When air pollution in Dublin reached a 30 year high (O’Sullivan, 2020), it came as a stark reminder to Irish people that the repercussions of burning fossil fuels can be felt on our doorstep. According to the EPA (2019) 1300 people die prematurely in Ireland each year from air pollution. The World Health Organisation (WHO 2020) estimates over 7 million die of air pollution globally. However air pollution is just the tip of the melting iceberg when it comes to the effects fossil fuel consumption has on the planet. Record breaking heat waves, melting glaciers, wildfires, extreme flooding and storms are wreaking havoc on our environment.  Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause some 250,000 additional deaths a year from mal- nutrition, malaria and heat stress. (UN, 2019). Even future pandemics could occur as a result of loss of habitat due to climate change. The answer to the problem is in its essence – simple. Phase out fossil fuels. 

The Paris Climate Agreement called for collective action by holding the increase in the global average temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial level and cutting greenhouse gas emission by at least 65 percent by 2030” (p. 1). The agreement promises to “take into account 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” ( Paris Climate Agreement p.1). In order to stop the juggernaut of carbon emissions, the transition to a low carbon economy is a matter of great urgency, but will it’s transition be just and equitable to all members of society? This paper will address the issue of just transition with a specific focus on the coal industry, not just in Europe, but also in the US and Australia. It will begin by examining inequality in climate change and how the richest 1% are the biggest contributors to it. As a result, those at the bottom of the pecking order and least likely to offend, will suffer the most. When transition to low carbon occurs, will the same thing happen? The paper will explain the meaning of ‘Just transition,’ look at the EU’s Just Transition Fund 2020, which aims to support communities and retrain workers and it will analyse further transition initiatives and look at success stories. We (humanity) are “at war with nature” ( Guterres  2020), but since this year, we are also waging a war against a pandemic. What’s imperative is that, in trying to battle both, we don’t end up at war with each other. 

So what is a just transition? 

According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) 2010. “A Just Transition is an economy-wide process that produces the plans, policies and investments that lead to a future where all jobs are green and decent, emissions are at net zero, poverty is eradicated, and communities are thriving and resilient”. The phrase ‘just transition’, was devised by American labour leader Tony Mazzocchi. “Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy – from one kind of job – to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs “deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life. (Strategic Practice, 2017). According to the International Trade Union Confederation, (2019), there must be investment in ‘community renewal, and a dialogue must exist between unions, corporations and communities.’ According to the Institute for Sustainable Development, a just transition approach ensures that “the affected people are considered by those making decisions.” The demand for a clean environment cannot be denied, but by closing one door, another one opens, but for whom? 

Making sure communities don’t get left behind.

The world’s top 1% not only holds over 44% of household wealth (Credit Suisse 2019), it also contributes more to climate change. The world’s poorest 3.5 billion people contribute little to carbon emissions, but are most affected by climate impacts like floords, storms and droughts. (Oxfam, Stockholm Institute 2020). The wealthiest one percent, however, are responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide then the  poorer half of the world between 1990 and 2015. “The per capita consumption footprints of the richest 1% are currently around 35 times higher than the target for 2030, and more than 100 times higher than the poorest 50%. (Oxfam 2020). Once you add a global pandemic, things get even more unequal.(The Production Gap 2020).

In response to a more inequitable world, people have been standing up. In France, an example of this is the ‘gilet jaunes’ movement, which began as a grassroots movement  by citizens protesting against a planned rise in the tax on diesel and petrol, which French Leader Emmanuel Macron insisted would aid the country’s transition to green energy. (United Nations Development Report 2019). But what began as a fuel tax movement in December 2018, morphed into a wider anti government movement demonstrating that despite global progress, people are getting left behind. (Williamson, V, 201).Since the coronavirus began and subsequent lockdowns followed, inequality of simmering anger and mistrust in governments and science grew, along with a loss in trust in science and systems. (Oxfam, 2020).

