Transitioning Away from Just Transition? How States Reshaped the Discourse on Just Transition at COP28

photo from COP28 by Ari Team

The annual COPs hold great symbolic importance as they send a plethora of political signals to the world. This is not surprising given the complex nature of global climate governance in which heads of state compete among each other and, increasingly, with a global private sector, for the “right” message that signals willingness to cooperate internationally, while at the same time catering to domestic narratives about the right level of climate action. This has led to the well-known ups and many downs in global climate governance, most prominently associated with the Kyoto Protocol, and the COP outcomes of Copenhagen, and Paris.1 In light of the scale and multilayered dimensions of the issues at stake, climate diplomacy has compartmentalized negotiations over implementing the Paris Agreement goals into many negotiation tracks, where diplomats are boiling over language. All these tracks addressing mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, or finance, highlight that “implementation” is far from being the simple exercise that the UAE presidency’s triad, “to unite, act, and deliver”, seems to suggest. Not only is the meaning of the language that goes into the adopted text, which policymakers and heads of state present as constitutive for the implementation of specific norms governing climate policies, highly contested during negotiations. The road to implementation also often remains unclear for affected communities around the globe.

Given the bottom-up character of climate governance after the Paris Agreement, which means more involvement of non-state actors, but also more importantly for states’ voluntary contributions to climate action, a COP concluding document requires a political message and narrative that communicates an “effective outcome” while being sufficiently vague for all parties. Thus, the outcome document of COP28, which concentrates on the results of the first Global Stocktake (GST), is nothing short of a “historic COP”, in the view of the presidency of Sultan Al-Jaber, which is framed as the UAE consensus. The inclusion of fossil fuels in a COP concluding document at COP28 in Dubai is seen by many observers as a success that activists have been fighting for for decades. It remains to be seen whether the agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuels will eventually lead to a phase-out “to achieve net zero by 2050” or merely to a phase-down of expectations regarding officially set climate goals. Many observers have already noted the discrepancy between the UAE consensus considered “the most ambitious and comprehensive set of negotiated outcomes to come out of the UNFCCC process since COP21”2 , and the ongoing rise of fossil fuel consumption and investments.3Sharma, V. 2023. "Big Oil Profits Reached Record High Levels in 2022." Visual Capitalist. and Network, R. A., BankTrack, Network, I. E., Oil Change, I., Finance, R., Club, S., & Urgewald. (2023). Banking on Climate Chaos. Fossil Fuel Finance Report. While all of these discrepancies, contestation, and shortcomings in climate action might be considered as the business-as-usual pathway of climate diplomacy, COP28 signaled an unlikely transition. The notion of just transition not only became an integral part of the diplomatic language in Dubai, but states across the Global North and Global South divide substantially reshaped the discursive space in which the meaning and implementation of just transition is debated. While just transition is a concept and framework promoted by activists, NGOs, and civil society, it is state diplomates, including from authoritarian governments, who have adopted this language and engaged in claims-making regarding just transition. To be sure, just transition is not a new framework on the diplomatic stage at the COP. But it has entered a phase in climate governance that signals a growing space of contestation over the meaning of just transition where states are now emerging as powerful actors and where activists and civil society have so far advanced understandings of the concept.

The GST document prominently states that transition must occur “in a just, orderly, and equitable manner.” Yet, why do states emphasize the need for a just transition during times of overlapping crises and geopolitical tensions? What are the implications of a GST that frequently references justice, equity, and fairness? What happens when even authoritarian governments adopt this language?

The concept of a just transition has been discussed in the context of climate change for some time, but it is currently gaining renewed attention. In the Middle East and North Africa, where the hosting of the COPs in Egypt and the UAE has furthered the discussions on climate change, questions about responsibilities and potentially just pathways of addressing its implications are also entering public discourse. Egypt’s COP presidency has already tried to leave its mark by emphasizing the importance of a just transition.

At least three interrelated factors not only shape the importance of addressing climate change through a just transition but also reveal growing tensions. The first factor is the current state of global climate governance and the repeated claim that we are in the phase of implementation after the Paris Agreement. However, this claim stands in stark contrast to a series of shortcomings, often referred to as “implementation gaps”. This is leading to increased emissions4Emission Gap Report 2023 and significant gaps in climate adaptation,5Adaptation Gap Report 2023 rendering the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C unattainable under current political and social dynamics.6Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook 2023 The second factor is the escalating effects of climate change,  which interacts with societal challenges such as food security or public health. Regional leaders at COPs increasingly frame these interactions and complex configurations in the language of just transition. Thirdly, achieving a just transition requires collaboration within and between states. Unfortunately, this is currently impeded by regional and global political tensions and conflicts. Additionally, the lack of accountability for norms that are central to a just transition, such as gender and labor rights, further complicates matters.

