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An ex-miner at an abandoned coal mine in Romania
An ex-miner at an abandoned coal mine in Romania. Photo: © Flore de Préneuf / World Bank.
4 January 2017 8:00

Clean energy: The challenge of achieving a ‘just transition’ for workers

Sophie Yeo


Sophie Yeo

04.01.2017 | 8:00am
PeopleClean energy: The challenge of achieving a ‘just transition’ for workers

Tackling climate change is good for the economy, good for business and good for people. This is the narrative often pushed out by campaigners, researchers and governments around the world.

But while measures to curb emissions and reduce the impacts of rising temperatures will be good for the many, the few who work in industries affected by climate policies risk losing their livelihoods as the economy leans increasingly upon renewable energy.

Around the world, there is a growing movement demanding a “just transition” for the workforce, so that workers are not left in the cold as fossil fuels become consigned to the past.

Peabody and the Navajo tribe

Arizona’s Navajo tribe is one example of a community already fighting for a just transition. This Native American group signed a lease in 1964 allowing Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal company, to mine for coal on reservation lands. Now, 50 years later, many are battling against the impacts of this deal.

When they signed the lease, the company agreed to “employ Navajo Indians when available in all positions for which…they are qualified”. Since then, Peabody has been a major employer of tribe members — 90% of the 430-person workforce of its Kayenta mine are native people.

Yet, while Peabody has provided jobs and money, poverty rates on the Navajo Nation Reservation are more than twice as high as the Arizona state average, and benefits have come at the expense of the local environment.

The Navajo tribe has seen their water sources dwindle as Peabody has used the reservation’s aquifer to turn coal into slurry and pump it down a pipeline. Coal plants surrounding the reservation have polluted the air, clouding the view of the nearby Grand Canyon and other national parks. It is also a source of CO2, the primary contributor of human-caused climate change.

Members of the Navajo tribe, alongside the Hopi tribe that also lives in the area, are calling for a “just transition” away from coal — one that will see old jobs tied to the polluting coal industry replaced with clean and profitable work.

One group, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, is trying to create economic opportunities that will help to release the community from its reliance on coal. For instance, they have tried to revive the traditional Navajo wool market, developing partnerships with wool buyers and organising an annual Wool Buy.

It has also started a solar project, which aims to install a series of 20MW to 200MW solar installations on abandoned coal mining land, transforming the reservation’s old role as an energy provider.

The idea has gone global. In Ghana, for instance, the government has developed a programme to plant more trees, simultaneously improving the landscape, providing jobs, and offering a diversified source of livelihoods for farmers. Peasant farmers and the rural unemployed were involved in planting species such as teak, eucalyptus, cassia and mahogany, generating 12,595 full-time jobs.

In Port Augusta, a town of 14,000 people in South Australia, there is a plan underway to install a solar thermal plant to replace the town’s coal industry. This became even more urgent after the Alinta power station announced that it would close, potentially putting 250 jobs at risk.

A ‘just transition’

Worried communities and environmentalists are not the biggest threats facing coal companies. The price of coal has fallen thanks to a combination of market forces, including the explosion of cheap shale gas onto the scene, and government regulations aimed at pushing it out of the energy mix.

Earlier last year, Peabody filed for bankruptcy. It joined around 50 coal producers that have already crumbled under the increasing pressures facing the industry since 2012, including Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal Corp and Walter Energy Inc.

If emissions targets are to be met, coal has to go. From the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to President Obama’s anti-coal policies, efforts to fight climate change often hinge on dismantling the industry.

Even if there is sudden and rapid progress on carbon capture and storage (CCS), sometimes seen as coal’s lifeline technology, the industry looks set to to continue on its long-term downward trend as long as efforts to tackle warming continue to be scaled up. CCS has so far struggled to get off the ground. And in the face of market forces and global policies, even Donald Trump’s pledge to revive the industry has been met with raised eyebrows.

The human impact of this decline is often overlooked. The long-term slump in the US coal industry has led to unemployment, poverty and fragmented communities — and it is a pattern being repeated around the world.

Men and women who have spent their lives working in the fossil fuel industry may not have the skills to take part in emerging professions; these jobs may not be available in the same places that jobs were lost; and they will not necessarily materialise at the same time as workers find themselves out of work.

As concerns grow that the livelihoods of miners and other labourers could be lost, the volume has been raised on calls for a “just transition” for workers. This is where old jobs in dying industries are replaced by new jobs that offer security and quality of life, while not compromising the health of the planet, with safety nets in place to minimise hardship in the meantime.

Teresa Ribera, Spain’s former secretary of state for climate change, and now director of IDDRI, a Paris-based think-tank, tells Carbon Brief:

“If you are serious about climate transformation, you need radical changes, and radical changes mean you’re anticipating there are some things you don’t need anymore. For a very long time we have been insisting on the point that the transformation was good for business. But there may be many people who think about their personal concerns, their families, their jobs, and don’t care about profits of business.”