Albert Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” When fossil fuels were first used on  a large scale basis during the industrial revolution in the 1800s, there was a desired process of change from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and manufacturing to fulfill the needs of the growing populations. (Schäfer, 2018)

It saw the decline of land as a source of wealth in the face of rising industrial production and growing populations. (Britannica). Famously, working conditions in factories were terrible. With supply of workers outstripping demand, employers could set wages low. People worked fourteen to sixteen hours per day, for as little as €8 per week (Industrial Revolution), roughly 10 cents, while women received half of what men received, and children received even less. Hence, with the benefit of hindsight and past experiences, the transition to renewables needs to be just and equitable. So,the people who are left behind by climate change, must not be left behind by transitioning to low carbon.

Europe and the Green deal for transition

At least €1 trillion will be invested in sustainable over the next ten years. (European Commission 2020) In order to insure inclusivity, competitiveness and just transition, a €150bn Just Transition Mechanism will be provided to the most affected regions to alleviate the socio-economic impact of the transition. It’s pillars include the Just Transition Fund, which will be equipped with €40bn, which will support economic diversification, backing investments in small and medium sized enterprises, research, innovation, environmental rehabilitation and reskilling workers along with the transformation of existing carbon installations. “The focus of the Just Transition Fund will be on the economic diversification of the territories most affected by the climate transition and the reskilling and active inclusion of their workers and jobseekers.”  (EU Commission 2020.) 

Coal and Just Transition- a case study

This section will examine the coal sectors in the EU and how the €40 Just Transition Fund (EU 2020) will be distributed across Europe in order to achieve climate goals, while actively setting out to offer incentives to vulnerable communities and offer workers opportunities in the renewables sector. Is it doing what it promises to do? Not yet. But there are success stories, and the paper looks at examples in Germany, Australia and the US. 

1.Europe and the Just Transition Fund

According to ‘EU coal regions: opportunities and challenges ahead,’ (European Commission 2020), the European coal sector employs nearly 500,000 people in direct and indirect activities. By 2030, it is estimated that around 160,000 direct jobs will be lost. Globally, the coal mining industry employs 400,000 people in the EU and 8 million people globally (WHO 2020) According to Climate Agreement Goals, the power sector must stop using coal without carbon capture and storage by 2050. Between 2030 and 2020 all regions should phase out of coal, with Europe expected to do so first, and Asia last. (Climate Analytics, 2018. 2019). In the EU, eighteen EU countries still use coal, only nine have made commitments to end coal fired electricity generation by 2030. (Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal). Two countries – Spain and Slovakia indicate that coal capacity will be zero by 2030. Meanwhile the remaining seven countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Germany, Poland, Romania, Slovenia) do not plan a phase out by 2030. (EU 2020). (The Production Gap, UN Environment Programme 2020) 

In order to achieve the climate goals set out by the Paris Agreement, it is essential that the use of fossil fuels in electricity supply is phased out as quickly as possible across all EU nations. (EU 2020) By not doing so, they are not just contributing to untold climate damage, but possibly getting left behind.The coal phase out, but also be in line with a transformation of carbon incentives,  funds towards vulnerable communities, and a transitioning of coal jobs in communities with the principles of just transition. By depending on fossil fuels, workers in countries will get left behind, as workers in other countries retrain to work in renewables. (CAN and Ember 2020. p.11).

According to the recent CAN and Ember report, all of the coal regions that are eligible to Just Transition Fund fund “have already been receiving funding from the Cohesion Policy Funds.” But it states that, there is no comprehensive documentation showing the achievements of the dedicated funds in clean energy in those regions. “In particular countries in Central and Eastern Europe have a bad track record for putting EU funds into the clean energy transition.” 

The Just Transition Fund can be an important instrument to help mitigate the social, economic and environmental impacts of this rapid energy transition in the regions that are most vulnerable. It is created as a tool to specifically support the European Green Deal’s mid-century climate neutrality objective, and 2030 emission reduction targets, without leaving anyone behind. (European Commision, Regulations of the European Parliament and the Council 2020 p.1-4). 

