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ADB Insight

Lively. Informative. Hard hitting. ADB Insight is a webcast that looks at the key development issues facing Asia & the Pacific.

Episode 9
A Just Transition: How to Make Action on Climate Change Fair and Inclusive
25 March 2022


Sharan Burrow
International Trade Union Confederation

The battle against climate change means Asia and the Pacific must pivot toward net-zero emission economies. But that will inevitably mean changes to economies, industries, and livelihoods. To counteract those impacts, the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral development banks have committed to a “just transition”—a commitment that the move away from carbon intensive economies to more renewable and sustainable ones will share the costs and benefits; that no community, industry, or worker will be left behind. 

The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, joins ADB Insight to discuss what a just transition should look like, the political and social momentum needed to make it a reality, and the potential it has for promoting gender equality and workers’ rights.


Nisha Pillai: Sharan, thanks so much for joining us on ADB insight. So, first of all, may I ask you, what does a just transition mean to you?

Sharan Burrow: Just transition means that we leave no one behind. We've seen many transitions in our industrial and social history, and very few of them have been “just” in terms of the people or the communities that they've affected. Decades ago, the union movement framed the demand for transition as a just transition. We know every sector has to transition if we're to meet the challenge of net zero by 2050. We know we have to do half of that job by 2030 to even have a chance of stabilizing the planet. 

But, a just transition is really very simple in concept. For working people, it means if the transition is going to displace your job, then for older workers, it means secure pensions. For workers who are not yet retired, but very close to it who choose to retire, you need a bridge to those pensions, an income bridge. If you're a younger worker, then you need income support, reskilling support, and redeployment support. And of course, it means investment in community renewal. 

Nisha Pillai: So, are you confident then, that a just transition is actually achievable? 

Sharan Burrow: Well, it's possible. I'm absolutely confident that it's possible. Am I confident that it will be achieved? Not unless we see a much more rapid, responsible leadership from governments and indeed from corporations. And it takes courage. That means that political will has to be shifted from, in some countries, denial, in other countries: “it’s not our responsibility.” In some countries, in fact, “it costs too much.” We need to have the understanding that this is such a crisis that it threatens the very existence of humanity.  

“Just transition means that we leave no one behind. We've seen many transitions in our industrial and social history, and very few of them have been “just” in terms of the people or the communities that they've affected.”

For workers, for the trade unions, we have a very simple framework. We also have, concurrent to the climate crisis, a massive crisis of inequality and a broken labor market is in large part responsible for that. Sixty percent of working people are indeed in informal work—no rights, no minimum wage, no rule of law, often unsafe short-term, precarious work. Even in the formal contracts of employment, a third of people are in very precarious work, and most of them will be low paid and most will be women in both sectors of the economy. So, we need to see that a just transition is really a new social contract. 

Nisha Pillai: So, a lot to unpack there, including women's rights and gender inequalities. How exactly should a just transition address the rights and opportunities of girls and women?  

Sharan Burrow: Well, we have to have indeed a gender lens on transition, full stop. If you go back to the statistics of a broken labor market, the majority of people are women and the majority of people in those precarious jobs are women; increasingly young people as well. But, that includes young women. So, it's still overridingly an exclusion of women. If you think about COVID-19, women lost $800 billion of income during the pandemic. That's the equivalent GDP of about 98 countries. If we don't have a gender lens on just transition, a transformative gender approach to just transition, to full employment, to rights, to social protection, to equality, then again, our world will become more divisive, more exclusionary. 

We have to invest in full employment and one of those areas of investment is the care economy. We can show you how we can get 575 million new jobs in the formal economy by 2030 and formalize a billion jobs, half of that informal economy by 2030. But, a huge bulk of it, beyond the energy transition, the industrial transition in every sector, is care. And COVID-19, again, this pandemic showed us the deficiencies in care, with social protection, it's part of resilience. And if you increase the investment, the UN figures show that doubling the investment in care—that’s childcare, health care, aged care, education— you can actually get almost 300 million jobs. You’re pretty much there.  

A just transition toward net-zero emissions has the potential to not only jumpstart employment in clean energy but also in manufacturing, where women in particular would stand to benefit.

Nisha Pillai: Do you believe there's the collective will, though, to make the required investments in the care economy?  

Sharan Burrow: No, I don't. That's why we have to have this discussion globally, nationally, in local communities. This has to be part and parcel of the way in which we consider investing in job creation and labor markets for the future. We've called for a global fund for social protection. You do that, you put social protection in every country, you immediately stabilize families with a living income. You give them access to health and to education. That's investment in care and basic economies at a fundamental level. You then move on to ensure there is a minimum wage, a living minimum wage, then you again start to reduce the inequality for women. But, if we then invest in those care sectors, you do two things: one is you provide good jobs in care, and they must be good jobs, there's some deficits to work out there. But, if in fact you go beyond that, you lift the burden of care from women and therefore, they can participate in the broader economy. And that's the biggest multiplier of economic growth, anyway. So it's a win-win. 

Nisha Pillai: Finally, Sharan, what are you hoping to see from countries, corporations, and policymakers to facilitate a just transition in the next 12 months?  

“Women lost $800 billion of income during the pandemic. That's the equivalent GDP of about 98 countries. If we don't have a gender lens on just transition, a transformative gender approach to just transition, to full employment, to rights, to social protection, to equality, then again, our world will become more divisive, more exclusionary.”

Sharan Burrow: I'm not talking about long-term change. I'm talking about immediate action. It will, of course, continue through the medium to long term. But, if you take the steel sector, for example, we've already shown with the Swedish company SSAB Steel, in partnership with the unions, you can produce carbon-neutral steel. Now, there are more jobs in the hydrocarbon end of that than we will lose in other sectors. That's a good news story.  

We've shown if you invest in mass transit in order to get cars off the road, choking our cities with pollution and the health impacts of that, you can create jobs not just in terms of the drivers and the maintenance workers, but manufacturing. For renewable energy, for every 10 jobs in renewable energy, there are 5 - 10 in manufacturing. There's a further 30 to 35 in other economic services, if they're good, quality jobs with just wages. And if you invest in social protection and care, then that's an immediate choice that in fact, governments, international agencies, the financial institutions, the development banks can do right now.  

Nisha Pillai: Sharan Burrow, thank you so much for sharing those strongly held views and very clear analysis with us today.

Sharan Burrow: Thank you, Nisha.

Nisha Pillai: Indeed, thank you to everybody who's joined us for this episode of ADB Insight. I'm Nisha Pillai, until I see you again. Goodbye.

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