A just transition for transport workers: The foundation for sustainable and decarbonised transport pathways

As stakeholders from around the world are coming together for the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, we note COP28 President-Designate Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber’s call for countries to have “an honest conversation” on the actions required to achieve a “responsible and just transition that empowers climate-positive development everywhere, in particular across the Global South”.  Read more: COP28 President-Designate letters to Parties.

One key way to achieve this is the UNFCCC’s Work Programme on Just Transition (JTWP).  Established in COP27, the JTWP emphasises that the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy needs to be fair and inclusive, taking into account the well-being of workers and communities affected by climate policies. Over the past months, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and SLOCAT have actively engaged in the proceedings of the JTWP with the double objective of advancing meaningful and effective social dialogue in the transport sector, and contributing to peer-learning both on pragmatic approaches (e.g., employment transitions from fossil fuels to public transport) and technical aspects (e.g., incentives for recycling batteries of electric vehicles to reduce demand for raw materials. Read more: ITF and SLOCAT joint submission of inputs to the JTWP.

But what does a 'just transition' mean for the transport sector?

The concept of the ‘just transition’ arose from the global labour movement, to deal in a comprehensive way with the social impact of the climate crisis. It is crucial that it is incorporated into industrial policies, to ensure that a policy framework is developed for sectors like transport which takes due account of the workers on whom the sector depends, while stepping up mitigation and adaptation ambition in line with the scientific recommendations of the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR6).

While a handful of countries acknowledge economic benefits such as job creation and enhanced work opportunities associated with sustainable, low-carbon transport in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs),[1] concrete plans and policy measures for a just transition for transport workers are conspicuously absent. Too often, climate action in transport sidelines the people who are actually moving our transport systems, supply chains and societies forward. This oversight demands real change.

The first step is social dialogue, incorporating the voice and knowledge of workers into policy and planning for climate action and sustainability – from infrastructure to services; from operators to management; from shifts in transport modes to sustainable fuels and smart technologies. Workers have the on-the-ground knowledge that is crucial for shaping approaches. They are the ones who will operate future systems. And it is their jobs, the terms on which they work, their health and safety and their social protections that will be shaped by the transformation underway. Equally crucial is the consideration of broader impacts on wider communities and indigenous peoples, who may encounter challenges in land and natural resources use, cultural practice disruptions, displacement, noise and other environmental concerns.

We also cannot forget that transport workers are directly exposed and vulnerable to the escalating climate impacts on transport systems. The devastating floods in Pakistan last year, underscores this urgency. The floods submerged one third of Pakistan’s territory and millions lost their homes. The impacts on the country’s rail system were particularly acute, exacerbated by years of underinvestment in adaptation and resilience. Workers paid a heavy price, with salaries, pensions and compensation to families of those who had lost their lives going unpaid for months. Many workers were forced to take out loans to survive. Planning and investing in transport systems to shield them from climate harms is essential to achieving a just transition for the workforce.[1]

Read more: ITF’s submission to Transitional Committee on Loss and Damage on worker dimensions: Learnings from Pakistan

How can we turn these principles into reality?

Policies and regulations aimed at achieving a decarbonised and resilient transport system must encompass a just transition for the workforce from the outset.

There is now widespread recognition that public transport is a key climate solution, but this solution will not be achieved without guaranteeing strong labour standards for the public transport workforce worldwide. This means ensuring that investment in public transport is tied to creating and sustaining decent, green and formal jobs with good working conditions, pay, standards and rights.

We are seeing today an important step towards this goal. Ahead of UN World Sustainable Transport Day, the ITF and SLOCAT have joined a broad coalition of organisations including C40 Cities, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) and other land transport employers to demand investment in and modal shift to public transport, based on a just transition for the public transport workforce. Prioritising public transport alongside active mobility can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, drive economic growth and reduce inequality within and beyond our cities.  Read more: Invest in public transport, invest in our future and How investing in public transport this decade can protect our jobs, our climate, our future

Alongside the expansion of public transport, investment in walking and cycling infrastructure and  electric vehicle charging infrastructure can be a major job generator[1]  Studies have also shown that across 21 countries in low- and middle-income regions of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America, investments in public transport and vehicle electrification could lead to the creation of more than 50 million jobs by 2030.[2]   Read more: SLOCAT Transport, Climate and Sustainability Global Status Report – 3rd edition, Module 4.1 Transport and Energy and Module 5.1 Financing Sustainable Transport in Times of Limited Budgets

