As the climate crisis ratchets up, so, too, must global efforts to address its root causes and escalating impacts. This means rapidly shifting economies and finance flows to pathways that are consistent with low-carbon, climate-resilient development.

While critical, however, this shift is not without risk. Unless governments put proactive policies in place, a rapid economic transition could create or worsen social inequality, displacement and economic disruptions, including unemployment; the International Labour Organization estimates that around 80 million jobs could be lost due to the climate transition. Stakes are especially high for the countries and communities that still depend on fossil fuels and other emissions-intensive sectors for their livelihoods.

To ensure that these vulnerable people are not left behind, all climate action must be underpinned by principles of a just transition. Broadly, this means moving toward a green global economy in a way that  won’t create or exacerbate inequalities or cause other unintended economic and social harms. It also means creating opportunities in the green economy that benefit all people and communities and promoting sustainable development.

Driving Equitable Green Development Through the Just Transitions Work Programme

While the number of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that capture just transition is low, it continues to increase yearly with 2021 data showing 16% and 2022 data showing 38%. It is worth noting that 56% of long-term strategies (LTS) include references to “just transition” — a number which must increase to ensure progress in all nations and sectors. At the same time, key questions remain around what a truly “just” transition should look like; what values it should embody, particularly from the perspective of affected workers, communities and countries; and how discussions on just transitions at the multilateral level can be broad enough to support rapid decarbonization and climate-resilient development at a global scale, while still allowing each country to define its unique needs and priorities.

The work programme on just transition pathways (JTWP) was created to boost global understanding of just transition pathways. It aims to facilitate countries’ just transitions to a low-emissions and climate-resilient future through actions that also contribute to reducing inequalities, both within and between countries. The JTWP will facilitate knowledge-sharing and development of best climate action practices in line with a just transition and encourage conversations between countries and other stakeholders — such as policymakers, NGOs and local communities — to devise more effective ways of realizing just transitions in the socioeconomic and environmental spheres. At COP28, the first high-level ministerial round table will be held in order to prepare the work programme’s activities for the next five years.

The JTWP was established at COP27 in 2022 with the hope that it would be operationalized the following year. Since then, countries and other stakeholders from around the world have been considering the elements and modalities of the proposed work programme. Their recommendations will be considered and adopted at this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, in December.

­Here, the ACT2025 consortium — a group of think tanks from vulnerable developing countries working to drive greater climate ambition at COP28 — explores key elements that the JTWP should consider and their implication from the perspective of vulnerable developing countries.

1. Ensuring People-centered Climate Action

The JTWP must first and foremost champion “people-centered” transition pathways that put people’s needs at the heart of climate action. Pathways must be founded on meaningful and effective social dialogue and participatory decision-making processes, and should include social, economic, workforce and other dimensions, ensuring that equity is a key aspect throughout.

Effective people-centered climate action does three things:

  1. It ensures a just and well-managed transition away from a high-carbon economy, avoiding and/or addressing unintentional negative effects of mitigation interventions or maladaptation.
  2. Through an inclusive process, it purposefully identifies and unlocks social and economic benefits; for example, by creating quality jobs with decent pay.
  3. It targets these benefits to further equity; for example, by employing innovative financing to boost energy access through distributed solar power and restoring ecosystems in ways that also raise rural incomes.

Protecting and advancing human rights, especially for those who are particularly marginalized and vulnerable, must be a central consideration in developing climate actions. This can involve putting social protection instruments in place — such as social safety nets, unemployment support and maternity protection — to support communities both socially and economically and minimize risks. Furthermore, local populations need to be actively and deliberately engaged in shaping development agendas to ensure an equitable process that addresses their needs.

The JTWP should ensure that decisions are carefully considered so that inequities are avoided. The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is an example of an initiative proposed by the European Union that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but unfortunately has negative impacts on vulnerable communities. Seemingly important to the climate crisis, studies have shown that CBAM will reduce African exports and diminish the continent's GDP by at least 1.12%. These inequities must be avoided at all costs and the transition must not harm those who are already most vulnerable. 

