By Iain Byrne
With the increasing attention given to the climate crisis the concept of just transition has come increasingly to the fore. However, what does it mean in practice and how can human rights strengthen its operationalisation?
WHAT IS JUST TRANSITION AND WHY DO WE NEED IT
The term ‘just transition’ has its roots in the US labour movement struggles of the 1980s and 1990s in response to the impacts of new environmental laws on industry which led to thousands of job losses. Unions advocated for a different approach – as businesses transitioned to meet their legal requirements the rights of workers and communities to decent jobs and a standard of living should not be forgotten.
In the wake of the climate crisis and the commitments of all governments under successive COP agreements to address just transition it has become a global imperative. Reflecting this new urgency the concept was defined comprehensively by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2015. The ILO adopted a holistic approach to ensure a range of socio-economic rights are protected throughout the transition process:
“A bridge from where we are today to a future where all jobs are green and decent, poverty is eradicated, and communities are thriving and resilient. More precisely, it is a systemic and whole economy approach to sustainability. It includes both measures to reduce the impact of job losses and industry phase-out on workers and communities, and measures to produce new, green and decent jobs, sectors and healthy communities. It aims to address environmental, social and economic issues together.”
The ILO guidance focuses on three policy areas where just transition should apply: (i) macroeconomic and sectoral, (ii) employment, and (iii) social. In each of these areas states need to take action across a range of socio-economic rights whilst ensuring that skills needs are met, health and safety risks assessed and critically adequate social protection is available. In so doing the ILO encourages states to implement international labour standards protecting workers’ rights and actively promote social dialogue. Other bodies have also attempted to unpack just transition. Amnesty International defines just transition as a central aspect of human rights-consistent climate action ensuring that the transition to decarbonized economies and resilient societies is just and fair for all, in line with states’ human rights obligations, and creates opportunities to combat existing inequalities both within and between countries, including promoting gender, racial, ethnic, disability and inter-generational equality.
The widespread acceptance of just transition has seen it being adopted in various international legal instruments and institutions, including The Paris Agreement | UNFCCC; the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the concept of “leaving nobody behind”; the International Trade Union Confederation and G20 summits most notably Argentina 2018
GOING BEYOND FOSSIL FUELS
It is clear that without sufficient attention being paid to just transition the failings of the past when it came to transitioning economies and industries will be repeated albeit on a much bigger scale. And it is not just the fossil fuel sector where rights consistent change needs to be effectively managed. It is also relevant in a number of other sectors which are also contributing to the climate crisis. Most notably this includes the agricultural and finance sectors. In terms of the former the breeding of animals for food, is having a massive impact on the climate requiring an urgent shift towards a less intensive lower carbon-based food system. However, in so doing activists have emphasised it is imperative that a number of key just transition principles are applied: not exacerbating inequalities in the food system by providing sufficient support, including social protection, to farmers, farmworkers and marginalised communities; transforming a food system to work for people, nature and the climate; ensuring inclusiveness and participation throughout the process and developing a comprehensive framework.
A sector which can play a significant role in how just the transition process will be is the finance sector including investors as well as banks. A recent initiative proposes a seven point framework focusing on: strategy, workers, supply chain, communities, consumers, policy and disclosure. Some key human rights aspects include: delivering good jobs and decent work and respect worker and human rights; applying both labour and human rights and environmental due diligence and policies along the supply chain, particularly in developing countries and share value in net-zero and resilience investments with communities, including engagement with and respect for Indigenous rights.
A just transition process should not just take place within countries but also between them so as not to increase global inequality. However, as wealthier countries promote their green credentials is sufficient attention being paid to the power dynamics between them and developing countries? The EU’s much lauded green new deal is a case in point.
AMBITIOUS PLANS MUST NOT INCREASE GLOBAL INEQUALITY
On the face of it the EU’s Green New Deal has been widely seen as a significant and ambitious step forward in addressing the climate crisis with the aim of Europe becoming the first climate neutral continent. However, on closer inspection the Deal, whilst seeking to meet the EU’s own commitment to decarbonise could have very serious consequences for the developing countries it trades with unless their population’s rights are taken into account.
Consequently, before the Deal imposes any obligations on the global south there needs to be a comprehensive assessment of the impact on their economies and societies based on genuine participation from rightsholders in those countries. For example, the increasing demand for minerals for a clean transition must not result in a corresponding rise in exploitation of resources and people. Failing to do so risks exacerbating global inequality based on a lack of realisation that the underlying extractive model between the north and south needs to fundamentally change. This requires those who have been some of the strongest proponents of net-zero targets and green deals in the global north also taking on board the socio-economic consequences for those in developing countries.
More fundamentally does just transition provide an opportunity to rethink existing economic models? Some have argued that a fundamental transition from our current largely linear economy to a circular one is essential for addressing the climate crisis and in so doing ensuring a fairer and more sustainable society.
A HUMAN RIGHTS COMPLIANT TRANSITION IS ESSENTIAL
Regardless of whether just transition will presage an economic revolution it should at the very least be one that is human rights consistent. In this respect processes -from conception, design and implementation to evaluation – should be guided by fundamental and cross-cutting human rights principles. One approach that could be applied is PANEL – Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Empowerment and Legality – which we at Amnesty have adopted as a means of monitoring just transition
PANEL has been widely used to assess a range of governmental and intergovernmental processes from a human rights perspective. Under each principle the transition process can be unpacked and assessed – for example Participation – Social dialogue is an integral part of the institutional framework for JT policymaking, planning, risk identification and mitigation, implementation and evaluation at all levels of decision making; Accountability – Human rights compliant indicators, benchmarks and targets are designed and implemented to monitor progress by all actors – both state and private – broken down by grounds of discrimination such as gender, ethnicity, nationality or sexuality and Non- discrimination and Equality – Disaggregated data broken down by grounds of discrimination is collected, monitored and used in a human rights consistent way to inform design and implementation of JT policies and plans. Participatory data collection methods are used to complement conventional data collection.
Placing human rights at the heart of government policies based on states’ binding legal obligations is one of the best ways of guaranteeing that we can both build back better from the pandemic as well as transitioning to a greener future. This is a challenge not just for governments but for civil society to rigorously monitor both processes and outcomes and in so doing ensure there is sufficient accountability for both this and future generations.
Iain Byrne is an international human rights lawyer specialising in economic and social rights. Since 2011 he has worked at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International as a Law and Policy Advisor and Researcher in the Economic and Social Justice (ESJ) team. He has also managed a number of Amnesty teams – the ESJ and Refugee and Migrants Rights teams and the Gender, Sexuality and Identity Programme. In all three roles he has managed a range of major research outputs including for Global Campaigns. He is a Special Advisor on Strategic Litigation for the organisation and has been involved in litigation in both domestic fora and before international and regional bodies including the European Committee of Social Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee and ECOWAS. Prior to Amnesty he was a Senior Lawyer and Legal Practice Director (ag.) with INTERIGHTS 2001-2011. He is a Fellow of the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex.