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OECD must put workers at the centre of Environmental Justice

30 May 2024

For the first time in its history, the OECD held a two-day conference on Environmental Justice and published a report on the topic at the end of May – an event for which TUAC has been calling for a long time.

Environmental justice is an issue that is gaining traction globally, as the triple planetary crisis – namely climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – accelerates. Fighting economic, social and environmental inequalities is not only key to guaranteeing human rights; it is also necessary to ensure public support for bolder climate action.

Though there isn’t a universally agreed definition of environmental justice, OECD research shows that the concept already exists in many countries throughout the world.

Many different communities and groups find themselves confronted with disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards or have unequal access to environmental amenities. They also have concerns about the potential inequalities that could result from environmental policies. Mitigation and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will undoubtedly have serious economic and social implications, affecting workers in key sectors such as energy, industry, manufacturing, transport and agriculture.

These fears are further exacerbated by the lack of meaningful government engagement with the groups who will be hardest hit.

At the OECD conference, which brought together experts, OECD members, civil society organisations and other stakeholders, participants discussed how environmental justice, climate justice, environmental racism and social justice dovetail together. TUAC stressed how critical it will be to ensure a ‘just transition’ as countries move to low carbon economies, in line with the Paris Agreement and the 2015 ILO tripartite guidelines. This was also picked up in the OECD report, which highlighted the clear and direct links between social justice, the protection of workers’ rights and livelihoods and environmental justice.

Several governments and experts expressed support for this approach. However, the discussion also revealed that there are significant gaps in the way environmental justice is implemented in different countries.  Indeed, there is disagreement even in the way the terms ‘environmental justice’, ‘climate justice’ and ‘just transition’ are defined and used in policy discussions. An internationally agreed definition of ‘just transition’ does already exist, and the debate underlined the need to continue to promote its full integration into national policymaking and planning.

To achieve true environmental justice, governments need to implement progressist policies to reduce inequalities. Creating green and good quality jobs, investing in social protection, promoting progressive taxation and introducing other such redistributive programmes is indispensable. Equally as essential is the need to enhance social dialogue and to uphold the fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

In sharing the different approaches being taken by OECD members, the conference also highlighted a need for greater convergence and OECD guidance in this field, underlining some of the key pillars on which environmental justice should be based:

  • Distributive justice, i.e. ensuring that the costs and benefits of the transition are shared fairly. The distributional impacts of policies on the most vulnerable groups and regions, such as low-income groups, minorities, etc, should also be taken into account.
  • Restorative justice, which will provide adequate remedy and compensation to groups for the environmental hazards and inequalities they have already endured.
  • Procedural justice, which would guarantee access to justice and other remedies. Importantly, it would also ensure participation and representation in deliberative process, in particular through collective bargaining and social dialogue.
  • Recognition justice: fostering social cohesion with public acknowledgment of previous and ongoing inequalities.

TUAC will continue to bring the workers’ perspective in this field to the fore, particularly ahead of the next OECD Environmental Outlook and OECD Ministerial Meeting on Environment Policies, provisionally set for 2026.