  1. In order for transition to occur, there must be cohesion with social partners, local actors and industry and non-governmental organisations. 
  2. Knowledge sharing is essential to ensure progress, a common goal must occur. 
  3. Support must be focused on economic transformation 
  4. A just transition fund is important in 
  5. “Without improvements in its design, the fund risks rewarding climate laggards at the expense of real climate leaders.”  (Ember and CAN p.24)
  6. When it comes to coal workers and transitioning the following must occur: The EU just energy transition fund should complement existing EU sources of funding. 
  7. The funds need to go to the workers, as opposed to the big coal companies. 

2.. Coal- A happy ending? 

2.1 Germany’s Ruhr Region. A success story


Despite firing the furnaces of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle of the 1950s in Germany), Germany shut down its last black coal mine in 2018.( During the 1950s, over 500,000 people were employed in the famous Ruhr Gebiet, the heartland of Germany’s coal industry. The coal steel crisis in 1957 and 1958 and 1968 consolidation saw employees plummet to 180,000. In the mid 1980s, it plummeted to 80, 000 and in 2018 stood at just 8000 (S. Mavrogenis, 2018). In 2007, €17 billion was spent on the then 37,000 coal miners who would be left behind in the lead up to 2018. 


Early pension schemes for older employees, career change opportunities for younger employees, and ‘eternal’ costs- over €200 million per year would be covered to pump water off the ground in order to keep cities above a level. During the 1960 to 2015 period, coal subsidies from 1960 to 2015 stood at €126 bn, which demonstrates the costs  But the Germans had foresight as far back as 1984. (Mavrogenis, S 2018). The German plan worked in that, it involved long planning times and forward thinking. Angela Merkel, recognised that money in the form of a ‘Just Transition fund’ needed to be created. (CAN 2019) The transition of the Ruhr is often referred to as the ‘best practice of systematic just transition to a low carbon regional economy.” It showed that it can be done in a socially acceptable way using strategic planning, resources and funds, as well as a long sighted look at sustainability. In 1989, the region’s focus turned to environmental technology with the International Building Exhibition Emscher Park (European Route of Industrial Heritage 2016) with the aim of regenerating the central Ruhr area with planning and urban development projects. It boasts over 117 projects across 800 square kilometres. The site is curated by the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development, Bonn. When the Prosper Haniel mine closed in Germany in 2018, a 200 year era of industrial coal minding came to an end, but in its place, art and culture third. 


2.2 The Latrobe Valley, Australia 


The Latrobe Valley in the Gippsland region in the state of Victoria,  Australia, where the once buoyant coal mining industry has suffered immense decline with devastating consequences, enduring significant losses of jobs  In the Latrobe Valley Australia between 1988 and 2002, the number of power industry jobs dropped from 10,000 jobs to 2002. (Victoria State Government 2020). “The Latrobe Valley’s three brown coal mines – Hazelwood, Yallourn and Loy Yang – have fuelled most of Victoria’s electricity generation since 1924.” But, some power stations lost up to 75 percent of their workforce, and as a result, mental health issues and suicides increased dramatically. The effect on the local community was devastating, but in reaction to it, the Voices of the Valley and the Latrobe Valley Authority  was founded. Its ethos is to support and work with and across ‘community’ in the Latrobe Valley on ‘things that matter’, then ‘impact will be direct, and built on collective effort, leadership and local strengths for long-term resilience.’ is the first large-scale survey of renewable energy employment in Australia. It states that renewable energy will create employment across regional areas including coal regions. Retraining is required if there was to be a transfer between the sectors, but that there is no match for much of the core mining workforce of semi-skilled machine operators. (p. 12 Australia  Institute for Sustainable Futures, (June 2020) )The Renewable Energy Jobs in Australia: Stage One, Prepared for Clean Energy Council by UTS, Pages 11 and 12. Figure 5)


2.3 The US – some good and some bad news

In the US, The coal industry peaked in the 1920s. In 2018, the sector supported about 174,000 jobs producing 756 tonnes of coal (coal US ), Despite the best efforts of Donald Trump to invigorate the industry, 13 coal mines closed down. In 2019, coal miners in the Kentucky town of Cumberland began blocking train tracks after the mining company they worked for called Blackjewel went bankrupt (CNN 2019.)The sudden bankruptcy filing on July 1st 201left hundreds of workers without pay and many spent two months protesting. “The sudden bankruptcy filing July 1 by mine operator Blackjewel left hundreds of workers without pay. Some of the former employees began their blockade of the coal train after it arrived on Blackjewel property in late July.” Cumberland Mayor Charles Raleigh told CNN: “The miners stayed the course, but had to find other work to provide for their families.” The Labour Department announced a €3.5 million award to the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, for employment and training services and workers “affected by dislocation.”