Just Transition and Work Programme on Just Transition Pathways (JTWP) at COP28

The concept of a just transition has a long history, with various movements advocating for its implementation. Although the specifics may vary depending on the local context, key principles include labor rights, gender equality, anti-racism, and inclusivity. Various movements and actors, such as trade unions and climate justice movements, advocated for a just transition at COPs, where it became a topic of discussion and was ultimately included in the Paris Agreement in 2015. While it became a policy term in the global discourse on climate governance, a clear definition did not emerge in a formal decision at COP, and parties did not agree on its meaning or how it would fit into the current architecture of climate governance. Labor movements and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have been essential in promoting a fair transition also as part of climate diplomacy.

The reference to “a just transition of the workforce” 7Paris Agreement (adopted 12.12.2015, in force 4.11.2016) preamble recital 10 in the Paris Agreement is a clear reference to a specific understanding from the perspective of labor rights. It is widely acknowledged that societies, regions, and states have varying capacities to adapt to the effects of climate change. Furthermore, the transition to a “net-zero” world requires favorable political conditions to remain a legitimate policy goal. As a result, negotiations on the “Work Programme on Just Transition Pathways”8 (JTWP) have been revitalized. It was initiated during COP27 in Egypt with the formal goal of evaluating, developing, and expanding pathways to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement in a fair and impartial way. Although the officially stated goals also include supporting national just transition pathways, integrating just transition into investment decision-making, advancing international cooperation, and ensuring that just transition actions have integrity and impact, those goals remain vague and open to different interpretations. Ideas for the program include establishing an advisory committee, engaging with existing climate justice and just transition-focused guidelines, setting up an annual ministerial round table on just transition, and implementing a system of monitoring and reporting to the COP annually. The JTWP aims to address pathways that include energy, socioeconomic, workforce, and other dimensions, all of which must be just and equitable. However, COP28 highlighted the tensions between the official claim and a set of undermining dynamics.

Just Transition in the Absence of Transitioning away from Fossil Fuels?

A fundamental question is whether and to what extent a “just transition” is possible under the current political dynamics marked by new records. Along with unprecedented levels of global greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, investment in oil has also reached its highest level since 2015, with oil companies making record profits and sticking to their plans to expand production.9Sharma, V. 2023. "Big Oil Profits Reached Record High Levels in 2022." Visual Capitalist. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq are currently leading the expansion of production capacity within the OPEC+ group.10IEA. 2023. "Executive summary – Oil 2023." IEA.   During COP28, the concept of “transition” was a prominent theme in the negotiations, with Saudi Arabia taking a strong position against what could be interpreted as a “phase-out” of fossil fuels within the “Arab group” and, to some extent, the G77+ China. On the one hand, transitioning to a cleaner future is linked to the widespread hope of various states and global corporations in technological fixes. The COP28 agreement includes not only the goal of tripling renewable energy production but also accelerating carbon capture technologies. The Arab Group, led by Saudi Arabia, has joined the narrative promoted by governments and companies worldwide, emphasizing that transitioning to a low-carbon economy is beneficial for both business and people. However, oil-producing states, particularly the Gulf monarchies, have opposed overly ambitious decarbonization targets by invoking the concept of a just transition in their contributions during plenaries and consultations. The production of affordable energy as the basis for any economic development of society has been consistently cited as a justification to refrain from targeting fossil fuels.

In contrast to climate activists, who have also emphasized the need for a just transition at COP28, oil-producing states advocated a language that differentiated between fossil fuels and emissions. Their aim is to single out the targeting of the merely the latter as the only viable pathway for a just transition highlighting the fact that industrialized Western states gained their wealth through the use of fossil fuels. Climate activists across the Global North and Global South as well as scientists have emphasized that phasing out fossil fuels is a precondition for a just transition. Yet, for global oil companies, as noted by the Saudi minister of energy, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the language of “transitioning away” that marked the GST does not mean any constraint on the production of oil.

