“I am frustrated when António Guterres [the UN secretary-general] comes to India and says we should just stop investing in coal because it is more complicated than that,” says Rohit Chandra from the Indian Institute of Technology. “Whole communities were built around coal, and they will be destroyed in the energy transition.”

Speaking during a webinar last year, Chandra explained why trying to ensure a just transition in emerging economies was often a tricky, “messy” business and how this state of affairs is often not acknowledged by the international community. The process of helping workers and communities receive a fair deal as economies move from fossil fuels to clean energy is likely to be unique to each country and requires interaction between multiple stakeholders that are not used to working together, he said.

Workers repair a transmission line in the Aceh province in Indonesia. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP via Getty Images).

Given these complications, a lack of structures to deliver solutions and a paucity of practical information, discussions on the just transition in developing countries remain sporadic.

To try to fill these gaps, Climate Strategies, a not-for-profit research organisation, has partnered with research organisations and universities in Ghana, Colombia and Indonesia to investigate what a just transition could mean in these countries and how it can be integrated into the national climate plans countries are obliged to submit under the terms of the Paris Agreement.

A just transition has many faces and no single definition, says Andrzej Blachowicz, managing director of Climate Strategies and a former Polish government official. “We have to support countries in finding their own interpretations policies,” he says. “This happens through the creation of communities of practice, which we have tried to facilitate in all three countries.”

In concrete terms, this means bringing together representatives from government bodies, labour organisations, indigenous groups and other members of society to work towards the common goal of achieving a just transition.

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The role of labour unions

Governments in developing countries are often less used to engaging with workers, employers and civil society than their counterparts in the EU and US. Just transitions are about bringing holistic change to societies, and so coordination between government and different stakeholders needs to be strengthened to reflect the voices and perspectives of those affected, says Blachowicz.

In particular, informal workers, who still form a significant proportion of the workforce in low and middle-income countries, are often overlooked in transition dialogues because of a lack of channels for communication. “When labour is fragmented, tripartite consultation [between governments, employers and workers] is difficult,” says Chandra.

In Colombia, the coal workers' union, Sintracarbon, has struggled over employee job security at Cerrejón, one of the country’s largest thermal coal producers, following the company’s announcement last year of a planned 10% reduction to its 12,000-employee workforce in a bid to cut costs.

Demand for Colombian coal has been trending downwards in recent years as Europe and the US, Colombia's main export markets for coal, attempt to decarbonise their energy sectors. "Any decline in production has a significant impact on public revenue and employment," says Claudia Strambo from research organisation the Stockholm Environment Institute. "[Yet] there is no support for coal workers or an active strategy to plan for a phase-out of coal."

Coordination within governments

In Indonesia, while external institutions like labour unions are generally well informed about the need for a just transition, government ministries are lagging behind, says Sri Lestari of the Dala Institute, a consultancy coordinating just transition research in the country.

"There is a lack of effective communication and coordination to shape and deliver the just transition agenda," says Lestari. "We need more dialogue."

The situation was worsened with the disbandment of Indonesia's national climate change council in 2015. Further, "when an employee moves to another ministry, they take any knowledge with them", Lestari adds. "There is no transfer of information or system to prevent this loss of knowledge."

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Successful transitions are the result of dialogue between and coordination among government, businesses and labour unions, states a report by Imperial College London and the Grantham Institute.

In line with the Dala Institute, the not-for-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) recommends the establishment of working groups involving government ministries, labour unions and other businesses, to facilitate the sharing of best practices and to identify areas that require further support. It also calls for more case studies on sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America to help advance understanding of the just transition in countries with particularly vulnerable populations, fewer economic resources, and more limited social safety nets.

"Sharing experiences of successful transitions – as well as failed approaches to restructuring local economies – will speed up the diffusion of insights and knowledge,” says Mark Conway of the WRI.

Blachowicz has plans for his project to explore the just transition in six more countries in the coming years. These are likely to be Argentina, Pakistan, Laos, Malawi, Kenya and Vietnam. The conclusions drawn will help countries on a similar development path move forward with a just transition, he hopes.