Climate change is an emergency which demands rapid and far reaching action to transform our societies away from reliance on polluting fossil fuels to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change. At the same time, the climate crisis is embedded within a global context of growing inequality, deep poverty and significant unemployment. As such, to ensure a vision of climate justice which is fair and equitable and works to address the multiple challenges we face, is committed to ensuring a transformative just transition away from fossil fuels towards a more prosperous, equitable, renewable, and climate positive future – a climate positive  or carbon negative future is one where we are taking more carbon and greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere than we are putting into it. 

As the Climate Justice Alliance highlights, “Just Transition strategies were first forged by labor unions and environmental justice groups, rooted in low-income communities of color, who saw the need to phase out the industries that were harming workers, community health and the planet; and at the same time provide just pathways for workers to transition to other jobs. It was rooted in workers defining a transition away from polluting industries in alliance with fence line and frontline communities”. In the context of climate change and the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the focus on a just transition has found renewed and urgent importance. 

Trade unions, civil society, grassroots groups, climate justice organisations and others have long been calling for a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and a prosperous and equitable low carbon future. In response to their calls, the preamble of the Paris Climate Agreement included a clause, which recognises the need to take “into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities”. However, while many constituencies have called for a just transition, the term is broad enough to accommodate significantly varying definitions and the struggle in attempting to implement a just transition lies in large part in defining what constitutes a just transition.   


While many agree that we need to pursue a just transition, defining what constitutes a just transition is a difficult and contested task. We do not claim to own the definition of what constitutes a just transition. However, to help clarify what we mean by a just transition (adapting categories from a Project 90 by 2030 report) we separate conceptions of an energy transition into the following three broad categories with the first being the least desirable and the third being the most:

  • Just a Transition: This posits that for the sake of addressing climate change, we must transition as quickly as possible from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Here the transition imperative is narrow, focusing merely on swapping out fossil fuels for renewable energy, without aiming to transform the underlying structures, centre justice, or prioritise worker and community protection. This is an approach that involves a technocratic and managerial transition from one source of energy to another and is arguably just a transition not a just transition. 
  • A Protective Just Transition. This conception holds that in the energy transition workers and communities dependent on fossil fuels and other high carbon sectors are protected in the transition to a climate positive renewable energy future. The aim is to ensure that during the transition workers and communities do not suffer due to job losses or declining economic activity within their communities and that inequalities and adverse impacts are addressed. Here priority is put on programs such as retraining workers to enter the new economy, and protecting and investing in communities that might otherwise be negatively impacted by the transition. 
  • A Transformative Just Transition: This third category involves a more transformative and broad transition. It positions a just energy transition as being a core part of the wider transformation of society premised on the reimagining and remodelling of food production, housing, and transportation, and other sectors in environmentally sustainable and socially just and equitable ways. One central element of this would be moving away from ownership models dominated by private and commercial interests to a system based more on broad social ownership and benefitting from renewable energy, which prioritises the poor and marginalised. This transition is about rebuilding a different type of economy and reimagining the type of society we want to live in. Such a vision of a just transition aims to be “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’ (Smith, 2017). An instructive example is the vision of the Climate Justice Alliance as represented in the image below and defined accordingly: “A 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.”.

Image courtesy of the Climate Justice Alliance, under Creative Commons Licence,  NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) Position: 

We at believe that a just transition should at minimum provide a protective just transition for workers and communities and that we must strive towards a transformative just transition, which creates a more just, equitable, sustainable and regenerative economy. It is not enough to simply have climate action, we must ensure climate justice. 

For, addressing the climate crisis means more than just stopping new fossil fuel development, more than just reducing pollution and mitigating the impacts that global economic and energy systems have on the climate. It also means centering justice and rebuilding those systems equitably in the interests of all, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalised. Part of doing so is through prioritising local ownership and participation in renewable energy projects that deliver on economic security, affordable energy, healthier communities and sustainable, equitable growth. 