The increasing frequency of extreme climate events in regions like the Middle East will increase political pressure to act.11Marwa Daoudy: Climate Change and Regional Instability in the Middle East  However, the just transition negotiations at COP28 have revealed again that climate action or decarbonization does neither automatically produce a pathway towards a just climate future nor something that could be meaningfully described as a transition. Just transition is complex due to its central and intertwined international and national dimensions. International dimensions involve questions about how to govern a transition with justice, fairness, and equity. Therefore, negotiations cover topics ranging from the interpretation of norms, such as common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), to climate finance or technology transfer, which are linked to other negotiation tracks under the UNFCCC umbrella. However, there was no agreement on how to integrate just transition into the wider UNFCCC climate governance framework or how to approach the timing of just transition. Additionally, the ambiguity surrounding the potential consequences of the JTWP decision, which Brazil described as “probably the most significant outcome of this CMA”, hindered progress towards identifying key aspects of just transition as parties engaged in general discussions. Given the importance of a just transition, it is not surprising that parties have used it as a negotiation strategy to avoid addressing core political and social issues. This has been particularly evident with parties from the Middle East, who have emphasized the international and national dimensions of just transition while avoiding language that would support key aspects of it.

At COP28, states such as Saudi Arabia and Syria have limited the concept of just transition to “economic development” that must be granted to all states. This narrative presents just transition as a geopolitical contest among states, rather than an inclusive process that accounts for the fundamental rights of people. Although Saudi Arabia and Egypt have expressed concerns about the limits of the work program, arguing that just transition should be a “party-led process” in which states come to a multilateral agreement, the Syrian delegation used the annual high-level ministerial round table on just transition to call for an end to Western sanctions. In contrast, some groups, including women, gender, and indigenous constituencies, emphasized the significance of social and political rights. They called for meaningful participation rather than vague language of inclusion. Representatives from various constituencies criticized diplomats for excluding civil society from the discussion about just transition and ignoring established standards, such as those set by the ILO.

Just Transition Divided by the Global North and Global South?

There is a plethora of historical and contemporary dynamics that underline the responsibilities of the Global North in meaningful engagement with just transition in the Global South. The negotiations on just transition have revealed, however, that it is crucial to think about how this divide intersects with hierarchies within societies and the exclusion of civil society. South Africa led the negotiations on behalf of the G77+ China, which included various groups such as the Arab Group, while Norway led the negotiations on behalf of the EU, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, and Australia. In these discussions, it became clear that the concept of just transition creates multifaceted links across fault lines often seen as given, including the “Global North” and “Global South”. The historical and contemporary inequalities among states are reflected in the push by Global South states. They remind Global North countries to translate their responsibility into fair climate policies. However, there are different constellations of state alliances regarding who is calling for the inclusion of women's and gender rights or indigenous rights.

There are different interpretations of a just transition as a task between states or as a process that should include meaningful participation and fundamental rights beyond the state. It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia has dominated within the Arab Group, while other voices from the region have been marginalized, including prominent examples of transitions in the energy sector, such as Jordan or Morocco. The struggle for a just transition, situated between the state and global dynamics, became apparent at COP28. Activists in the region are addressing the local, regional, and global dimensions of a just transition as they face exclusion at all scales of climate governance. The co-opting of the just transition language by governments in the MENA region and beyond to legitimize societal and political marginalization is a central part of the exclusion of activists. On the one hand, civil society actors, climate activists and negotiations at COP have created the necessary pressure to reference just transition as a central point in global climate governance and climate governance in the Middle East. On the other hand, governments increasingly explore the potential to use their own interpretation to legitimize their authoritarian practices.

Just transition will continue to develop as a key site of contestation over the meaning of just transition in which states are now emerging as powerful actors.  The current discursive struggle underscores the uncertainty regarding the pathway of just transition in shaping climate action. The list of unresolved questions and bracketed text of the JTWP at the end of COP28 is long. The efforts of activists, civil society, and non-state actors continue to be essential to pressure governments in the region that the concept of just transition has evolved from a labor-centered approach to a more comprehensive one emphasizing the protection and meaningful inclusion of affected and vulnerable people and communities in implementing climate action.


3 Sharma, V. 2023. "Big Oil Profits Reached Record High Levels in 2022." Visual Capitalist. and Network, R. A., BankTrack, Network, I. E., Oil Change, I., Finance, R., Club, S., & Urgewald. (2023). Banking on Climate Chaos. Fossil Fuel Finance Report.
4 Emission Gap Report 2023
5 Adaptation Gap Report 2023
6 Hamburg Climate Futures Outlook 2023
7 Paris Agreement (adopted 12.12.2015, in force 4.11.2016) preamble recital 10
9 Sharma, V. 2023. "Big Oil Profits Reached Record High Levels in 2022." Visual Capitalist.
10 IEA. 2023. "Executive summary – Oil 2023." IEA.
11 Marwa Daoudy: Climate Change and Regional Instability in the Middle East 

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.