The 2 month protest demonstrated the sense of loss in communities in the US, which have been reliant on coal for generations. Workers, who have well paying jobs, feel they are getting the short end of the stick. They demonstrated disappointment with their employers and lack of support and benefits, as well as uncertainty about their future jobs. In regions like Kentucky, holding onto fossil fuel jobs is seen as the only way to maintain a decent life for them and their families and suddenly their job was taken away. Brad Markell of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council explained, US, (Just Transition 2018). “It’s very important to us that we build an understanding of the experience working people have had for the last 40 years. People’s gut feeling is that if this transition happens in the current political economy, they’re going to be left out.”


But there is good news in the US too. The  job of WInd Turbine Service technician is the fastest growing job in the US. (US Bureau of Labor 2020). Clear energy jobs outnumber fossil fuel jobs in the US. This is positive news, and I will outline the earning potential of wind turbine service technicians, who earn a median pay of $52,260 (44,088.18) EUR per year. Employment of wind turbine service technicians is projected to grow 61 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. In terms of job prospects, wind technicians don’t need a degree and on-the-job training means those who no longer have employment in the fossil fuel industry have the opportunity to upskill. 


The Future – Just transitions 

‘Europe generated more electricity from renewable sources than from fossil fuels.’ In 2020, This year, Europe generated more electricity from renewables than from fossil fuels. Between January and June of 2020, wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy generated 40 percent of the electricity across the EU’s 27 member states, while fossil fuels generated 34percent. In 2015 Europe generated twice as much electricity from coal as it did from wind and solar. Now, coal makes up just 12 percent of the EU-27’s electricity generation. Then the coronavirus came along, and in response G20 countries are giving 50% more coronavirus recovery funding to fossil fuels than to clean energy. (UN2020).

The Production Gap Report 2020, states that G20 governments have committed more than in Covid-19 related funding to fossil fuel production and consumption to date. Meanwhile only 150bn is going to clean energy. In a bid to save jobs, the G20 will find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The report also found that between 2020 and 2030, global coal, oil and gas production must fall by 11%, 4% and 3% respectively to meet the 1.5C target. 

This action is not in line with a cohesive strategy to phase out coal production, but in order to maintain just transition and jobs, it has been deemed a necessity. The consequences of Covid-19 will in effect prolong the use of fossil fuels, in a bid to save jobs. 


  • Humanity is waging war on nature- and a transition to low carbon energy is a matter of urgency, not a luxury. In transitioning quickly, governments must ensure that those working in fossil fuel industries are not left behind.
  • The transition to a low carbon economy and society must be just in order for it, not to suffer the same consequences as previous models.
  • A viable coal phase-out strategy will need to prevent new coal-fired power plants from being built. 
  • Coal phase-outs therefore require roadmaps based on a clear understanding of which plants are to be phased out when, which policies can be applied and how affected stakeholders can be included in the process.
  • New economic models, no matter how ‘just’ they are, can have far reaching consequences and won’t necessarily take everyone with them. In the past,  working class people were the only ones being left behind, but the bedrock of the lower middle class are affected too, as we face unprecedented times of climate change, the far reaching effects of coronavirus, the transition from coronavirus to climate change must be just. (European Commission 2020).
  • Cohesive strategy is required by the EU to ensure just transition to take place.
  • The coronavirus combined with the climate crisis are bringing about new challenges to save jobs, while also trying to save the environment. The research paper shows examples that it can be done, but it requires policy, funding, retraining opportunities and forward thinking. 