One example of an initiative that has aimed to avoid these inequities and ​promote certain principles can be seen in action is South Africa’s Presidential Climate Coalition (PCC), an independent body created in 2020 that aims to lead the government’s work towards a just transition across sectors such as energy, agriculture and tourism, and has ensured a wide range of stakeholder engagement in building a shared vision across constituent groups. The PCC held public workshops for people in coal communities to attend with the aim of creating space for them to share their opinions, enabling local communities to try and shape the PCC’s just transition framework in a way that would better benefit all involved stakeholders. 

These workshops aimed to highlight key areas to focus on when implementing a just transition — for example, addressing community health impacts from coal mining; clarifying misconceptions concerning renewable energy; and making sure communities can engage in just transition dialogues through use of accessible language and methods of communication and effective knowledge sharing. The work of the PCC is not over, and there is still more work to do to ensure that this process is equitable and truly includes those impacted. However, taking forward lessons from these processes, such as the importance of involving a wide range of stakeholders, can help in developing the JTWP.

2. Rejecting Oppressive Global Systems and Addressing Global Inequity

Climate change impedes economic development, employment, agriculture and industry while destroying transport and communication systems and other important infrastructure. But despite being a global phenomenon, the impacts of climate change are disproportionately felt by the world’s poorest countries and communities. This exacerbates existing inequality and poverty, with vulnerable countries on the frontline of these disruptions.

Given these disparities, countries should view the JTWP as an avenue to discuss and provide climate solutions which enhance social, economic and environmental equality. A transition that oppresses those living in poverty, climate-vulnerable communities and other marginalized communities cannot be just; nor can a transition which further undermines the development of vulnerable countries (for example, by exacerbating their debt burdens through loan-based climate finance). This work programme must identify and reject climate actions which could extend or potentially result in a repetition of such systems, from historical and structural inequalities to trade protectionism, distortions and unilateral taxation systems for developing countries.

Rather, the JTWP should share guidance on supportive actions. For example, it can draw on elements from the Bridgetown Initiative such restructuring unsustainable debt; promoting inclusive international tax systems and reducing barriers that uphold socioeconomic and structural inequalities.

Addressing climate change is a multilateral process, and all countries have a role to play as guided by the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC). As such, the work programme should provide a multilateral platform that centers on inclusion and international cooperation. This could be a platform to share and submit learnings, to increase transparency and to allow countries to build on one another’s learnings. While this platform should be collaborative in nature, rich nations in particular must commit to correcting historical inequalities — both by leading the way on decarbonization and by supporting developing countries to do the same — given that the world’s poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries and communities have generally contributed the least to the climate crisis.

In terms of how this translates to UN climate negotiations, it is essential for discussions on just transitions to happen at both technical and political levels. This could potentially include convening an annual high-level event — such as at the COP and G20 summits, where the just energy transition, just resilience, just transition financing and other related topics are discussed by world leaders. These events could inform annual reports and decisions made at COPs and help drive political declarations to enhance international cooperation in climate action.

3. Channeling Unconditional Support from Developed Countries

Developing countries urgently need increased support to facilitate climate action and achieve just transitions. This support must flow in the form of international climate finance, technology development and transfer and capacity building. It must also be conducted within the guidelines of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Paris Agreement — articles 9.1 and 9.4 of which state that developed country Parties will provide financial resources to developing county Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation.

Specifically, this work programme should stress the importance and urgency of public finance from developed countries as an essential enabler for just transitions in developing countries. Rich nations must demonstrate their accountability by fully delivering on agreements in a timely and just manner, and finance and resources should be focused into areas such as reskilling, economic diversification, employment access and social protection to ensure that workers are retrained to be able to adapt to the transition. Countries providing targeted finance must also consider broader socioeconomic factors, as new green jobs not only require new skillsets but may be in a different location and completely shift how people and communities have functioned in the past.

