EXPLAINER: How COP26 pushed 'just transition' up the global climate agenda

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 17 November 2021 09:43 GMT

Workers unload coal from a supply truck at a yard on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, October 12, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo

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New financial support and a scuffle with developing countries over ending coal power at the Glasgow talks grabbed attention for the need to ensure a socially fair shift to greener economies

GLASGOW, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The imperative for a "just transition", as economies become greener, was thrust into the spotlight at this month's COP26 U.N. climate change conference as never before.

The term grabbed attention at the 2018 climate talks in coal-dependent Poland, when France’s “yellow vest” protests were sparked by what was widely perceived as an unfair fuel tax hike. This time, it was developing countries that helped put the idea centre-stage.

Early in the Glasgow summit, the Climate Investment Funds - which finance clean technology and climate resilience in developing and middle-income countries - launched a $2.5-billion funding programme to help South Africa, India, Indonesia and the Philippines wean themselves off coal power and onto clean energy in a swift and socially fair way.

Those countries represent over 15% of coal-related emissions globally.

South Africa will also get another big $8.5-billion tranche of support from a separate partnership that hopes to help the world's 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases move away from coal and drastically reduce its emissions by 2030.

Backers, from Canada to Germany, said the money would fund South Africa's efforts to pursue a "just transition" that supports workers and vulnerable communities, especially coal miners, women and youth, as the South African economy goes green.

Alok Sharma, Britain's senior official presiding over the COP26 climate talks, said more such initiatives would be needed in the coming years.

"It is about making sure that countries are supported to shift to clean energy, and no one is left behind as we consign coal to the history books," he said.

Other heavily coal-dependent countries, such as Indonesia, are likely candidates for similar partnerships.

But it was India that pushed the need for a “just transition” near the top of the agenda at the end of COP26.

Its negotiators intervened at the last minute to change language in the Glasgow Climate Pact from urging a faster “phase out” to simply an accelerated “phase down” of unabated coal power, or coal without technology to capture its emissions.

India's Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav successfully argued developing countries should be allowed to use their fair share of the tiny remaining global carbon budget to grow their economies, after profligate use of fossil fuels by industrialised countries for more than a century.

India also inserted a provision promoting "targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances", alongside previously agreed wording "recognizing the need for support towards a just transition".

WHAT IS A JUST TRANSITION?

In 2015, the International Labour Organization released "Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and
societies for all", decided between governments, employers and their organisations, and workers and their trade unions.

That document established “just transition” as a process “towards an environmentally sustainable economy which needs to be well managed and contribute to the goals of decent work for all, social inclusion and the eradication of poverty”. 

The concept - already used by U.S. unions in the 1980s and 1990s – has crept into the diplomatic world of the U.N. climate talks over the past decade.

The flagship 2015 Paris Agreement acknowledges “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities” and highlights the importance of workers in responding to climate change.

Broadly, a "just transition" seeks to ensure the benefits of a green economy shift are shared widely, while supporting those who may lose out economically, whether they are countries, regions, industries, communities, workers or consumers.

It is based on the economic argument that a rapid increase in the speed and scale of action to tackle climate change will create new economic opportunities - but may handicap some industries and workers.

For example, jobs may move to new regions and the skills needed for them will likely shift when coal mines become redundant as solar power plants open, as gas boilers are switched to heat pumps or as production lines churn out only electric vehicles.  

Just transition goals are based on environmental considerations but are also shaped by other structural changes affecting labour markets, such as globalisation, new technologies and the shift to services from manufacturing.

WHERE IS IT HAPPENING?

Some parts of the world have more experience than others when it comes to industry shifts.

In Northern England, former coal areas hit hard by mine closures at the end of the 20th century are eager not to repeat mistakes of the past when transitioning their economic sectors to a low-carbon model, and are winning wind power and other clean energy projects.

Scotland, which hosted the climate talks, is thinking about how to get out of North Sea oil and gas in the future without losing jobs, partly by building green hydrogen production facilities and supply chains for generating wind power.

Spain has been closing its coal mines at a rapid pace and working on securing regional just transition agreements in conjunction with workers' groups, while Canada has been consulting workers on ending coal-fired power and including indigenous communities in national climate plans.

South Africa, meanwhile, has realised it will need to reduce its massive dependence on coal, and its unions are actively engaging in discussions around how best to do that.

State utility Eskom is trying out things like training workers at one coal power facility it is closing to produce solar mini-grids instead.

Other emerging economies such as India are also starting to grasp the need to develop such plans - but are lagging behind.

"Just transition has huge financial needs in developing countries," said Srestha Banerjee, director of just transition at iFOREST, an Indian think-tank. "But first, in India, we need to have just transition mechanisms, policies, plans in place."

WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?

In the wake of COP26, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) - which represents 200 million members of 332 affiliate unions in 163 countries and territories - called for an immediate start to talks with workers and communities aimed at producing just transition plans.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, said all governments and companies needed to "get serious" about ensuring just transition measures for all industries if the world is to have "a fighting chance" of sticking to the Paris pact aim of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The economy-wide transformation needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by mid-century - as about 135 countries, covering 88% of emissions, have now promised to do - will affect everything from energy and manufacturing to transport and agriculture.

"Investments in job creation - good climate-friendly jobs with just transition - are the key to build trust and support in the speed of the shifts required," Burrow said.

During the COP26 talks, 13 governments - mainly in Europe and North America - along with the European Union also gave their support to a statement setting out conditions to pursue a just transition internationally.

Among other things, it recognises the need to provide decent green jobs for disadvantaged groups in local labour markets, such as women, those living in poverty and workers in the informal economy.

Read more:

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(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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