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This short piece reviews where the concept of just transition could be situated within the Paris Agreement’s architecture, an issue that is not well understood.

This article was written by Professor Petra Minnerop (Durham Law School) as part of our COP28 knowledge sharing series. Visit our COP28 webpages to find out more about our work to address global challenges.

At last year’s climate summit (27th Conference of Parties, COP27 and 4th meeting of Parties under the Paris Agreement CMA4), the Sharm El-Sheikh implementation plan identified the need for a new work programme on pathways to just transitions. Building on this, the 2023 agenda for the 5th Conference of Parties serving as the Meeting of Parties under the Paris Agreement (CMA5) includes just transition pathways on its agenda, right after important item of the global stocktake. At the time of writing, the programme’s scope and duration are still being negotiated but the following reference to the long-term temperature goal is currently included:

“Recognizing the importance of taking into account the best available science which informs that Parties are at critical juncture to keep 1.5 °C within reach for effective climate action and policymaking.”

The pathways towards this target are then described as follows:

“Also recognizing that just transition pathways should be sustainable, affordable, effective and inclusive, with each country identifying its own just transition pathways and development pathway consistent with its own development goals whilst recognizing the differentiation in action and support between developed and developing countries and that these just transition pathways could only be enabled through international cooperation as well as domestic efforts according to respective national capacities.”

In this short post, I will offer some thoughts on where the concept of just transitions could be situated within the Paris Agreement’s architecture, in light of the negotiations at COP28. The Paris Agreement’s preamble refers to just transition in relation to the workforce: “Taking 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”.

This focus makes it clear that just transitions are at the heart of the tensions that are well-known and surfacing again at this year’s COP28: balancing the economic needs and priorities of individual countries, including access to energy and energy security, with the scientific evidence that demands the phasing out of fossil fuels in order to keep the 1.5°C temperature target in reach.

Nonetheless, many countries, businesses and investors understand that only a timely and just transition can support a thriving economy in the long term. While the exact parameters and timeline of their transitions will vary for each country depending on national circumstances, some shared elements for all transitions are beginning to emerge. For example, just transitions that are coupled with national-level legal targets for mitigation and adaptation mitigate against short-term policies and unpredictability.

Situating Just Transitions within the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement sets out three main long-term goals in its Article 2:

  1. 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 levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;
  2. Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; and
  3. Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

Each of these long-term goals gives rise to complex legal questions that admit various interpretations. A related issue that is not explored in detail here is, for example, how goal (c) relates to the obligations of developed country Parties to provide “financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention” (Article 9 paragraph 1 Paris Agreement).

Last year, the Sharm el-Sheikh dialogue on enhancing the understanding of the scope of Article 2, paragraph 1 (c) launched. In a subsequent report that was released from that dialogue just before this year’s COP28, on November 20th 2023, the views expressed at two workshops include some hints as to where just transitions could be integrated with the long-term goals of Article 2. Participants identified as a potential area of work to establish how the concept of just transition(s) might be embedded specifically into the implementation of Article 2, paragraph 1(c). Consideration of this should ensure that “the context-specific needs and priorities of countries, regions, sectors and communities, including the most vulnerable, are taken into account.”

Embedding just transition into Article 2 paragraph 1(c) would entail the idea that finance flows – private and public – consistent with low emission trajectories serve the purpose of a country’s just transition. To ensure that this happens, nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and long-term low emission development strategies must be translated into investment plans. In other words, economic incentives for investment should be aligned with governments’ pledges in their respective NDCs.

This need to align finance flows with NDCs resonates with two other key reports that were released before COP28. The first is the final report by the co-facilitators of the technical dialogue of the first global stocktake, which was released in September 2023. The technical assessment phase of this report was split into three technical dialogues that were concluded at the meeting of the subsidiary bodies in Bonn (SB58, June 2023). The technical assessment phase identified the need for more ambitious mitigation targets in NDCs to reduce emissions more rapidly towards just transitions to net zero emissions by or around 2050, and that public and private finance must be unlocked to increase ambition. The second report is this year’s UNFCCC Secretariat’s NDC Synthesis report that shows that even if all NDCs were to be implemented, a significant collective shortfall would still exist between actual emission reductions and those needed for keeping 1.5°C in reach. Both reports stipulate that aligning private and public finance flows with low emission strategies will be necessary for closing the ambition and the implementation gap. Measuring progress in closing these gaps will also be critical to avoid the worst impacts of climate change (this is the role of the global stocktake).

Forging a substantive new work programme on Just Transitions at COP28

In conclusion, NDCs and low emission strategies must not only be better aligned with the temperature target of the Paris Agreement (to close the ambition gap), but they must equally be translated into measures and instruments that incentivise “Paris aligned” investment (to close the implementation gap). As Parties are moving towards a global carbon market, more work is needed to establish how investment can be unlocked and potential greenwashing avoided. Environmental integrity and the credibility of efforts and commitments, in particular but not only by private sector actors, in the context of Article 2, paragraph 1(c), must be ensured. Countries must find criteria for investment into their just transitions that are aligned with Article 2. The decision that Parties will adopt at CMA5 on the new work programme, in combination with the final outcome of the global stocktake, will hopefully shed light on the concept of just transition within the Paris Agreement’s architecture. Developing criteria and plans for just transitions, and implementing these, is then a task for domestic law and policy.