Delivering a Just Transition to Net Zero: Whose role is it anyway?

Mrs Rachel Bray and Dr Rebecca Ford

The past decade has seen a surge of activity around the topics of energy justice and just transitions in both academic literature and policy priorities as countries seek solutions to halting global climate change.

While our own investigations undertaken through the COP26 ALIGN project have advanced our understanding of both concepts and unearthed potential mechanisms for applying these to policymaking, we found that a number of key questions remain:

  • What do we mean when we talk about delivering a just transition to net zero or embedding energy justice within the energy system?
  • Who is responsible for operationalising this and ensuring energy justice is embedded in the transition to net zero?
  • Do different stakeholders have different capacities to act? How can those with real power be motivated to create change and held accountable for their actions?

Therefore, earlier this year we undertook a series of interviews with 12 key international academics to discuss these questions with them. An overview of these discussions can be found in our new report.

What is energy justice?

We found that the concept of energy justice is typically used to broaden discussions about net-zero energy transitions beyond economic and technical aspects by incorporating issues related to politics, democracy, society, labour, gender and race.  Energy justice recognises that the energy system transition needed to combat climate change is going to impact people and societies in many different ways and that without taking moral considerations into account this could disproportionately affect poor and marginalised communities. Energy justice also recognises that the global energy system is currently ‘unjust’ but that the transition to net zero brings an opportunity for countries to recreate their economies in ways that are more equitable instead of replicating these unjust policies and processes.

What is a just transition?

We found that the concept of a just transition was born out of international trade union movements seeking to protect workers unfairly affected by the move from fossil-fuel based energy systems to clean energy systems. A just transition takes into account the rights of the workforce and, encourages the creation of decent work and quality jobs in sustainable economic sectors in accordance with nationally defined development priorities. It maintains that the burden of climate action should not be borne unequally by one set of workers or communities or any one country.

Equally important, the transition to net-zero simply won’t happen at the pace and scale commensurate with the commitments being made by national, sub-state, and non-state actors if the values, needs, perspectives, and rights of the energy workforce and wider society are not accounted for.

Who is responsible for delivering a just transition?

Our interviewees had differing perspectives on who was responsible for embedding energy justice into policies, strategies and delivery mechanisms. Some considered that energy justice could only be delivered by a ‘top down’ approach: one that embedded justice in legislation and national policy. Others saw it as a ‘bottom-up’ issue: that decision-makers would only legislate energy justice if communities demanded that change.

However, the majority of interviewees saw it as an issue that reached across all scales of decision-making: with every actor in the system taking their part in advocating for and pursuing energy justice within their own remit of influence. We therefore assessed that all actors are ultimately responsible for delivery.

Who has the capacity to act?

While it might be comparatively straightforward to determine who is responsible for embedding energy justice, each actor has different capacities in which they can act, along with different motivations for seeing energy justice principles embedded. There are also different accountability mechanisms for ensuring that energy justice is embedded, which vary for the different stakeholder groups, and which are not always easy to define or implement.


We know that energy transition has to happen quickly to reach international climate change mitigation targets, with action occurring across all of society.  However, without embedding energy justice principles we run the risk of replicating the unjust structures of the previous energy system with unjust ‘green’ energy structures.

However there is currently an opportunity to proactively embed energy justice principles and practices across the energy sector and wider economy as national leaders progress net-zero activity at international negotiations, and many sub-state and non-state actors sign up to the Race to NetZero and create policies and strategies for delivering this.

For more information, please download our report here or follow up with us directly if you want to get involved in our ongoing work.