit regions like Appalachia hard, where the economy is built on coal mining and workers suffered massive job losses as coal companies shut down. But communities and political leaders across Appalachia have come up with innovative plans to diversify the local economy by including more environmentally-friendly alternatives to coal.

One such effort by the social enterprise Refresh Appalachia and its partner Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition is getting people back to work cleaning up coalfields and transitioning those sites to farmlands and forestry enterprises. This effort is financed partially by the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund

Reclaiming Appalachia is also pursuing the development of tourism and outdoor recreation industry across the region, reconstructing old railroad tracks into a network of trails in West Virginia and improving public river access with nature trails, kayak ramps, a riverside performance space, and an arts and digital media hub in Kentucky. Other projects include job retraining and educational opportunities so transitioning workers can prepare for jobs in new industries, including an emerging Appalachian renewable energy sector.

Navajo Entrepreneurs Pursue Energy Justice

Across the country, the Navajo Nation, another region affected by the decline of the coal industry and by the toxic legacy of uranium mining, is building a renewable energy sector that also supports local energy security. 

In Page, Arizona, the Navajo Generating Station—the largest coal-fired power plant in the western U.S.—shut down in 2019. Nearby residents had long suffered from air and water pollution caused by the coal-burning plant, but the shutdown had significant economic consequences: Hundreds of workers were laid off in a region with high unemployment and a scarcity of well-paying jobs. But the Navajo Nation has its sights set on becoming a renewable energy leader, providing new sources of revenue for the tribe and building its capacity to provide power not to customers in distant cities but on its own lands, where more than a quarter of households lack electricity. 

Navajo entrepreneurs and environmental justice leaders have seized on new opportunities for local economic development that also builds needed community infrastructure. This includes renewable energy enterprises like Native Power, a public benefit company that seeks to “maximize the economic benefits of clean energy for tribal and impacted communities,” and the Kayenta Solar Project, the Navajo Nation’s first large-scale solar plant. These and other renewable energy projects are part of a broader Navajo-led economic development push to support local entrepreneurs in starting businesses that create local jobs and reflect cultural values.

California's Imperfect Path to Climate Justice

Los Angeles Remains In Top Spot, For City With Worst Air Pollution In The U.S.
Air pollution in Los Angeles. Mario Tama / Getty Images

When California passed the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) in 2006, tensions quickly arose over the lack of representation from communities most affected by air pollution related to the fossil fuel industry. Among other contentious points, AB 32 provided for market-based approaches—namely cap-and-trade—to mitigating climate change. But often, this meant polluting companies could simply purchase carbon credits generated by less-polluting companies, and thus continue to harm low-income communities and communities of color. 

AB 617, signed in 2017, was intended to address those inequities and ensure greater protection of the communities most affected by fossil fuel pollution. It established air monitoring programs in more than a dozen communities around the state designated pollution hotspots, and required local air boards to address emissions reductions with community input. 

While the law has been held up as a potential national model for achieving a just transition by reinforcing inclusion of disproportionately impacted communities in decision-making, several leading environmental justice organizations in California recently issued a report criticizing AB 617. A slow rollout, inadequate funding, and limited enforcement power won’t meet the needs of communities suffering myriad pollution problems, the report concludes. 

Frontline communities are increasingly demanding more equitable representation in climate solutions as California phases out fracking by 2024 and moves toward its goal of 100% renewable and carbon energy sources by 2045. Despite its flaws, AB 617 has moved the conversation forward on how best to achieve a just transition, and there are plenty of lessons to be learned from both its intentions and its shortcomings.