What is a just transition and what might it mean for Bristol?

Author: Dr Ed Atkins


Climate breakdown poses an urgent and existential threat to our planet and future generations. The need for effective and just responses to this crisis cannot be overstated. Transitioning to low-carbon alternatives is crucial, but it is equally important to ensure that these alternatives are not only as good but preferably better than the fossil fuel-based systems they aim to replace.

Addressing inequalities

Cities play a significant role in shaping the environmental and social landscape. However, urban areas are often marked by inequality, which can exacerbate climate and environmental injustice. Unequal access to resources and opportunities within cities disproportionately affects marginalised communities, leading to unequal distribution of environmental “goods” and burdens.

Stokes Croft

Credit Oliver Zhou via unsplash

Lower-income neighbourhoods often bear the brunt of environmental pollution, with limited access to green spaces, clean air, and clean water. Inadequate infrastructure, such as public transportation or cycling lanes, further reinforces disparities. Addressing these inequalities within cities is crucial for achieving a just transition and ensuring that climate action benefits all members of society.

A call for a just transition emphasises the importance of low-carbon alternatives being as good as, if not better than, the carbon-intensive sources they aim to replace. It recognises that a just transition encompasses more than just decarbonisation. Instead, climate action takes into consideration the immediate concerns of individuals who worry about the cost of living and their ability to make ends meet.

Interconnection of climate action, social justice and worker’s rights

The origins of the just transition concept can be traced back to trade unions’ efforts to reconcile workers’ rights and job protections with environmental and climate considerations. It gained traction through the work of Tony Mazzocchi, who popularised the idea within the US Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union. The objective was to foster alliances between environmental groups and organised labour, challenging the notion that environmental protection comes at the expense of jobs.

Group of people sat round table listening to a speaker at just transition gathering

Credit ShamPhat Photography

A just transition framework recognises the interconnectedness of climate action, social justice, and workers’ rights. These connections are increasingly recognised. The term has been incorporated into the vocabulary of international organisations such as the International Labor Organization, the United Nations Environmental Programme, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Effectively translating the concept of a just transition into practice necessitates government intervention and proactive measures. History provides examples of comprehensive policies implemented by governments to support workers and communities undergoing significant changes. From policies to protect workers in the wake of declining fossil fuel economies in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany to the introduction of the USA GI Bill to support veterans returning from World War Two.

Helping communities and people thrive

Neglecting the importance of a just transition can hinder progress and allow inequalities to persist. This is linked to how a just transition is no longer just about worker protection but about helping communities and people thrive.

Easton Community Garden photographed at the Get Growing Garden Trail 2023, © Yasmin Centeno

© Yasmin Centeno

Bristol, like many cities, faces a range of specific inequalities that a just transition can address. From socio-economic disparities to racial injustices, these challenges must be confronted head-on to ensure a fair and inclusive transition. By investing in green jobs, renewable energy infrastructure, and sustainable businesses, Bristol can simultaneously reduce its carbon footprint and create employment opportunities that benefit all segments of society.

There are five key dimensions of justice associated with a just transition.

  1. Distributive justice focuses on ensuring a fair distribution of costs and benefits related to climate action and breakdown.
  2. Procedural justice highlights the importance of inclusive decision-making processes, allowing diverse voices to be heard and respected.
  3. Justice as recognition emphasises acknowledging and valuing different identities, experiences, and aspirations, avoiding misrecognition and stigmatization.
  4. Restorative justice seeks to rectify past harms and exclusions by implementing policies that improve the lives of marginalised communities.
  5. Cosmopolitan justice broadens the perspective to global contexts, considering historical responsibility, global pollution, and intergenerational fairness.

Achieving a just transition requires not only effective policies but also active participation and influence from communities. It should address the equitable distribution of costs and benefits, inclusivity in decision-making, recognition of diverse perspectives, restoration of past injustices, and global responsibilities.

A collective endeavour

A just transition can reverberate throughout Bristol’s social fabric, touching every aspect of life.  This means that achieving it is not solely the responsibility of politicians or corporations; it is a collective endeavour that demands participation from every sector of society. From activists to frontline key workers, Bristolians must come together to not only call for climate action but for policies that make the city better.

By weaving justice into the fabric of the city, Bristol can catalyse a powerful movement for change. When facing climate breakdown, this is not only an opportunity but an imperative.


Ed Atkins is a Senior Lecturer working on energy transitions and energy justice at the University of Bristol. His research broadly explores how place-based approaches might allow for more equitable climate action. In this blog he gives some background to the term ‘just transition’ and explores what it might mean for Bristol. Ed has recently published a book entitled A Just Energy Transition: Getting Decarbonisation Right in a Time of Crisis.

This blog post is republished from Bristol Green Capital with permission from Ed Atkins. Read the original article