Also important is the shift to renewable energy in transport. While concerns have been raised over negative effects on employment in regions that are highly dependent on fossil fuels, the shift is expected to result in a net gain in jobs globally.[3] The crucial question is how workers who could be affected are engaged, and what measures are put in place to identify and manage potential harms, support workers through the transition and maximise benefits in terms of quality jobs and good working conditions. In terms of how such worker engagement can work in practice, one positive example is the subway system in Santiago, Chile. This system serves as the backbone of the city’s transport system and has faced many challenges arising from automation.[4] Past approaches for automation have made jobs a lot more precarious with intensified workload and mass workforce displacement, coupled with knock-on effects such as lower service quality and lack of staff support to passengers. The subway system was also constantly suffering from floods which cannot be tackled with further automation. The lack of experienced workers in handling climate emergencies led to major systemic problems. In 2022, the largest subway workers’ union in Santiago [5] negotiated a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement with the subway operator, Metro S.A., putting climate change at the centre. A Bipartite Just Transition Consultative Committee, comprising company and worker representatives with gender parity, was established to address major introductions and production processes. This consultative platform empowers workers to voice concerns and propose solutions, initially focusing on technology but opening avenues for tackling other climate-related issues practically.

For maritime transport, the Maritime Just Transition Task Force brings together the International Chamber of Shipping, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and three UN agencies to produce a ten-point action plan covering capacity training, recruitment and retention, gender diversity and health and safety protections, unlocking the seafarer skills needed to support shipping’s decarbonisation goals.

Social dialogue among workers, employers and governments is the golden thread that runs through all of these examples and enables collective negotiation on how the decarbonisation, adaptation to climate change and resilience of transport and mobility systems can create strategic opportunities and multiply societal, economic and environmental benefits. We need to make this approach the norm at all levels of the transport sector, from transport workplaces, to national and sub-national climate, transport or industry policies, and global multi-stakeholder initiatives.

What can countries do at COP28?

As stakeholders convene at COP28, we must remember that effective climate action in the transport sector must be built on a just transition for workers.

We call on countries to:

  1. Adopt a decision on the implementation of the Just Transition Work Programme (JTWP) that, respecting the mandate of the Paris Agreement, puts labour issues and social dialogue at the centre of the just transition.
  2. Include the transport sector and its industries in the scope of the JTWP. Of the other areas that the IPCC has identified as critical to secure 1.5ºC pathways, it is important to recognise the significance of the transport sector to the following: 1) energy system transitions; 2) urban system and infrastructure transitions; and 3) industrial system transitions. Shifts in technology associated with climate change and action also have significant implications for sectors like transport, including with regard to jobs and working conditions. It is important that the JTWP scope encompasses these intersections.
  3. Redress the gap on adaptation and resilience of transport and mobility systems. Transport workers keep our communities, economies and supply chains moving through emergencies, putting their lives, health and safety at risk. To date, there has been a major gap in terms of adaptation and resilience in the transport sector, including with regard to protections for workers, and wider knock-on effects for communities and businesses. This must change if we are to achieve a just transition for the transport sector.
  4. Commit to specific action on the gender dimension of transport jobs and on young workers, recognising that, in sectors like transport, these groups are disproportionately concentrated in jobs which are less secure and more exposed to climate hazards.
  5. Enable synergies between the JTWP and the work done in the context of the Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for Just Transitions, launched in September 2021 by the UN Secretary-General. The Accelerator aims to direct investments to help create at least 400 million decent jobs, primarily in the green, digital and care economies, and to extend social protection coverage to the over 4 billion people currently excluded.

Align climate finance with just transition principles, including the New Collective Quantified Goal[6] and Loss and Damage Fund. As the recent ILO resolution emphasises, it is the role of governments, employers and workers’ organisations to “mobilize sustainable, affordable, predictable and long-term finance from public and private, domestic and international sources, and aligning public and private financial flows and public procurement to the objectives of a just transition.”

[1] According to the GIZ-SLOCAT NDC Transport Tracker, the second-generation NDCs by Barbados, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Dominican Republic, Seychelles, South Sudan and Vietnam have content related to job creation and economic benefits in the context of sustainable transport. https://changing-transport.org/tracker-expert/
[2] GIZ-SLOCAT_NDC Tracker Pakistan. https://changing-transport.org/ndc_country/pakistan/
[3] International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and International Labour Organization (ILO) (2022), “Renewable Energy and Jobs: Annual Review 2022”, https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2022/Sep/IRENA_Renewable_energy_and_jobs_2022.pdf. GIZ-SLOCAT_NDC Tracker Chile. https://changing-transport.org/ndc_country/chile/                                                        [4] ITF (2022), ‘A just transition for urban transport workers’, pp.36-37; https://www.itfglobal.org/en/resources/just-transition-urban-transport-workers-0
[5] ITF (2022), ‘Just transition through collective bargaining: Lessons from Chile’; Just transition through collective bargaining: lessons from Chile | ITF Global 
[6]GIZ-SLOCAT_NDC Tracker Chile. https://changing-transport.org/ndc_country/chile/
[7] Sindicato Metro, the largest of the four unions in the federation FASIMETRO.

Picture of Stephen Cotton

Stephen Cotton

General Secretary, International Transport Workers’ Federation

Picture of Maruxa Cardama

Maruxa Cardama

Secretary General, SLOCAT