The work programme should caution Parties against financial instruments that deepen the indebtedness of vulnerable countries. Instead, it should support the development of a financial and support architecture that promotes shared economic growth and sustainability for a fair transition. New systems should make it easier for poor countries to access climate finance without increasing their debt burdens or discouraging access due to complicated financing structures and requirements.

4. Creating Comprehensive and Flexible Just Transition Pathways

The JTWP is an indefinite, collaborative and facilitative platform that should promote an equitable and sustainable future for all world countries. Recognizing that every country is experiencing different levels of climate change impacts, as well as different priorities and challenges in addressing them, the work programme should refrain from prescribing solutions. Instead, it needs to allow countries to determine their own solutions as per the Convention and its guiding principles.

The new work programme must cover the full scope of just transitions by considering all the socioeconomic and environmental repercussions of climate change action, such as labor migration, unemployment and inequitable loss of ecosystem resources. Under this programme, climate interventions should be designed in a manner that supports nationally determined transition pathways, including national adaptation plans (NAPs) and nationally determined contributions (NDCs). This can be done without prescribing practices to countries or managing their transitions by supporting locally driven approaches to the transitions.

The work programme should pay particular attention to poor countries that are more vulnerable to the devastation of climate change and seek to elevate their needs in a manner that allows them to attain their national priorities and to develop in a climate-compatible fashion. It must also recognize that in this transition, factors such as gender and age can create disproportionate impacts on certain groups. Working to ensure that the JTWP framework acknowledges these disparities and includes all people is what will truly make it just.

5. Building Synergies with Other Global Climate-related Workstreams

The JTWP is intended to complement and build on the contributions of other relevant work streams, including those on mitigation, response measures, adaptation and climate finance. To this end, it should actively collaborate with other workstreams under the Paris Agreement and more broadly, such as:

  • The Global Stocktake (GST): The JTWP should feed into the GST process so its progress can be tracked and implemented across multiple sectors.
  • The Mitigation Ambition and Implementation Work Programme (MWP): Integration with the MWP can help ensure that elements of equity and justice are built into all mitigation actions towards the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees C temperature goal.
  • The Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA): The work programme on the GGA can provide inputs into the just resilience component of the work programme as it relates to adaptation.
  • The Katowice Committee of Experts on the Impacts of the Implementation of Response Measures (KCI): Since there is a strong connection between JTWP and KCI workstreams, the KCI should provide expert input into the just transitions work programme.
  • National just transition approaches: The work programme can inform ongoing national, regional and international work on just transitions. This includes supporting and guiding country-level policy processes such as the Just Energy Transition Investment Plans (JET IPs) and Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs).
  • Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs): Workshops and other exchanges relating to country NDCs can help promote a fair and equitable transition as well as ensuring that many national sectors include plans toward a just transition.
  • Relation to finance: Securing finance for just transition pathways is a core goal of the JTWP, and  collaboration with other finance workstreams will be critical to mobilizing and transforming financial systems to meet priorities of a just transition. This can include, for example, integrating into discussions on the new collective quantified goal on climate finance (NCQG), international financial institution reform and mobilizing private sector finance.

The work programme should also invite international organizations and civil society to submit recommendations that can enrich the discussions about just transitions.

Operationalizing the JTWP at COP28 and Beyond

This work programme must recognize that to fight climate change is to fight inequality in the world. At COP28, discussions on the JTWP will continue from its creation in Egypt last year, and the first annual high level ministerial round table dialogue will take place during the first week of COP.

With the timeline to reach net zero quickly closing in, the topic of energy transitions is critical and unavoidable. This year at COP, the world needs to see ambitious targets on emissions reduction and a specific focus on a just and equitable transition in Parties’ mitigation, adaptation and finance plans. Ultimately, countries must recognize that any successful transition will prioritize people and planet together.