Revised Definition: Just Transition

Definitions for Just Transition

Emily Leung      September 30, 2019


The purpose of this assignment is to explain the developmental framework of “just transition” to readers who are unfamiliar with a green economy and climate actions. A parenthetical, sentence, and expanded definitions are presented below. Five expansion strategies and a figure are used to provide more context in the expanded definition.

A situation where I will use the following definitions is when I talk to people from all walks of life about environmental issues as a fundraiser for an environmental organization.


Parenthetical definition

In the face of catastrophic climate change, a just transition (equitable shift to low carbon economy) is critical to protecting both the environment and workers in the non-renewable energy sectors.


Sentence definition

A just transition is an approach to shifting from fossil fuel industries (coal, oil and natural gas) towards a zero-carbon economy that seeks to both create quality jobs for workers in the non-renewable energy sectors and avoid the effects of climate change.


Expanded definition 

What is a just transition?

Historically, economic restructurings have been accompanied by growing unemployment and wage reduction in the declining industries. Similar situations occur today, as the accelerating impacts of climate change and the growing urgency for climate actions necessitate a transition away from extractive fossil fuel and energy-intensive industries, and towards a low-carbon economy (Climate Justice Alliance. n.d.). It would be unfair, however, for workers in the resource sectors to bear all the costs of this transition in the forms of job loss and wage cuts (Government of Canada. 2018). It is especially true for workers and communities whose fortune is deeply intertwined with extractive economies.

Just transition was therefore developed to address this issue. It is a developmental framework that aims to create a context for a fair income and a decent life for all workers and communities affected by climate measures.

A “just” transition takes into account the distributional consequences of energy reforms; it ensures workers and communities are treated fairly and equally as the world’s economy responds to climate change. Costs of transition adjustment are shared by society and amongst stakeholders, including governments, investors, business owners and workers (Government of Canada, 2018). These stakeholders can facilitate the transition and support workers through clean job creation, retraining, and wage protection. Ultimately, a just transition would break the ‘job versus environment’ debate.


What is the origin of just transition?

The call for just transition originated in the 1990s. North American labour unions and environmental groups anticipated the inevitable phasing out of the coal industry and its impact on workers’ health and livelihood. In light of that, Tony Mazzocchi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, introduced the ‘Superfund for Workers’ for workers doing toxic cleanup to transition to safer jobs. The Superfund was later dubbed the ‘Just Transition proposal’ (Labor Network for Sustainability, n.d.).

The momentum of just transition has spread rapidly around the world since then. Most notably, it was incorporated as part of the Paris Agreement in 2015 to urge world leaders to consider the ‘imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance to nationally defined development priorities’ (UNFCCC, 2015).


What does just transition look like in practice?

A successful example of the implementation of just transition is Iron & Earth. Iron & Earth is a Canadian non-profit organization founded by oilsands workers who were laid off during the oil crisis in 2015 (Iron & Earth, n.d.). Experiencing the insecure and unsustainable nature of their careers in the extractive industry, the founders recognized the need to explore alternatives and transfer their skill sets to the renewable energy sectors. They began to upskill their oilsands colleagues– including boilermakers, electricians, pipefitters, ironworkers, and labourers – to engage in solar installation (Iron & Earth, n.d.). Their training programs aim to help 1000 workers prepare for a future in the energy sector with job security. Iron & Earth’s initiatives epitomize how systems can move forward to climate-friendly without leaving resource workers behind.


How does just transition compare to sustainability and energy justice?

Sustainability and just transition often go hand-in-hand in the discussion of development. Sustainability is a board discipline most notably defined as the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Just transition, on the other hand, is only one of the pathways through which a sustainable future can be attained. In other words, a just transition to a low-carbon economy ensures the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social, and environmental–are met during sectoral restructuring, but it does not encapsulate all the dimensions of sustainability.

Just transition is also sometimes used interchangeably with the concept of energy justice. Although they share the same root in justice scholarship, two distinctions can be drawn between them. First, discussions about energy justice focus on how energy is used by all individuals in a safe, affordable, and sustainable manner, while the just transition highlights how energy transition from non-renewable to renewable (Heffron & McCauley, 2018). Second, energy justice addresses human rights as a whole; whereas just transition deals primarily with workers’ rights (McCauley & Heffron, 2018).


What does just transition not mean?

A just transition is not about giving resource workers money as a bandage solution to alleviating the challenges they face in times of unemployment. Rather, it is about bridging resource workers to green jobs and increasing their career resiliency in the long run through retraining, job diversification, and wage protection.

It is also not to be reduced to mere changes in economic structures and resource utilization. A just transition requires simultaneous shifts in values and social organizations. As shown in the figure below, it encompasses a full range of changes in resources from extraction to regeneration; changes in worldview from consumerism to respect for the environment; changes in the purposes of life from wealth and power, to ecological and social well-being; and changes in governance from militarism to democracy (Figure 1). Therefore, addressing any issue alone without consideration of the others would fail to achieve the goals of a just transition (Climate Justice Alliance, n.d.).

Figure 1: Components of a just transition


What is required for a transition to be just?

For a just transition to come to fruition, a combination of climate policies, investments in low-emission infrastructures, and social systems that provide reskilling support are necessary (Just Transition Center, 2017). This requires immense collaboration between intergovernmental organizations, governments, business owners, workers, community groups, and investors in developing plans for a transition that considers environmental, social, and economic sustainability (Just Transition Center, 2017).  For example, different levels of governments can formalize and adopt the framework used by organizations like Iron+Earth help address the real needs of the workers. Together, they can identify gaps in transitional scenarios and implement opportunities that are socially inclusive and climate oriented.




Climate Justice Alliance. (n.d.). Just Transition Principles [PDF files]. Retrieved from


Heffron, R. J., & McCauley, D. (2018). What is the ‘Just transition’? Geoforum, 88, 74-77. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.11.016

Iron & Earth. (n.d.). Our story. Retrieved from

Just Transition Center. (2017). Just Transition – A Report for the OECD [PDF file]. Retrieved from

Labor Network for Sustainability. (n.d.). “Just Transition” – Just What Is It? [PDF File]. Retrieved from

McCauley, D., & Heffron, R. (2018). Just transition: Integrating climate, energy and environmental justice. Energy Policy, 119, 1-7. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2018.04.014

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). (2015). PARIS AGREEMENT. Retrieved from



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