A Just Transition

Yet as the global warming threat grows, many Australian political leaders remain under the spell
of the coal industry and its ‘greenhouse mafia’. Indeed, despite the obvious risks some are still advocating new coal-fired power stations and a massive increase in coal-exports. The federal and state governments are gambling that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies will save the industry, even as growing numbers of experts note that this technology is likely to be too little, too late and too risky to be commercialised and installed widely enough to make a difference in the short window of opportunity needed for action. They are throwing billions of dollars in subsidies towards CCS and the mythical ‘clean coal’ at the behest of the industry.

Meanwhile investment and incentives for markets for renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies in which Australia could be a world leader are being seriously frustrated.

Tackling climate change means our dependency on coal as an export earner and as a domestic fuel must be phased out over the next decades, rather than ramped up. This will mean a huge change in the national economy, and for coal-affected regions such as the Hunter and Latrobe Valleys. The challenges associated with this change are significant, but not insurmountable. Indeed, a transition to clean, renewable energy promises to revitalise Australian manufacturing and create thousands of new jobs in many rural, regional and urban communities.

Environmental organizations and labour unions refer to the process of economic restructuring from non-sustainable industries to a sustainable economy as a ‘Just Transition’. A just transition links ecological sustainability with issues of work, equity and social justice. A just transition process recognises the needs of both current and future generations for safe, secure and satisfying jobs.
Participants in a just transition seek to build collaborations rather than conflict, and in particular, to avoid a false ‘jobs vs the environment’ conflict. A just transition is needed to ensure that the costs of change do not fall on vulnerable workers and communities

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) was a pioneer in the theory and organizing around the just transition concept and noted in their report, Just Transition for Workers During Environmental Change(2000), that:

“Just transition will ensure that the costs of environmental change will be shared fairly. Failure to create a just transition means that the cost of moves to sustainability will devolve wholly onto workers in targeted industries and their communities.”

The CLC also noted in this report that Green job creation – secure, stable, quality jobs which are clean, healthy and stress-free – is the flip side of a just transition.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions in their 2007 position paper on global warming also noted that a just transition is needed to deal with the challenges of climate change, and this requires new partnerships
of the labour movement and other sectors, including government, industry, local communities and training providers to retrain and re-skill workers into jobs in the renewable energy industry.

The ACTU policy recognises the tremendous potential of renewable energy to create additional
jobs in development, installation and operation phases:

Increasing the share of renewable energy in the total energy mix is possible without damaging existing industry and with continuing growth in high quality jobs, as the EU experience demonstrates. (1)

A just transition to a renewable energy economy is possible, based on currently-available low-risk energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass) with gas as a
transitional fuel. Research shows that these technologies can meet energy needs in Australia and the developing countries of our region (2). Renewable energy systems are more resilient and flexible than big centralised coal-fired power stations which require massive investment in a single piece of infrastructure that creates a supply, rather than demand-driven energy market. Renewables’ flexibility comes through the technologies being decentralised to multiple sites where solar, wind and geothermal resources are available – often in rural communities where investment and economic revitalisation is urgently needed.

A report, A Bright Future: 25% Renewable Energy for Australia by 2020, commissioned by the Australian
Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace and the Climate Action Network Australia (CANA) found that a 25% renewable energy target by 2020 would deliver 16,600 new jobs to Australians, as well as generating $33 billion in new investment and enough renewable electricity to power every home in Australia.

A just transition needs government interventions – setting environmental goals and establishing regulatory frameworks, market incentives and regional development support. Research (3) on successful green industrial restructuring processes in Europe have identified key policies as including:

  • A clear decision to end investment in the affected area or industry
  • Clear environmental targets
  • Availability of satisfactory technological alternatives to the technology being phased out
  • Political leadership that promotes innovation, partnerships and the diffusion of alternative technologies for new industries, research and development, tax relief, and infrastructure investments
  • A high degree of political integration among different government sectors
  • Funding for compensation to minimise social and regional disruption caused by change, including income support for low-income households to meet increased costs
  • Establishment of Regional Economic Development Funds to facilitate investment in new
    industries and jobs in targeted areas.

This is all possible in Australia’s coal communities. Active government intervention that anticipates and plans for change, provides education and training, and invests in infrastructure for industries of the future in coal communities will offer pathways to sustainability, rather than leaving coal communities’ environments degraded and economies locked into dinosaur technologies.

