What are just transitions? | He aha te whakawhitinga tika?

Just transitions bring people together to transform disruptive change into positive change.

Both globally and in Aotearoa New Zealand, there is no single accepted definition of a just transition. Every group of people on a just transition journey together can choose the definition that best meets their vision and needs.

The concept of ‘just transitions’ emerged decades ago from North American unions concerned about job losses from environmental policies affecting polluting industries.[1] This evolved into a call from the international labour movement for a just transition towards an environmentally sustainable economy that is well managed and contributes to the goals of decent work for all, social inclusion and the eradication of poverty.[2]

Just transitions have expanded to include dimensions of social, economic, environmental, climate and intergenerational justice. This idea is now part of international policy commitments which have been taken by most of the world’s nations, including Aotearoa New Zealand.[3]

Policies and actions to enable just transitions are being implemented by governments, communities and organisations in many places.

Diverse perspectives on defining just transitions

Many organisations have defined a just transition in their particular context. Here are examples of union, non-governmental organisation (NGO), government and business perspectives:

“A just transition means greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.”

Climate change and financing a just transition(external link) — International Labour Organization

“Just transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.”

Just transition: A framework for change(external link) — Climate Justice Alliance (USA)

“The imperative of a just transition is that governments design policies in a way that ensures the benefits of climate change action are shared widely, while the costs do not unfairly burden those least able to pay, or whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly at risk as the economy shifts and changes.”

Interim report(external link) — Just Transition Commission (Scotland)

“At the company level, a just transition is an enterprise-wide process that plans emissions reduction efforts to maximize positive impacts and minimize negative impacts on workers and communities through retention and redeployment, skills training, new job creation, social inclusion and community renewal.”

Just transition: A business guide(external link) — Just Transitions Centre and The B Team

How people understand just transitions in different contexts can be expected to evolve further over time. In the spirit of supporting communities in Aotearoa New Zealand with a starting point for discussion, this guide identifies the following as key characteristics of just transitions:

  • They restore and rejuvenate mauri life force to bring social, economic and environmental systems and supports into balance.
  • They address injustices.
  • They are inclusive and based on shared principles, values and visions.
  • Their outcomes support oranga wellbeing for all.

In this guide, the term ‘just transition’ is intended as an umbrella that encompasses a broad range of concepts such as inclusiveness, justice, equity, fairness, wellbeing and sustainability, as well as processes such as representation, collaboration, partnership, co-design and participatory democracy. It is not intended to reflect (or exclude) a particular social or political ideology or theory of change. If the term ‘just transition’ does not resonate with you, don’t let that be a barrier to exploring and applying the underlying ideas. Simply substitute another term that works better for you.

“2 mantras of the disabled people’s movement are important. Firstly, ‘Nothing about us without us.’ We aren’t often at the table even. We can discuss the height of the table or who can get up to it, but we aren't always there. The other thing is to start with the intention of leaving no one behind. People will be left behind if we don’t start that way.”

Just Transitions Dialogue participant

Why justice matters

Transitions often begin from an uneven starting point. Communities in low-lying areas may have already been impacted by storms and floods, while communities in higher locations are less likely to have been affected. Farmers in drought-prone regions are already suffering financially, and this may get worse.

Changes that are positive for some people or groups might not benefit others. Automation might save costs for businesses but result in fewer jobs for workers. People who can afford electric vehicles will pay lower travel costs, while those who cannot afford more fuel-efficient vehicles will pay more. This means people who are already disadvantaged could become more so.

Justice for future generations is also important. If global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, remain at current levels or fall only gradually, many parts of the world will become unliveable and many land uses will be unviable. Our children and their descendants will bear the costs of continued heavy use of fossil fuels.

“The ultimate definition of human justice today, when we are putting the livability on Earth at risk, is everyone's right to a stable planet.”

Johan Rockström[4]

Transitions provide a chance to address past inequities and to design a more sustainable future. Transition processes that focus on justice include people in decisions that will affect them. Both positive and negative impacts of transition are fairly shared.

You can usually tell when something is unjust — it is unfair or inequitable, or people are excluded. Justice is the opposite, although it is a bit harder to describe in such simple terms.

Justice is about relationships that we can justify to each other. In your just transition, you need to ensure that both processes and outcomes are just.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

'Letter from Birmingham Jail' – Martin Luther King, Jr.

[1] Just Transition Concepts and Relevance for Climate Action: A Preliminary Framework(external link) — Center for Strategic and International Studies and Climate Investment Funds (CSIS)

[2] Guidelines for a Just Transition towards Environmentally Sustainable Economies and Societies for All(external link) — International Labour Organisation (ILO)

[3] Supporting the Conditions for a Just Transition Internationally(external link) — UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021

[4] Justice Key to Live within Earth System Boundaries(external link) — Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research