The enormous structural changes required to move from a carbon-based economy to a greener future pose great challenges for humanity.

Traditional industries are being legislated out of business and new industries are forming, but this is not happening at the same time or in the same place. To ensure the protection of worker’s rights, livelihoods and lifestyles, the concept of a just transition has been built into United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

But what is a just transition, what does it look like? How can it be achieved when we are trying to save the planet, and who pays for it? Let’s look a little deeper at the term.

The phrase was coined in the 1990s by American unions and has since been co-opted by governments, environmental organisations, non-governmental organisations and businesses. It was initially a support programme for workers who lost their jobs when environmental protection policies closed industries such as coal mining, and it has taken on a similar meaning when applied to the global climate crisis.

The Just Transition Alliance defines it as ‘a principle, a process and a practice. The principle of just transition is that a healthy economy and a clean environment can and should co-exist. The process for achieving this vision should be a fair one that should not cost workers or residents their health, environment, jobs, or economic assets.’

Just transition principles are enshrined in the Paris Agreement, the legally binding international treaty on climate change signed by world governments in 2015. Of the 17 SDGs, the agenda of a just transition is highlighted in the goals of decent work for all (Goal 8), clean energy for all (Goal 7), climate protection (Goal 13) and the eradication of poverty (Goal 1).

As governments and businesses double down on their net zero carbon plans, the impacts on whole industries and areas could be devastating for the people living where the greatest change occurs. To mitigate this, global and local funds have been set up to pay for the costs of change by companies, governments, environmental charities and alliances such as the European Union. These funds help to alleviate the effects of change in areas where legacy industries close down, with investment in the training, relocation and reskilling of the workforce, as well as encouraging new industries into areas where traditional industries once dominated.