Coal communities need alternative employment opportunities in well-paid, secure and satisfying jobs. Workers in transition between jobs need redundancy entitlements, income maintenance and opportunities for retraining tailored to individual skills, needs and local opportunities. Workers who relocate to seek work elsewhere should receive relocation assistance. Research shows that workers with less formal education, older or disabled workers need special targeted support.

The Garnaut Review has the opportunity to identify energy policies that can respond to the global warming threat and drive a just transition to a sustainable energy economy. The Review needs to support:

  • A legislated target to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% below 1990 levels by the year 2020
  • An Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that reduces emissions in line with a 40% national reduction by
    2020, with all technologies and participants in a carbon emissions trading scheme treated equally (i.e. there should be no free allocations of carbon credits or ‘grandfathering’ within this system)
  • Use of ETS revenue to support the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency
    technologies in coal communities, and to compensate low income consumers for higher energy prices.

A shift to a renewable energy economy would revitalise Australian manufacturing industry and create thousands of new jobs, including in coal communities. Renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies could be boosted if governments:

  • Set a national target for energy efficiency to stabilize growth in energy consumption
  • Set mandatory, enforceable minimum energy standards for domestic and commercial buildings
  • Establish a national program for retrofitting solar hot water systems to all houses, schools and workplaces
  • Set an energy performance standard for residential and commercial lighting
  • Accelerate the Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) program
  • Set a national target for renewable energy of 40% by 2020
  • Establish a national feed-in tariff to encourage development of solar photovoltaic and solar thermal power
  • Develop innovative financial packages (e.g. no interest loans) to support consumers to install energy
    efficiency and renewable energy technologies
  • Initiate major re-fits of public housing with energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies to reduce energy bills for low income families
  • Redirect all public subsidies that encourage the use and production of fossil fuels towards implementing energy efficiency programs, deploying renewable energy and supporting the upgrading of public transport infrastructure
  • Provide renewable energy and energy efficiency expertise, technologies, goods and services to less developed nations to support their transition to the post-carbon world.

A moratorium on new coal-fired power stations and on extensions to existing coal fired power stations, and a phased withdrawal of existing coal-fired power stations – beginning with the most polluting – is needed, matched by a shift in investment to alternative clean energy technologies

Energy security can be achieved in Australia and globally by investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, with gas as an interim fuel. A switch to clean energy-based economy in the Hunter Valley and other coal communities, and in Australia’s global energy markets, can provide thousands of new Green jobs while protecting local and global environments. Green-labour alliances can inspire the broad-based
community campaigns needed to make a just transition to renewable energy and new Green jobs.


(1) Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) (2007) Principles and Policy on Global Warming: ACTU
Position Paper
. Melbourne, Australia: ACTU, p. 6.

(2) Teske, S., Zervbos, A. & Schäfer, O. (2007) Energy (R)evolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook. Greenpeace International, European Renewable Energy Council; Mallon, K., Bourne, G. & Mott, R. (2007) Climate Solutions: WWF’s Vision for 2050, Gland, Switzerland, World Wildlife Fund.

(3) Binder, M., Janicke, M. & Petschow, U. (Eds.) (2001) Green Industrial Restructuring: International Case Studies and Theoretic Interpretations, Berlin, Germany, Springer

See also:

Energy (R)evolution scenarios have also been developed for 10 global regions, based on the International Energy Agency’s breakdown of world regions, as used in the ongoing series of World Energy Outlook reports, including China, East Asia, South Asia, Europe, North America and OECD Pacific (Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand). A Clean Energy Scenario specifically for Australia is forthcoming.

Brofenbrenner, K. and Juravich, T. (1998) It takes more than house calls: organizing to win with a comprehensive union building strategy, in K. Brofenbrenner, K. Friedman, R.W. Hurd, R.A. Oswald and R.L. Seeber (Eds), Organizing to Win: New Research on Labor Strategies. Ithaca, NY, USA: ILR Press.

Reiss, J. (2005) Social Movement Unionism and Progressive Public Policy in New York City, Just
Vol. 5, pp.36-48.

Tattersall, A. (2005) There is power in coalition: a framework for assessing how and when union-community coalitions are effective and enhance union power, Labour and Industry, Vol. 16, pp.97-112.

United Nations Environment Program, World Health Organisation, International Labour Organisation
(2007) Labour and the Environment: A Natural Synergy. Nairobi, Kenya: UNEP.