Just Transition at COP26: A Hot Topic or a Hot Potato?

Posted on December, 17 2021

What do the US, UK and South Africa; the EU; World Economic Forum; the trade unions; civil society and even industry associations have in common? They were all proposing means to enable a ‘just transition’ at COP26. But are they all focusing on the same thing?
By Katie Treadwell, Energy Policy Officer, WWF European Policy Office. With contributions from WWF Global Lead for Energy Transition, Dean Cooper, and Prabhat Upadhaya, Senior Policy Analyst, Climate and Plastics at WWF South Africa. 

The need for an equitable, just transition in our global energy system and beyond was a hot topic at COP26. There were at least 38 events across the public and non-public COP26 sites mentioning ‘just transition’ in the first week. What’s more, it wasn’t just the trade unions and civil society talking: it was everyone, from utilities to business lobby groups and even world leaders.

The topic even made it into the official outcomes of the conference. While the Paris Agreement noted only “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs”, the Glasgow Climate Pact mentions “just transition” twice. Far from a just transition for the existing workforce alone, the need for a just transition to promote sustainable development and eradication of poverty was also recognised. 

The related COP26 side events went beyond the traditional focus on fossil fuel workers and highlighted the opportunities to create many, new, sustainable and decent jobs in the transition across a range of industries. The Glasgow bin strike during the COP, and particular focus on waste management workers, underlined the need for appropriate policies and strategies to ensure that the keystone jobs of a transformed, circular and fairer economy are decent.

For the first time, developed countries recognised their responsibility to support just transitions in developing countries

All countries must accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, rapidly scaled-up clean power generation and energy efficiency measures – and developed countries should provide support to developing nations. At the COP, the EU, US, UK, Germany and France teamed up for a $8.5 billion partnership to support a just energy transition in coal-dependent South Africa. This, they said, should become a new model for supporting just transitions internationally.

The shift in narrative is palpable – but will these promises stack up into concrete structures for positive change?

The partnership with South Africa will only constitute a foundation stone for such new structures if it is well laid and embedded in favourable ground. A statement, signed by 15 countries (including the EU and 8 of its Member States), titled “Supporting the Conditions for a Just Transition Internationally” sets out some good principles. But pillars of a truly transformative framework are missing (such as fossil fuel phase out timelines aligned with the objective to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius) and it falls short on actual commitments, such as dedicated financing and an end to fossil fuel subsidies.

The international statements fail to recognise that we are not talking about one just transition but many, all acting in parallel. How these work together will determine whether we rebuild our house to reach our climate and social goals, or whether it remains a paper dream on the drawing board of international political rhetoric.

So what kind of frameworks would deliver just transitions globally? 

WWF launched a discussion paper at COP26 making the case for a “Just Energy Transformation”. It argues that we can no longer treat energy transitions separately from questions of social justice. Just transitions should be designed and implemented in the context of the broader objective of societal transformation to an equitable and sustainable, net-zero future.

Under a just energy transformation approach, the imperative of achieving social and environmental goals in a fair way is brought to the fore. Instead of aiming only for traditional (sustainable) economic growth measured in GDP gains, blind to the value of, and impacts on, nature; we should be guided by the Sustainable Development Goals in their entirety. Only by ensuring long-term sustainability and by removing any false or perceived conflict between development and environmental goals will we ensure truly just transitions that endure over the long-term.

Going forward: taking a Just Energy Transformation approach

A just energy transformation needs everything and everyone to pull together in the same direction. To reach our climate goals, we all need to reach net-zero emissions. Richer countries must phase out fossil fuels quicker – meaning they reach net-zero emissions well-before mid-century – and must support poorer countries to make the transition too.

Too many actors are using the just transition – and the imperative of social goals – as an excuse to delay the essential energy transition needed, or to entrench the status quo. Rather than propping up an unjust system by funneling billions into uncertain technologies like carbon capture and storage to continue coal power, we should use our resources to accelerate the phase out from coal and reach a fairer, sustainable system. Energy transition investments should seek to unlock the synergies between social, environmental and climate goals, such as by supporting the development of renewable energy communities.

The developments at COP26 are positive and signal a paradigm shift in the narrative on just transition. However, in the final minutes of COP26, India and China justified a weakening of language on coal ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’ on the grounds of the need to tackle poverty and continue development. This indicates we are not quite there yet in understanding that social and climate goals are intrinsically linked. Removing the perceived conflict between social and climate goals will ensure just transitions really deliver the broader, nature-positive transformation of society to a fairer, sustainable system from the local to the global level.

Social and environmental goals should never be put at odds if we are to achieve a truly just energy transformation and a just transformation of systems more generally. The frameworks we build to drive just transitions should ensure the transitions really are beneficial for everyone, everywhere. To do that, they should contribute to an overall just energy transformation to a fairer and sustainable system for the benefit of all.

Look out for our next blog on what a just energy transformation approach means for the South Africa just energy transition partnership. 

WWF’s Just Energy Transformation discussion paper outlines the need for a common framework for our conversations on, and approaches to, just transitions. Only by ensuring transitions are really 1.5°C-aligned, sustainable and consistent with protecting biodiversity can they be just.
A welcome sign made out of plants at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.
© David Bebber / WWF-UK