An Unjust Transition: A Critical Evaluation of Conclusions on Just Transition in the 111th ILC

The 111th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC) held in Geneva from 5th to 16th June deliberated on climate change along with other issues concerning the situation of decent work in the globe. The issue of climate change was dealt with from the perspective of changes in the nature of work in future. The deliberations were based on a report issued by the ILO named “Achieving a Just Transition towards Environmentally Sustainable Economies and Societies for All”. After deliberations in the concerned committee for Just Transition, conclusions on the same have been published by ILO. The present article looks into the perspective on climate change adopted by the ILO based on the above mentioned documents.


Climate change is a reality that can no longer be neglected by the global community. Extreme climatic events and displacement of millions of people, especially those forced to live in environmentally vulnerable regions, have become a harsh reality in front of us.  It is a well-established fact that climate change that threatens the world today is an outcome of a profit driven economic system that has not only infringed on the limit of self-sustaining capacity of the earth, but also created massive inequality among people. The impacts of climate change reproduce the structural inequality created by the same profit driven economic system. It is the economically and socially marginalised communities in the world that suffer the worst impacts of climate change today.

Thus, any corrective step aimed at reducing the impact of global warming and climate change must keep the issue of inequality at its core. As of now, the negotiations in international fora regarding climate change and the policy outcome are not based on Climate Justice but, are framed on furthering concentration of power and ownership over means of production that has resulted in climate change in the first place. The present article will enquire whether the ILO, the international forum concerning issues of the working class, approaches the issue from the perspective of inequality or not. 

Are Solutions Prescribed under Just Transition the New Problems?

The concept of ‘Just Transition’ was first discussed at the 102nd session of the ILC in December 2013. This session adopted a resolution that called for sustainable development, decent work and green jobs. The ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, 2019, adopted by the ILC at its 108th (Centenary) Session, identified climate and environmental change as one of the drivers of transformative changes in the world of work. It directs the efforts of the ILO to “ensuring a just transition to a future of work that contributes to sustainable development in its economic, social and environmental dimensions.” The deliberations in the 111th ILC on ‘Just Transition’ is thus a part of the perspective being formulated by ILO on climate change.

Before going into an analysis of the discussions in the 111th ILC, it is important to mention that while inequality within nations has been recognised as an important factor to be considered while formulating policies, inequality among nations is glaring in its absence both in the report and conclusions formulated through the discussion. Despite several attempts by representatives of trade unions from the developing countries  including left trade union representatives from India to raise historical inequality among nations as an important issue to be discussed, it has been omitted while formulating the conclusion. It is a scientifically proven and internationally accepted fact that the developed nations, most of which were industrialised early and had colonised major parts of the world, have contributed disproportionately in global Carbon Dioxide emission which is the primary cause of global warming and climate change. It is the development model invented and imposed by these nations that have unleashed a regime of reckless profit mongering destroying our environment and exaggerating inequality. Undermining of inter-country inequality by the ILO thus appears to be a part of the systematic eraser of the principle of Common But Differential Responsibility (CBDR) in climate negotiations of United Nations Framework for Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP). The process began at Copenhagen COP in 2009, that diluted CBDR principle with informal acceptance of voluntary emission reduction program for developing countries during the COP. The Paris COP in 2015 gave this change final ratification through Paris Agreement that removed compulsory emission reduction program for developed countries that got enforced through Kyoto Protocol in 1997 to voluntary emission program for both developing and developed countries. This in a sense is a systematic attack on historical responsibility principle.

Secondly, the report on Just Transition argues that transition to sustainable energy policies will positively impact the social, economic and technological interventions in developing countries. It mentions that the shift away from coal to wind, solar and turbine energy generation will create more jobs in countries like India than the coal-based energy sector. However, the risk involved in such a massive geographical restructuring of existing energy generation does not find the emphasis it deserves in the ILC documents.

The policies suggested by ILO for agriculture, transport and other sectors are fundamentally aligned towards altering existing technology. However, the question of ownership of the new technology has been conveniently ignored in ILC documents. If ownership of the new technology is to be controlled by private corporations that have unleashed the regime of reckless destruction of the environment in the first place, does that count as ‘Just Transition’ at all? ILO doesn’t venture into this territory at all.

It is evident that climate change would exacerbate inequalities across the globe. The discussions in ILC pose the question of inequality in terms of potential social unrest. It is from this concern of social unrest that the ILO pitches for emergency steps to be taken to tackle the problem of climate change.  It calls for immediate action, thereby only recreating and exemplifying the existing inequalities in the world. The idea of conflict is a driving factor for resolving and pulling countries into negotiations, rather than the quest for dignity, equity and public ownership.

