Can a just transition help tackle poverty in the move to an environmentally sustainable economy?

The world is currently facing a climate and nature emergency with floods, droughts, forest fires and tropical storms happening more and more frequently. This is having devastating effects on people across the globe, particularly those living in poverty, causing deaths, decimating homes and destroying livelihoods. In order to tackle some of the worst impacts of this crisis, we need to make dramatic changes across society and put an end to our reliance on fossil fuels.


This is a complex task for many reasons, one major one being that huge numbers of people work in polluting industries and it is imperative that none of these people are left behind as society moves towards a more environmentally sustainable economy. This is where a just transition approach comes in. This approach means making this move in a way that is fair to everyone, including people working in carbon-heavy sectors. According to the International Labour Organization’s guidelines, a just transition needs to “contribute to the goals of decent work for all, social inclusion and the eradication of poverty.”


If it is not managed properly, the transition could leave many workers in fossil fuel-dependent industries jobless and devastate whole communities, as happened with the dismantling of the coal industry in the UK in the 1980s. According to a 2021 report by the New Economics Foundation, “Workers and trade unions are understandably sceptical of the rhetoric around transition, given that past transitions – notably the decline of mining and manufacturing – have scarred communities and left a trail of social and economic destruction in their wake. This time must be different. The layers of distrust that often characterise inter-regional, inter-movement, and industrial relations must be peeled back by a concerted effort to make this transition fair.”


According to Greenpeace, the UK government could help create 1.8 million jobs by investing in a green economic recovery. These jobs could be created in areas including the cleaning up of the transport system, improving electricity supply and the grid, creating warmer homes and better buildings, reducing waste and restoring nature. Time and financial support from politicians and the business sector are needed to provide training and upskilling so that workers in carbon-heavy sectors can secure employment in green industries. According to a 2020 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, “For green restructuring, new skills will be needed by workers in many existing occupations and industries. Governments, worker representatives and employers should work together to: (1) identify early potential job losses in emitting industries and (2) propose skills upgrading and training to the workers of those industries either to adapt their skills to a new green technology or to move to green industries.”


The monumental shift required by the UK and globally to tackle the current climate and nature emergency may also present an unprecedented opportunity for wider change. With threats to human life, livelihoods, homes and biodiversity necessitating a radical alteration of our way of life, there also comes the possibility for even broader societal changes including a shift away from a development model that has economic growth as its only guiding principle. We may have a chance in the coming years to develop a fairer, healthier and more sustainable world more broadly. According to the abovementioned report from the UN Special Rapporteur, the current crisis requires shifting to a development model “that places the fight against inequalities above the exclusive focus on economic growth.”

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