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

This urgently needed 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. While the low-carbon economy ultimately offers an opportunity for net job gains, the International Labour Organization estimates that around 80 million existing jobs could be lost. 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 vulnerable people are not left behind, all climate action must be underpinned by principles of a just transition. Broadly, this means moving toward a greener world in ways that won’t create or exacerbate inequalities or cause other unintended social and economic harms. It also means taking action to mitigate such harms, creating opportunities that benefit all people and communities and promoting sustainable development.

Driving Equitable Green Development Through the Just Transition Work Programme

The number of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that explicitly mention “just transition” is low but growing. It jumped from 17% (33 NDCs covering 59 countries) in 2022 to 23% (45 NDCs covering 71 countries) in 2023. Fifty-six percent of long-term strategies (LTS) also include references to just transitions. These numbers must increase further to ensure progress toward an equitable green transition across all nations and sectors.

However, key questions remain around what a truly “just” transition looks like. What values should it embody, particularly from the perspective of affected workers, communities and countries? How can discussions on just transitions at the multilateral level 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 help answer these questions. 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 support knowledge-sharing and the development of best climate action practices in line with a just transition. It is intended to 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.

The JTWP was established at COP27 in 2022 and its modalities were adopted at COP28 in 2023. But while the COP28 outcome outlines the scope of the work programme in broad strokes, important questions remain about how to further refine and implement it.

Here, we explore five key elements that the JTWP should consider and their implication from the perspective of vulnerable developing countries. This article was written with the ACT2025 consortium, a group of think tanks from vulnerable developing countries working to drive greater climate ambition on the international stage.

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 all climate action. Pathways must be founded on meaningful and effective social dialogue and participatory decision-making processes. They must also include social, economic, workforce and other dimensions, ensuring that equity is a key aspect throughout.

Effective people-centered climate action does three things:

  • 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.
  • Through an inclusive process, it purposefully identifies and unlocks social and economic benefits; for example, by creating quality jobs with decent pay.
  • It targets these benefits to further equity; for example, by employing innovative financing to boost energy access through distributed solar power or restoring ecosystems in ways that also raise rural incomes.

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

In South Africa, for example, the Presidential Climate Coalition (PCC) was created in 2020 to lead the government's work toward a just transition across sectors such as energy, agriculture and tourism. It has enabled a wide range of stakeholder engagement in building the country’s just transition frameworks and aims to help ensure that all stakeholders have input and receive benefits. For instance, the PCC held workshops for people in coal communities that highlighted key areas to focus on when implementing a just transition. These included topics like addressing community health impacts from coal mining and clarifying misconceptions concerning renewable energy. It also worked to enable community engagement in just transition dialogues through accessible language and communication methods and effective knowledge sharing.

The work of the PCC is not over; further efforts are needed to ensure that this process is equitable and truly includes those impacted. However, lessons from these processes, such as the importance of involving a wide range of stakeholders, can help in developing the JTWP.

2. Addressing Global Inequity and Rejecting Oppressive Global Systems

Climate change impedes economic development, employment, agriculture and industry. It also destroys 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 the Global South on the frontline of these disruptions.

Moreover, well-intentioned climate actions can sometimes come with unintended negative effects for vulnerable people. For example, the European Union’s proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) could help reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. However, studies have shown that CBAM would reduce African exports and diminish the continent's GDP by at least 1.12%, exacerbating existing socioeconomic issues in a highly climate-vulnerable area.

A transition that oppresses those living in poverty, climate-vulnerable communities and other marginalized groups cannot be just; nor can a transition which further undermines the development of vulnerable countries. Countries should view the JTWP as an avenue to discuss and provide climate solutions which enhance social, economic and environmental equity.

To this end, the JTWP must identify and avoid climate actions which could extend or potentially result in a repetition of oppressive systems — from historical and structural inequalities to trade protectionism, distortions, and unilateral taxation systems for developing countries. It should also share guidance on more supportive pathways. For example, the JTWP can draw on elements from the Bridgetown Initiative, such as restructuring unsustainable debt, promoting inclusive international tax systems and reducing barriers that uphold socioeconomic and structural inequalities.

Addressing climate change is a multilateral process; 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 JTWP should provide a multilateral platform that centers on inclusion and international cooperation. This could be a platform to share and submit learnings, increase transparency and allow countries to build on one another’s best practices. But while the JTWP should be collaborative in nature, rich nations must commit to correcting historical inequalities given that the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries have often contributed the least to the climate crisis. They can do this both by leading the way on decarbonization and by supporting developing countries to do the same.

3. Channeling Unconditional Support from Developed Countries

Developing countries urgently need increased support to facilitate climate action and achieve just transitions. This includes international climate finance, technology development and transfer and capacity building. Support must 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 countries will provide financial resources to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation. Rich nations must demonstrate their accountability by fully delivering on financial agreements in a timely and just manner.

The JTWP should stress the importance and urgency of public finance from developed countries as an enabler for just transitions in developing countries. Finance and resources should be focused on 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: New green jobs not only require new skillsets but may be in different locations and completely shift how people and communities have functioned in the past.

The work programme should also 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 a collaborative and facilitative platform that should promote an equitable and sustainable future for all 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 should lay out overarching principles for just transitions which countries can use to develop their own national plans in line with the UNFCCC 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. These include labor migration, unemployment, inequitable loss of ecosystem resources and more. Under the JTWP, climate interventions should be designed to support 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. It should elevate their needs in a manner that allows them to attain their national priorities and to develop in a climate-compatible fashion aligned with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C. 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

In 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.

The JTWP is also intended to complement and build on the contributions of other relevant work streams and fora, including those on mitigation, response measures, adaptation and climate finance. 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): Linking to the MWP can help ensure that elements of equity and justice are built into all mitigation actions toward 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 climate resilience component of the JTWP 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 transition work programme.
  • Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs): Involvement with workshops and other exchanges related to NDCs can help promote a fair and equitable transition by ensuring that just transition considerations are built into countries’ national climate plans.
  • Relation to finance: Securing finance for just transition pathways is a core goal of the JTWP. Collaboration with other finance workstreams will be critical to mobilizing and transforming financial systems toward this goal. This can include, for example, linking the JTWP to discussions on the new collective quantified goal on climate finance (NCQG), international financial institution reform and mobilizing private sector finance.
  • National just transition approaches: The work programme can inform ongoing national, regional and international work on just transitions. This includes assessing and providing guidance for country-level policy processes for just energy transitions.

The JTWP also invites international organizations and civil society to submit recommendations that can enrich the discussions about just transitions at the workshops.

Implementing the JTWP in 2024 and Beyond

The just transition work programme must recognize that to fight climate change is to fight inequality in the world. With an overarching framework put in place at COP28, we will now be watching how the work programme carries out its mandate through workshops conducted over the next two years and in decisions made at COP30. Ultimately, countries must recognize that any successful transition will prioritize people and planet together.


This article was originally published in December 2023. It was updated in March 2024 to reflect the latest developments in the just transitions work programme.