Just transitions - international rules based on local realities

Anna Triponel

October 7, 2022
Our key takeaway: We all have a general sense of what just transition entails. But what does it really mean? What are the procedural components of just transition? How would one measure the success of just transition partnerships (such as the developing Just Energy Transition Partnerships)? How would one ensure that the just within just transition does not become a tick box? The Institute for Human Rights and Business (John Morrison and Haley St. Dennis) make the case for uniform international rules of just transition, grounded in and based on local realities. As we progress rapidly with local just transition understandings, we need to avoid different and competing just transition definitions. This in turn would undermine the whole field, and ultimately the success of the transition to net zero itself. As Morrison and St. Dennis highlight: “The fact that climate is not just an environmental, scientific, technical, and financial issue – but also a profoundly social one – is perhaps our new “inconvenient truth’.”

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (John Morrison - Chief Executive and Haley St. Dennis - Head of Just Transitions) have published a commentary ‘Just Transitions: Exploring the Need for International Rules Based on Local Realities’ (October 2022) to feed into the IHRB - Wilton Park global dialogue taking place now (5 - 7 October):

  • The need for definitions: The authors highlight that “there are widely varying definitions and interpretations of what exactly 'just' means in each transition context. … Stakeholders are still a long way from being clear about precisely what is meant when talking about ‘just transitions’ across countries and sectors.” Although normative guidelines and guidance (such as those developed by the International Labor Organisation and the International Trade Union Confederation) play an important role, “further progress on standard setting at the global level will take time, perhaps several years. Given the urgency of the moment, we must ask now if the just transition concept needs shorter-term guardianship and quality control to avoid it going the way of ‘CSR’ or ‘ESG’ and meaning too many things to too many people – and therefore nothing to anyone.”
  • Rooting just transitions locally, while advancing on uniform definition-making: The authors observe that progress is being made at national and sub-national levels. For instance, there is a growth in ‘Just Energy Transition Partnerships’ (JETPs), and “[w]hen it comes to the transition out of coal (and hydrocarbons more generally), South Africa is clearly becoming the global model for all others and therefore a case to watch carefully.” While it is welcome that “the actual work of implementing just transitions” will be ”heavily contextual and rooted in place” the authors argue that “we need to worry about different and competing just transition definitions” - for two reasons. First, quality control: without a clear definition and criteria, it will be “impossible to measure how many of these new partnerships [JETPs] are in fact meaningfully and concretely ‘just’ at all.” Second, ‘there is a risk that markets and governments will simply accept that the acronym is generally a useful framing but forget what the letter ‘J’ stands for.” In other words: “There is a real danger that the ‘J’ in ‘JETP’ becomes like the ’S’ in ‘ESG.’” This means that “there is a very important procedural component to the rules that need to be developed – freedom of information, consultation, free, prior, and informed consent, non-discrimination.” 
  • Advancing together with communities: Being able to start to respond to these questions will be imperative to move forward. This “is about managing the social consequences of climate action that must happen at speed and without delay. Not discussing the potential social risks and how they might be managed – to only discuss the opportunities of the green transition and not its costs – cedes the more critical narrative away from those committed to climate action to those who might wish to stoke fear, misinformation and doubt about the need for urgent climate action itself.” Poignantly, the authors argue that ‘“The fact that climate is not just an environmental, scientific, technical, and financial issue – but also a profoundly social one – is perhaps our new “inconvenient truth’.” Beyond the need to advance on a clear definition and criteria, the authors underscore the importance of agency: “communities, including most importantly indigenous groups, workers, consumer groups, and others need to have agency in the transitions that will affect their lives and livelihoods.” This underscores the “need for new models that provide much greater community and worker ownership or equity in the energy, agricultural, and technological systems of the future.”

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