The hard-won agreement at the COP28 climate summit to transition away from fossil fuels for energy was heralded as the “beginning of the end” for the production and use of oil, coal and gas, and a key step in limiting global warming.
But what does that mean for workers whose jobs and incomes depend on extracting polluting fuels from the ground, or burning them in power plants?
From coal miners to offshore oil rig engineers, the 32 million people who work in the fossil fuel industry face losing their livelihoods over time as the global energy mix turns greener and the share of renewables - like solar and wind - grows.
This, experts warn, could cause a backlash against the shift to low-carbon economies unless efforts are made to cushion the blow to workers and communities, and ensure they can access new green employment opportunities and acquire new skills.
At the Dubai climate talks, while efforts to end production and use of fossil fuels grabbed headlines, there was also a growing emphasis on not leaving behind countries and workers that depend on them and instead seeking a “just transition”.
“Decarbonisation will create millions of decent new jobs, but governments must also ensure support, training and social protection for those who may be negatively impacted,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a speech at COP28.
“At the same time, the needs of developing countries highly dependent on the production of fossil fuels must also be addressed,” he added.
Here’s how the UN climate process is setting out to do that:
What was agreed on ‘just transition’ at COP28?
The package of decisions adopted in Dubai noted that a shift away from fossil fuel energy should happen “in a just, orderly and equitable manner” - and developing countries redoubled their calls for financial support to help them expand renewables.
Under the UN’s new “Just Transition Work Programme”, a plan was approved to outline “just transition pathways” to achieve the Paris Agreement climate goals.
Decarbonisation will create millions of decent new jobs, but governments must also ensure support, training and social protection for those who may be negatively impacted.
Antonio Guterres, secretary-general, United Nations
Those pathways will differ according to how dependent a country is on fossil fuel extraction and use, as well as its levels of poverty and development.
To advance understanding about the issues, governments agreed to hold twice-a-year dialogues at the mid-year and end-of-year UN climate talks, as well as a ministerial roundtable once a year - the first of which happened in Dubai.
There Nick Robins, a professor of sustainable finance at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute, said not enough attention had yet been paid to the social challenges and opportunities arising from the transition to a carbon-neutral world.
He called for more policy leadership and finance to address that gap.
He noted that about 30 per cent of 168 national climate action plans assessed by the UN climate secretariat included efforts towards a just transition - while only 3 per cent of the world’s 150 most carbon-polluting companies have just transition plans they have developed together with workers.
What needs to happen next to advance just transition efforts globally?
Robins said the Just Transition Work Programme can help more countries incorporate the social impacts of energy transition into their climate action plans, due to be updated in 2025.
What is being learned could also help deal with the need to cut planet-heating emissions in other economic sectors, including forestry, agriculture and transport, he added.
Manal Shehabi, a researcher at Britain’s University of Oxford, told ministers “just transition” efforts are evolving beyond a narrow focus on providing decent work for those leaving fossil fuel jobs - but said disagreements persist over timelines and priorities.
Developing countries, for instance, have emphasised the need to grow their economies and pull their people out of poverty - something they fear could be compromised if they have insufficient time and financial support to deal with the disruptions expected from a green shift.
Women’s rights advocates, in turn, have said that the burden of the looming changes should not fall harder on women, and that women should have strong access to new opportunities to help overcome existing inequalities in labour markets.
What are the practical challenges of achieving a just transition for workers?
The International Trade Union Confederation welcomed the references to labour rights and social protection included in the COP28 decision on just transition.
But it warned that “the lack of an overall commitment to fully engage with trade unions in transitioning away from fossil fuels and in other vital areas of climate action will hinder progress, as it risks leaving workers and their communities behind”.
Another key threat to the transition - in energy and other parts of the economy where emissions must fall to net-zero by mid-century - is a global lack of green skills, according to professional networking platform LinkedIn.
In its 2023 Global Green Skills Report, it found that only one in eight workers has green skills, based on data from its more than 930 million users worldwide.
The situation is worse for women, with less than one in every 10 female workers possessing any green skills.
Allen Blue, LinkedIn co-founder and vice president for product management, told Context in Dubai there is growing recognition of the deficit of green skills among workers and the need to address it.
“It’s easy to convince governments that it’s important but actually coming to a solution is … very different wherever you go,” he said.
European countries, for example, have systems in place to help tackle the shortfall, but it poses a bigger challenge in developing countries which lack resources, he noted.
The European Union supports labour organisations, educational bodies and public authorities to help job seekers in the green economy under its “Climate Pact”, while the European Social Fund aims to enable green training for 5 million people.
Blue said one option for poorer nations might be for governments to specify that investors in clean energy - and companies carrying out those projects - should fund reskilling and training for local workforces, which could be carried out by NGOs.
Anabella Rosemberg, an expert on just transition with Climate Action Network International, an activist group, pointed to Spain as one country successfully rolling out regional plans for workers and local economies to move beyond closures of coal mines and coal power plants, after wide-ranging consultation.
Overall, Spain has committed about 5 billion euros (US$5.45 billion) to investments in 15 “just transition” zones, covering some 5,200 workers, with more jobs created in activities such as soil restoration, technology and recycling than lost in the coal sector.
The UN’s Just Transition Work Programme could play a role in identifying practical measures - including social support programmes, re-training and economic alternatives - for affected places, and channelling international funding to them, Rosemberg said.
“My hope is that this (programme) helps us put some of the real issues on the table and then see where is the consensus to make it happen,” she said, adding that doing so would increase buy-in from citizens for greater climate action.
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.