A just transition is more than an environmental imperative, it’s a matter of social and economic justice which calls for systems change underpinned by greater ownership of, involvement in and benefitting from the production of energy by local citizens, communities and businesses. It calls for a paradigm shift in our thinking, where we centre issues of equity and justice and give special priority to those currently without access to reliable energy supplies and to those whose livelihoods are affected by and are dependent on a fossil fuel economy. 

In many parts of the world, such a vision of a transformative transition is going under the heading of the Green New Deal. However, the Green New Deal slogan, like a just transition, accommodates many different interpretations and has at times been adopted by those who do not have a transformative vision in mind. As such, we prefer to spell out the details of what a transformative transition should look like.

To further flesh out what a just transition means in the context of the energy sector, 350Africa,org worked with Project 90 by 2030, to identify the below principles, which are some but not the only principles we believe a just energy transition should be built upon:

In addition to the above principles also espouses the following principles:

  • We seek to work in partnership with and follow the lead of affected workers, communities and other relevant stakeholders who may be negatively impacted in the transition without a just transition. We also strive to follow the lead of and support local and frontline voices calling for climate justice, especially those most impacted by climate change, mining, pollution and other harmful impacts of extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
  • Advance climate action that is fast and fair, delivering greater social, racial, environmental, economic, energy and gender justice. Climate action must also ensure global & intergenerational justice and justice for those most impacted by climate change and fossil fuels. A just transition is not just if it fails to ensure robust action on climate change and a habitable planet for future generations. As such we demand a rapid transition to renewable energy and action on climate change in line with at least each country’s fair share of keeping global warming from exceeding 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.
  • Progressive Polluter Pays Principle: We must hold polluters and corporations that have negatively impacted communities accountable and ensure they pay for their harmful impacts and contribute their fair share of the costs for a just transition. This includes holding corporations liable for environmental restoration costs from their harmful impacts and ensuring that corporations are held accountable for social labour plans and other promises and obligations to communities. Additionally, a just transition should be funded progressively so that the costs do not fall disproportionately on the poor and least responsible for the problem. It should be funded proportionately by those most responsible for the problem and most able to afford it.
  • A just transition away from fossil fuels is not relevant to all countries. In parts of Africa where plans for fossil fuel energy are emerging, development priorities should be defined through “just development” in addressing energy poverty and socio-economic and environmental justice., however, rejects the notion that fossil fuels are the route towards development. For those facing energy poverty, a large body of evidence shows that renewable energy is increasingly better positioned to provide development and energy access, whereas fossil fuels are centralised, expensive and resource intensive often failing to deliver on energy access and equitable development. State-of-the-art Integrated Assessment Models, which are used to inform energy planners, show that “an almost complete shift towards renewable energy by 2050, sourced largely from solar, wind and hydro power is feasible and affordable across the entire African continent” (Schwerhoff & Sy, 2018). Contrary to the fossil fuel industry lobby’s claims that rapid development requires fossil fuels, “Africa could rely almost completely on renewable energy in electricity production and still develop its economy rapidly” (Schwerhoff & Sy, 2018). 

South Africa:  In Africa, South Africa is arguably the country where a just transition is most challenging and urgently needed, given it’s high dependence on coal in the mining, industrial and power sectors – with almost 70% of its energy coming from coal. Several labour unions and climate justice organisations have worked together in South Africa to call for a just transition and a shift towards socially owned renewable energy. However, realising a just transition has been challenging due to several factors, most prominent among which is a lack of robust action from the government to put in place meaningful just transition measures. Additionally, the renewable energy sector’s main foothold in South Africa is via a privatised renewable procurement program – the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Program (REI4P). The program has created tensions between those that prefer renewable energy even if it is privatised and those who seek a more public and socially owned renewable energy sector. 

The REI4P projects did provide several benefits including: improved grid stability helping shield South Africa from load-shedding; reduced SA’s reliance on polluting fossil fuels; increased job creation; benefits to local communities through 30% of investments for REI4P projects being required to go to socio-economic development; increasing local manufacturing and ownership through requirements for minimum amounts of local and black ownership; and brought the cost of renewable energy down, such the latest bid windows provided the cheapest energy available to South Africa by far. 