List of References

  1. ‘Addressing Employment Vulnerability’ (2018), Just Transition in Ireland) from the National Economic and Social Council Report no.149,’ Four Case Studies on Just Transition: Lessons for Ireland, there are numerous references to the Latrobe Valley. (p.88.)
  2. Climate Analytics. (2017b). A Stress Test for Coal in Europe under the Paris Agreement.
  3. Climate Analytics. (2018a). Science based coal phase-out pathway for Germany in line with the Paris Agreement.
  4. Climate Analytics (2019), Global and regional coal phase-out requirements of the Paris Agreement: Insights from the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C.
  5. Climate Analytics. (2016). Implications of the Paris Agreement for Coal Use in the Power Sector. Berlin. the-power-sector.html
  6. Climate Analytics. (2017a). A stress test for coal in Europe under the Paris Agreement. Retrieved from
  7. Climate Action Network,  (2020) “Europe How is the transition to a climate neutral economy made just? Just transition away from fossil fuels in power production explained.”
  8. Conceição, Pedro (2019), Human Development Report 2019, Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today. Empowered lives. Resilient nations.. Inequalities in human development in the 21st century. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
  9. Emscher Landscape Park, 2019
  10. Environmental protection Ireland 2020,  Air
  11. Encyclopedia Britannica, online version, Industrial Revolution
  12. European Commission, 2020, Regulation of the European Parliament and of the council. Brussels, COM(2020) 22 final.
  13. Global Wealth Report 2020, Research Institute, Credit Suisse, Geneva global-wealth-report-2020-en.pdf
  14. Gore T (2015). Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first. Oxfam, London. 
  15. Gündüzyeli, E (CAN Europe), Moore, C, Charles Moore (Ember),2020, Just transition or just talk? 2020, Ember Coal to Clean Energy Policy, CAN, Climate Action Network. 
  16. Harvey F, 2020 “World’s richest 1% cause double CO2 emissions of poorest 50%, says Oxfam”, Guardian newspaper. Available here:
  17. IEA. (2019). Global Energy &CO2 Status Report. from
  18. Institute for Sustainable Futures, (June 2020) The Renewable Energy Jobs in Australia: Stage One, Prepared for Clean Energy Council by UTS, Pages 11 and 12. Figure 5)
  19. International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) 2020, Promoting Pandemic Inequality p. 19.
  20. JRC Science Report, 2018, EU coal regions: opportunities and challenges ahead’, Page 53. 
  21. “Just Transition” – Just What Is It?” (2016). An Analysis of Language, Strategies, and Projects, (Strategic Practice: Grassroots Policy Project and Labor Network for Sustainability). Labor Network for Sustainability, Maryland, Strategic Practice: Grassroots Policy Project, Berkeley, CA. Report here;
  22. Land, Ulrich (2018), “Das Ende des Ruhrkohlebergbaus, Der letzte Deckel auf’m Pütt.” Deutschlandfunk Kultur.
  23. Latrobe Valley, Regional Rehabilitation Strategy,  2019, Victoria State Government
  24. Mavrogenis, S, 2018, Just Transition is possible! The case of Ruhr (Germany),

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  2. Pirani, S, 2018, Burning Up, A history of fossil fuel consumption, London Pluto Books
  3. Production Gap Report, 2020, United National Environmental Programme, Stockholm Environmental Institute, IEA. IISG.UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (2020), “Renewable Energy Jobs in Australia: Stage One.” Report created for Clear Energy Council. 
  4. The future of coal in a Nature Constrained Climate 2020. Bureau of Labour Statistics, 2020, Statistics, clear energy jobs outnumber fossil fuel jobs in the US: Research here; 
  5. United Nations Development Report, 2019 Human Development Report 2019 Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Empowered lives. Resilient nations. Inequalities in human development in the 21st century
  6. Vetter, David, (2020), Forbes, ‘European Renewables just crushed Fossil Fuels, Here’s How it Happened’. Research here: 
  7. Williamson, V, 2018, Brookings, What France’s Yellow Vest protests reveal about the future of climate action,
  8. WHO 2020, air pollution, metadata.
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