In China, for instance, around 1.3 million people are set to lose their jobs, thanks to government plans to close thousands of coalmines in an attempt to address overcapacity and tackle climate change.

And while coal is the obvious example, the impacts of climate change and policies will stretch across various sectors of the economy.

A report by the Labor Network for Sustainability suggests that jobs in Maryland’s tourism industry in the US could be threatened by higher temperatures, and along with it the jobs that rely on the activities and revenue it brings. Healthcare workers could come under more pressure as air quality deteriorates and short term changes in temperature cause harm to the elderly and vulnerable.


This is not the first time that the world’s economy has been subject to transformation, with the potential for mass dislocation of workers. History offers numerous examples of a transition from one way of working to another.

Following World War II, millions of soldiers were demobilised and returned home. In the US, this was a process that had gone badly a couple of decades before. The end of World War I left many veterans were poor and unemployed throughout the Great Depression, as they were unable to collect the financial compensation awarded by Congress until 1945.

This time around, President Roosevelt determined that the transition to a peacetime economy should be smoother and fairer, and signed a bill to provide benefits to war veterans, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights.

A similar pattern is now emerging with climate change. The workers who, for decades, have provided the energy that has allowed society to develop face losing their jobs as the source of this energy changes.

So far, it has been trade unions at the vanguard of the movement to ensure that these employees are not left out in the cold. Their work continues a long history of the unions fighting for improved environmental conditions for their workers.

Walter Reuther, the first president of the United Auto Workers Union, delivered a speech in 1962 where he emphasised the link between a healthy planet and the welfare of workers.

“The labor movement is about that problem we face tomorrow morning. Damn right! But to make that the sole purpose of the labor movement is to miss the main target,” he said.

“I mean, what good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it? What good is another $100 in pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke?”

Many unions are now also realising that climate change and its impacts also affect workers. The International Trade Union Confederation recently established a Just Transition Centre to push for workers’ rights. Its leader, Sam Smith, tells Carbon Brief:

“Let’s face it, it doesn’t really help us to solve climate change in a way that creates massive economic and social disruption. At the end of this, we want to come out not only with a world where emissions are down, but actually people have decent and better lives.”

The UN’s climate body, the UNFCCC, is also working on the issue. Questions on how to create a fairer future for the workforce emerged from an older discussion – called the “response measures forum” in UN-speak – on how to ensure that countries did not suffer unduly from their efforts to implement climate mitigation actions.

In the past, there has been some scepticism about this endeavour, as talks often provided cover for oil-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to demand compensation for loss of income as oil demand shrinks. But the discussion has now evolved to include just transitions, recognising that the negative impacts of climate action may not only be economic, but also social.

Practically, these talks are limited, yet they have become a sounding board for detailed ideas on what a just transition might look like, filling an information gap on what is still a relatively new subject. Recently, for example, the UN has released a technical paper on just transitions and held workshops on the topic.

Andrei Marcu, who leads the response measures talks at the UN, tells Carbon Brief:

“To me, it’s not a movement right now. It’s very isolated, and very specialised. It’s not mainstream. Has it got into people’s habits, into procedures we have to do? The answer is clearly no.

“What the UN system can do, when it gets out of the political mode and into practical, is start to create a body of knowledge, some order and discipline, in how you can recognise the mitigation actions that impact people, how you measure them, how you model them. I think it’s very much about knowledge building, capacity building, and finding common solutions.”

The International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialised UN agency for protecting the workforce, has also released non-binding guidelines on how to shift to a sustainable economy without harming workers.


Not all workers are convinced that environmentalists are on their side. “Just transition is just an invitation to a fancy funeral,” says Rich Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

The construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, designed to bring carbon-intensive oil from Canada’s tar sands to the US, was a recent lodestone of the battle between workers and environmentalists.

After Obama rejected the pipeline, several unions came out in support of the decision, saying that the president had “acted wisely”, and stressing the importance of tackling climate change. Others have been less impressed over the hesitation to build the pipeline. The Laborers’ International Union of North America said it would “unlock good, family-supporting jobs for America,” and accused the government of “caving to fringe extremists”.

The US government has poured millions of dollars into helping out former coalminers, but that apparently didn’t help them to feel any less disenfranchised in the most recent US election. Many saw Donald Trump’s promises to bring back the coal industry as a final lifeline, while Hillary Clinton’s promise to bring new opportunities to areas affected by coalmine closures was interpreted as a threat.

At the recent round of UN climate talks in Marrakech, Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary at the German Environment Ministry, said:

“If you organise the transition in a way people feel ‘I’m left behind’, they will follow illiberal forces we see all over the world.”

The election result was testament to his words, with Trump’s shouts of a revival resonating more convincingly around coal country than Clinton’s promises to bring clean, sustainable jobs to the area. “This election outcome is more than West Virginia’s coal industry could have hoped for,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, following Trump’s unexpected victory.

With many expressing doubt that Trump can reverse coal’s misfortunes, a just transition could yet be the industry’s best hope.

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