However, while the REI4P has provided benefits, it has not been situated within the context of a just transition for workers and communities dependent on coal. Additionally, the REI4P’s privatised ownership model provides limited realisation of the potential for a more transformative transition, which brings broad-based ownership, jobs and benefits to South African people, workers and communities. The private sector’s profit motive also means it may often overlook poorer communities and not deliver on energy access and other social goals. These limitations led to significant resistance to the program, particularly as it was viewed to be potentially laying the ground for widespread privatization of the energy sector. 

The tensions and limitations of the REI4P speak to the need to put in place a more transformative just transition which both protects workers and communities impacted by the transition and which creates a more just, equitable, and sustainable economy. While, like trade unions, recognises a limited role for the private sector in the renewable energy future, we stand for more socially owned renewable energy, rather than for an energy future dominated by private for-profit interests. For example, businesses and homeowners running their own private systems can play an important complementary role to communities and workers owning energy systems and Eskom leading on a rapid rollout of publicly owned renewable energy.

It is for this reason that we are pushing forward the Green New Eskom campaign, which demands a rapid and just transition to a more socially owned, renewable energy powered economy, providing clean, safe, and affordable energy for all, with no worker and community left behind in the transition. You can find our more about the campaign and sign on in support at 

In the context of the deep inequalities, poverty and unemployment that pervades South Africa, seeking a more transformative vision of a just transition is imperative. recognises that defining what such a transformative just transition will look like in South Africa is not a top down exercise, but something that must be done in active consultation with, coalition, and involvement of the people of South Africa. Thus, guided by the principles outlined above, aims to work with and follow the leadership of trade unions, impacted communities, and grassroots leadership to define and advocate for an inclusive and transformative just transition which also ensures a protective just transition for those potentially negatively impacted in the transition.

Closing: To ensure a vision of climate justice which is fair & equitable. One that works to address the multiple challenges we face, is committed to ensuring a more transformative just transition away from fossil fuels. The climate crisis calls on us not just to stop fossil fuels and avoid the worst effects of climate change, but to also recognise that transforming our energy systems and broader economies can also be the engine of a better society that works not just for the few but for the many. Thus, commits to advocating for a transformative just transition away from fossil fuels and to an intersectional vision of climate justice, which recognises that climate justice is deeply intertwined with other fights for justice and must be pursued hand-in-hand with them. Such a commitment is both a morally principled commitment and a recognition of the sort of movement we must create to build the political power needed to transform our societies at the scale we need in order to avert some of the worst impacts of climate change. 

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5°C showed that meeting the vitally important 1.5°C target will “require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems”. Such a transformation can hold the potential for eradicating poverty, advancing sustainable development, and ensuring significant economic opportunities which can create a better, more equal and prosperous world. However, those opportunities for a better world as part of climate action will only be realized if we ensure justice is central to the transition, and that the transformation does not entrench or deepen inequalities and injustice. Additionally, we will only gain deep and broad political support for such a wide-scale transformation if it is embedded within a vision which brings broad-based benefits to the many, not just the few. As a report interviewing 80 academics concludes, such a transformative Green New Deal-style project may be the only vision strong and inspiring enough to combat the global rise of a climate action-hostile, right-wing authoritarianism.

In conclusion, advocating for a transformative just transition which creates a more prosperous and equitable future is a strategic approach to successfully tackling the climate crisis and the inter-connected social, economic & environmental crises within which it is embedded. Thus, commits to working towards a transformative just transition away from fossil fuels towards a more socially owned, renewable energy powered, worker and community empowered, climate positive future. Justice is not just an additional element that would be nice to have, but instead it is core to our vision of how to solve the climate crisis and the interconnected social and ecological crises we face. Climate justice is not truly climate justice without social and environmental justice and neither is social justice truly social justice without environmental and climate justice.