Public understanding of greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the climate has increased significantly in recent years, leading the energy industry to accelerate decarbonization efforts. Yet while carbon reduction efforts create clear environmental benefits, as well as new business and green job opportunities, the transition to a low-carbon economy can have unintended consequences for the communities it seeks to serve.
For some businesses, like power generation and mining companies, decarbonization means they will have to restructure or become obsolete. The phase-out of such industries also leads to lost jobs and economic hardship for workers, their families and their communities. For industry leaders, an innovative climate justice approach known as a “Just Transition” can help ensure that the shift to a clean energy economy benefits people as well as the environment.
Pillars of a Just Transition
The Climate Justice Alliance, an alliance of 74 diverse frontline communities, nonprofit organizations, and environmental justice collaboratives, is a leader in defining Just Transition efforts. Just Transition processes and principles seek to maximize the benefits of a low-carbon economy while minimizing negative impacts on workers, businesses and their communities. A Just Transition engages these stakeholders as partners to ensure that moving away from a fossil-fuel-based economy towards a climate-resilient one also brings support, guidance and growth opportunities.
Many states and local jurisdictions have begun to establish pillars of a Just Transition, providing a framework that ensures economic and social systems, as well as environmental impacts, are integrated into new clean energy policies, programs and initiatives. While the framework should be tailored to each community’s unique needs, common pillars include:
- Exploring and co-creating proactive solutions with social partners (trade unions and employers) and other stakeholders (communities)
- Mitigating lost jobs and optimizing local resources through economic development services and community investment in low‐emission and job-rich industries, including clean and renewable energy and green manufacturing
- Ensuring that proposed policies are linked to positive health, environmental, and other quality-of-life outcomes for residents
- Addressing the short-, mid-, and long-term local and regional economic impact of the transition, with a focus on adapting infrastructure in support of new economic development – or in some cases, developing an economic diversification plan, which helps shift economies from one main income source toward multiple sources
- Optimizing and increasing access to resources (state or otherwise) that aid workers and communities during all phases of the transition, including workforce training and development, reskilling labor for new economy jobs, and “end-to-end” support services such as healthcare and childcare
- Recruiting Just Transition advocates at the state and local level to create a sustainable foundation for program financing and implementation.
Just Transition in the U.S. and Beyond
What began as a grassroots movement for supporting local workforces has taken hold across the United States. Since 2019, more than 140 pieces of legislation with a Just Transition planning component have been introduced, with the following bills signed into law:
- Colorado House Bill 19-1314 led to development of the state’s draft 2020 Just Transition Plan, which includes eleven key recommendations to support workers and communities as Colorado phases out coal fuel.
- Hawaii’s Senate Resolution 44, signed in April 2021, declared a climate emergency in the state and requested statewide collaboration toward a Just Transition “rooted in equity, self-determination, culture, [and] tradition.”
- Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, signed in September 2021, requires the development of a statewide Just Transition plan and provides significant funding for impacted communities, businesses and individuals, including a program that provides one-year of college tuition for children of displaced workers.
- An Act To Establish a Green New Deal for Maine, signed in June 2019, includes four key pillars to support the state’s shift to 80% renewable energy, including creation of a Commission on a Just Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy.
- The New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (“Climate Act”) signed in July 2019, established comprehensive emissions reduction and renewable energy targets, in order to ensure the transition to renewable energy is equitable and includes workforce training, jobs creation, and repurposing of retired power plant sites.
- Signed into law in April 2021, Rhode Island’s Act On Climate bill updates statewide emission reduction mandates and mandates development of a transition plan that address environmental justice and equity concerns.
- “Concerning the Washington Climate Commitment Act” (SB5126), signed in May 2021, includes Just Transition provisions, preventing job loss and offering worker support – including full wage replacement and health benefits – to minimize any adverse impacts of the clean energy transition.
- While West Virginia’s Senate Bill 42, signed by the Governor in April 2021, is largely a coal protection bill, it also incorporates Just Transition provisions that direct the state to provide education and re-training opportunities for displaced coal miners.
Just Transition concepts are in early stages of implementation beyond the U.S., with the European Union launching their Just Transition program in July 2021. Referred to as the Just Transition Mechanism, the EU’s plan establishes a dedicated fund to alleviate the socio-economic impact of phasing out fossil fuel industries. It also includes an 2021-2030 transition timeline that features workforce development, re-training, and rehabilitation needs.
Case Study: New York’s Just Transition Working Group
The New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (“Climate Act”), signed in July 2019, established comprehensive emissions reduction and renewable energy targets, and led to formation of the Just Transition Working Group (JTWG).
Just Transition principles were recently released by the JWTG through the State’s Climate Action Council (CAC) Draft Scoping Plan released on December 31, 2021. The JTWG defined ten categories of principles as a guide “to support a fair and equitable movement from fossil fuel-based economies toward the achievement of the carbon neutral future envisioned by the Climate Act.” Further, the “principles were also defined with local, regional, and statewide job creation and workforce development in mind.”
To arrive at these principles, the JTWG explored complex issues associated with the State’s unique energy transition. Specifically, the JTWG delved deeper into substantive issues like the impact of the statewide Climate Act on:
- The State’s inventory of fossil-fueled power plants and their transition to future end-uses,
- The regional business community, including emissions-intensive trade-exposed (EITE) businesses, and
- Jobs that will be created in support of clean energy goals, including implications on workforce development.
The JWTG also developed recommendations for supporting economic development in the segments most impacted by this transition, including EITE businesses, disadvantaged communities. and segments of the population that are historically underrepresented in the clean energy workforce.
While common elements appear in all Just Transition frameworks, community needs are best served by a customized plan developed collaboratively by local workers, unions, employees, families, community leaders, and government and industry leaders. Just Transition plans yield the greatest environmental and community benefit through cohesive stakeholder engagement and a shared framework for action and accountability.
In TRC’s direct experience, a Just Transition means learning from the past and preventing future unintended consequences on human health, the environment, and social equity and justice. It also necessitates that all stakeholders – particularly frontline communities and the businesses and workers most impacted by the transition – have a voice, addressing together the immediate concerns and opportunities associated with countering climate change. Through the lens of a Just Transition, stakeholders have a more comprehensive understanding of how climate-based decisions will impact every level of the community, across policy, economics, education, workforce, economic and community development, industry change, and job transitions.
The energy industry’s rapid push toward a low-carbon future is essential, but transitioning emissions-heavy industries and technologies is only part of the bigger picture. By incorporating environmental justice principles and actively engaging with the people most impacted by the new energy landscape, a Just Transition framework does not just mitigate negative impacts: it brings communities together to pursue a shared vision of sustainable prosperity, more equitable systems, and a cleaner future.
To learn more about TRC’s advisory and consulting services for the power industry, including developing Just Transition plans that assist communities and other stakeholders, contact email@example.com.
Angela Gordon, Rachel Good, Andrea Thompson, and Mark Coleman contributed to this article.