Building just and prosperous zero-carbon regions

Australian and international research highlights key success factors for accelerating just and well-managed regional energy transitions

Professor John Wiseman, University of Melbourne and Linda Wollersheim, Deakin University

Professor John WisemanLinda Wollersheim

Published 25 October 2021

An increasingly large majority of Australians – apparently even the Business Council of Australia and News Corp – now clearly recognise the close alignment between the urgency of climate action and the opportunities arising from a well-managed transition to a just and prosperous zero-carbon economy.

Learning from recent Australian and international research summarised in our new paper – Building Prosperous, Just and Resilient Zero-carbon Regions – highlights the potential for well-managed regional transition strategies to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and maximise economic, employment, health and environmental benefits for regional communities.

Accelerating a well-managed phase out of fossil fuel industries is an essential requirement to meet the Paris Agreement. Picture: Getty Images

Accelerating the transition to a zero-carbon economy

Accelerating the just, well-managed phase out of fossil fuel industries is an essential requirement for reducing GHG emissions at the speed required to meet the Paris Agreement global warming targets.

There is also increasing evidence that a well-managed, just transition to a zero-carbon economy can create huge economic and employment opportunities.

Rapidly falling renewable energy costs further strengthen the case for accelerating investment in Australian low emissions industries and community-driven renewable energy projects.

Broad public support for replacing fossil fuel industries with zero-carbon alternatives depends, however, on communities and workers being fully convinced that governments and business are genuinely committed to the creation of secure high-quality jobs and well co-ordinated, adequately resourced just transition policies.

Just transitions: from rhetoric to reality

The Paris Climate Agreement requires all government signatories to accelerate emission reductions “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”.

The goal of creating a ‘Just Transition’ plays an increasingly central role in many climate action and regional transition strategies.

Some community and trade union critics remain concerned however that the term is too often used as a rhetorical smoke screen for closing fossil fuel industries without genuine commitment to address the challenges facing workers and communities.

The transition to a low carbon economy needs to be managed well and provide opportunities for workers and communities that are at risk of being adversely affected. Picture: Getty Images

As International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharon Burrow notes a “just transition will not happen by itself. It requires plans and policies. Transformation is not only about phasing out polluting sectors, it is also about new jobs, new industries, new skills, new investment and the opportunity to create a more equal and resilient economy”.

Learning from Recent Australian and international experience highlights the following key success factors for turning the rhetoric of ‘just transitions’ into reality:

  • Respectful and inclusive engagement with all impacted workers and communities.

  • Strong, proactive and well co-ordinated policy leadership from all levels of government.

  • Transition governance authorities providing national level co-ordination and enabling local engagement and accountability.

  • Adequately funded re-employment, retraining and early retirement programs.

  • Economic renewal and diversification policies building on regional strengths.

  • Maximising the creation of secure, high-quality jobs.

  • Expanding opportunities for all workers and community members.

  • Adequately resourced plans for mine rehabilitation.

  • Ensuring government and business commitments to just transition goals are underpinned by detailed implementation plans and adequate long-term resourcing.


Recent Australian regional economic renewal and diversification initiatives illustrate many of the opportunities – and challenges – of accelerating just transitions.

In 2016, the South Australian communities of Port Augusta, Whyalla and Port Pirie were increasingly concerned about employment prospects following the closure of northern, South Australia’s last brown coal-fired power plant, the Leigh Creek coal mine and the Atrium steel mill.

While the path since then hasn’t been entirely smooth, the determination of local workers and communities to explore and champion new enterprises and partnerships has played a key role in opening the door to renewable energy projects with the potential to attract over $A5 billion in investment and create thousands of new jobs.

There are opportunities for Australia to be a large-scale clean energy producer and exporter. Picture: Getty Images

Concerns about the extent to which renewable energy projects alone will generate secure, high-quality jobs for local workers strengthen the case for national leadership in creating a broad range of regional economic and employment opportunities.

In Queensland, the Central Queensland Energy Futures Summit, held in Gladstone in April 2021, provides a valuable example of processes for engaging diverse stakeholders in respectful and constructive discussion about energy transition challenges and opportunities.

The Gladstone Summit, hosted by The Next Economy, and attended by a wide range of community, trade union, Indigenous, government and industry groups provided an important forum for exploring Queensland’s potential to be a large-scale clean energy producer and exporter, generating thousands of new jobs in future-focused industries.

In Victoria, the announcement by French company Engie, on 2 November 2016, that the Hazelwood power station would close in five months came as a huge shock to workers and the community.

Longer notice would clearly have made for a far smoother transition process.

However, swift action to redeploy and assist retrenched workers, the Latrobe Valley Authority’s role in facilitating collaborative economic renewal, and strong state government infrastructure investment has meant that employment outcomes in the period since Hazelwood closed have been better than many had expected.

In New South Wales, the Hunter Jobs Alliance, is aiming to build a future for the Hunter region “with full employment, good union jobs, a thriving healthy living environment, an equitable society, a stable climate and renewable prosperity”.

The 2021 Alliance Report No Regrets: Planning for Economic Change in the Hunter identifies a wide range of regional economic transition priorities including anticipatory planning and community participation; public investment and investment attraction; supply chain diversification; worker support and training; and the creation of clear, commonly understood expectations for business in closure and retrenchment situations.

Regional communities are recognising and embracing the opportunities from a well-managed transition to a zero-carbon future. Picture: Getty Images

These are just a few of the growing number of Australian examples highlighting the speed with which regional communities are recognising and embracing the opportunities arising from a proactive, collaborative and well-managed transition to a just and prosperous zero-carbon future.

You can watch a video of the recent Melbourne Climate Futures webinar on Building Prosperous, Just and Resilient Zero-Carbon regions which provides a great opportunity to hear more about these possibilities from a broad range of regional transition researchers, activists and policy makers.

WATCH: This virtual panel discussion explores recent Australian and international learning about strategies for building just and resilient zero-carbon regions and communities. Video: University of Melbourne

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