Climate Negotiations: The Question of Just Transition and Politics of Finance

In November 2022, at the 27th session of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), ‘Just Transition’ along with financing and deployment of technologies for halting climate change was discussed. Importantly, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan affirms that “sustainable and just solutions to the climate crisis must be founded on meaningful and effective social dialogue and participation of all stakeholders” and emphasizes that a “just and equitable transition encompasses pathways that include energy, socioeconomic, workforce and other dimensions, all of which must be based on nationally defined development priorities and include social protection so as to mitigate potential impacts associated with the transition”. The Parties also decided to “establish a work programme on [a] just transition for discussion of pathways to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

The history of climate negotiations and the promises it has made to people are a testament to the fact that the historic role of the first world in inducing climate change and its differentiated impact on global citizens are important factors to be considered in the battle against climate change. The 100-billion-dollar climate fund that was promised in Copenhagen COP in 2015 is yet to reach its culmination. Majority of this funding is promised in the form of loans. Similarly, it took 30 years of negotiations for the developed countries to accept a Loss and Damages fund at the last COP Sharm el-Sheikh, whose modalities are yet to be discussed and implemented. This only proves the hypothesis that the developed countries and the private sector that are responsible for this pollution do not want any overhaul of the existing economic system. Their dominant position in all international negotiations ultimately maintain the same economic and world order that has caused the present climate crisis.

The policy of just transition that the ILO speaks of is devoid of any fund commitments for transition. The necessity of fund is to compensate affected people by ensuring basic income, retrain work force for new job, ensure livelihoods and minimise losses due to transition. Jobs lost in labour intensive economic activities in third world that are supposed to be phased out in the process of ‘Just Transition’ cannot be the sole responsibility of the third world alone.  The historic responsibility of the industrialised developed world must be brought back in the discussion of climate change. Financing for halting climate change must not be in the form of loans that pushes the third world further into debt trap, it must be in the form of financial assistance adhering to the principle of polluters must pay.

What are the Issues Countries Like India Would Face?

The pressures on developing countries like India on phasing out coal for energy requirements as part of ‘Just Transition’ is riddled with questions of livelihoods and energy security. Countries like India are essentially dependent on thermal power plants based on coal for its energy requirement. Any change in the structure of energy production poses important questions about livelihood losses and access to affordable energy. The only alternative is to ensure that the alternative technology is cheaper, affordable and guarantees employment generation. Any policy change in the arena of energy production that is devoid of this perspective can be called anything but ‘Just’ transition. As we saw in cases of ban on illegal mining in many places, the ban doesn’t accompany any rehabilitation package to the people dependent. If changes in energy production are to be implemented, it can not be devoid of a robust package of comprehensive rehabilitation for the people displaced. The omission of the question of rehabilitation of those displaced from their livelihood in the process of ‘Just Transition’ is glaring in the discussion and conclusion adopted by the 111th ILC.

The Politics of New Employment

The ILC document suggests that women will be further marginalised in new jobs created through just transition as a substantial share of new employment in green sectors tend to be in male-dominated occupations.

While the document says that many new jobs will be created through technological changes in agricultural sector, what it does not mention is who will benefit from such gains. In countries like India, agricultural labourers form a significant part of the work force in farming sector. Drastic changes in agrarian technique are bound to affect them severely as they do not have any control over the means of production. The perspective of the discussions in ILC ignores the impact of ‘transition’ to this section of workers.

The draft conclusions on ‘Just Transition’ prepared through deliberations in the ILC emphasises the role of private sector “as a principal driver of innovation, economic growth, and job creation and in the transition towards sustainable and inclusive economies”. The document also says “A well-funded public sector plays an equally important role,”.  If the role of public sectors and governments are supposed to be restricted to funding and technological innovations are supposed to be led by private sector, history has taught us what shall be the fate of such a transition. The private sector operates with the sole motive of profit maximisation. Technological changes led by private sector will only accentuate the problem of concentration of means of production in the hands of big corporations.  Concerns for job loss in the process of transition does not fit in the arena of operation of the private sector. It is indeed unfortunate that the decision makers of ILO refuse to learn lessons from what private capital led neo-liberal policies have done to the world.

 Conclusion: Ignoring Inter-Country Inequality Is No Reasonable Solution

Industrial Revolution and successive policy regimes that have dominated the world thereafter have resulted in today’s climate crisis. Any reasonable solution to climate change has to keep this fact at the core of its rationale. Capitalism led development model that is driven by the idea of accumulation of wealth and means of production in few hands has endangered the self-sustaining capacity of the earth. At international platforms, common but differential responsibility has been an accepted principle in formulating path for halting climate change. Unfortunately, in recent years the developed nations have been escaping from accepting this principle by diluting it. The discussions in the 111th ILC appear to be a part of that pattern. Any formula of transition that does not challenge ownership of new technology in the hands of private corporations is not aimed at achieving a just world. Nor is it a solution to the present climate crisis.  Concerns of job loss, especially in the third world, must lie at the core of ‘Just Transition’ being prescribed by ILO. The discussions in the 111th session of the ILC lack significantly in that perspective.