The emergence of “just transition” as a concept can be traced back to the 1970s in the United States. Tony Mazzocchi, a trade unionist at the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' Union (OCAW), started to realize that not every job is worth preserving at the expense of promoting health and environmental causes. At the same time, the idea was that the transformation of these jobs and the creation of socially and environmentally sustainable work should be primarily in the hands of workers and residents of the affected areas and not in the hands of industrialists and business.
Another important point in the development of the concept occurred in the 1990s when Anglo - American trade unions started to develop a program of support for the working communities affected by environmental protection policies and coal mines closure. Eventually, unions succeeded in getting the concept into the preamble to the Paris Climate Agreement, so as to affirm 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.
Today, this concept needs to assure a fair socio-economic transition to an ecologically more sustainable society in order to mitigate climate crises and to ensure that the transition itself won't cause unemployment and social unrest. However, there is scepticism coming from trade unions who warn the concept is getting too broad and in danger of being hollowed-out and over-stretched. In order to discuss it meaningfully, one has to consider the local, regional and national peculiarities.
Why are there different definitions?
Different understanding of just transition may stem from a plethora of national macroeconomic, industrial, sectoral and labour policies as well as up-to-date socio-economic development of specific regions. Division between the European centre and semi-periphery may be useful in understanding how the just transition towards low carbon society will play out in regards to the previous structural changes in economies of the European countries. Countries where the deindustrialization has had a more severe impact throughout the years are likely to be influenced by foreign capital and investment in capital-intensive industry such as automotive. Or this industry has little nation-wide importance since car manufacturing has significantly diminished and been replaced by a car supply industry. However, countries that are still main drivers of European automotive production are likely to sustain more significant changes due to the transformation of this sector. Therefore, the just transition concept will be discussed more intensively and arguably affect those countries that have much more at stake in terms of transitioning to the low carbon economies since they are pressured by climate and environmental regulations.
Different types of social impacts
The pressure on the incumbent European car manufacturers to align with the present and forthcoming regulations will re-write the production model across the entire value chain. As just transition is historically tied to the labour and employment patterns that transformed due to the turning points in restructuring of the global economy (i.e. closure of coal mines, deindustrialization in post-socialist economies), it is reasonable to assume that the transformation of the car industry will affect both the workers and consumers. The national and supra-national public policies will be an inevitable lever to mitigate job loss and skills mis-match. How the negative effects will be distributed across the regional and local economies still presents a core challenge to be answered.
Perspectives from a project country: Hungary
The idea of a just transition is in its nascency in Hungary. Similarly to Czech Republic, it has been applied in alignment with broader European lingo that focuses on how the jobs in the country’s coal region will be lost with the energy transition. The idea of a ”just transition” nonetheless emerged in interviews and the project workshop carried out in the fall of 2021, but it did not remain constricted to solely promoting the interests of workers, as suggested by a number of conceptions discussed above. Those who invoked it, suggested that EU and government support should be provided to the sector as a whole, to companies, employees, and the region in which the activities take place.
In underscoring the need for a just transition, participants argued that there is a need to sustain similar socio-economic relations, while altering the technology of the vehicles manufactured. Thus, a just transition includes slow, gradual, calculable change and ample support from those that induce the change. This reflects a deep adherence to the prevalent paradigm and a reluctance to fundamental changes. It also reflects the region’s vulnerability to external shocks. Thus, it is not merely an attempt by local capital to appropriate the idea of a just transition to ensure its survival (even if it partially is), but it runs much deeper. The structure of value chains leaves all actors deeply vulnerable to global competition and the success of foreign OEMs present in the country. Sustaining jobs hinges on the continued success of private companies, leading all of those vouching for a just transition to support that it be extended to all actors in the value chain.
Conference announcement: Just Transition – Where is the European car industry heading?
What would a just transition in the car industry look like? And who should be steering the change? What are the main obstacles hindering the transition to a climate-neutral industry?
Discuss these and more questions by joining our conference “Just Transition: Where is the European car industry heading?” on 12th of May, 2022 in Brussels, Renaissance Hotel
Stakeholders from politics, the private sector, NGOs, trade unions and academia will convene and engage in an open dialogue about the future of the car industry. The co-creative conference provides a space for knowledge sharing, discussion and mutual understanding in interactive workshops and with excellent keynote speakers.
Here you can find further information on the event: https://justtransition.eu/
Please register via our project website: https://justtransition.eu/registration