Moving Toward a Just Transition in the Low-Carbon Economy

Thea Lee speaks while holding a microphone during a panel discussion with several other people.
Thea Lee speaking about the just transition during a discussion with the International Trade Union Confederation at COP28.

Last week, I had the honor of representing the U.S. Department of Labor at COP28 in Dubai, the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. This is the first time our department has participated in COP, and I am confident it will not be the last. Climate change impacts workers profoundly, and for that reason they need a voice in shaping, adopting and implementing responsive policies. Departments of labor have a central role to play in that conversation, and I hope more of my counterparts will take part in the coming years.

We are right to set ambitious goals with respect to climate change, but we will only achieve sustainable political support for those policies if workers are included in these conversations from the beginning and we faithfully enact just transition principles to achieve a low-carbon economy.

What does a just transition look like? It creates good green jobs in which workers’ rights are respected and protected throughout supply chains. It ensures that workers are at the table when climate policies are discussed. It provides workers equitable access to training so they have the skills they need to thrive in the new industries, and social protection to ensure they aren’t left behind during the transition. It encourages companies to invest in green industries and low-carbon sectors while also promoting quality jobs in these industries. And it promotes investment in communities impacted by the transition.

Thea Lee speaks at a podium labeled "U.S. Center, Dubai 2023."
Thea Lee speaking about creating pathways to good jobs in the green economy at COP28.

At COP28, I spoke about creating pathways to good jobs in the green economy, emphasizing the United States’ whole-of-government approach, including through the recently released Presidential Memorandum on global labor rights, as well as the Department of Labor’s Good Jobs Initiative, and called on other governments to do the same. The Biden-Harris administration’s robust investments in clean energy and good jobs through the Inflation Reduction Act provide a great example of these principles in action.

In a panel organized by the International Trade Union Confederation, I supported a labor-inclusive Just Transition Work Program, which was under negotiation at the time. The International Labor Organization’s Just Transition Guidelines provide an excellent consensus framework for this work program, since they were developed with the input of governments, workers and employers.

I called for more collaboration among likeminded stakeholders to further embed just transition principles into the work of COP28 and each government.

Wide-angle shot of the Just Transition pavilion. Thea Lee sits on a panel with several other people while a small audience looks on and staff film the discussion. Many people are taking notes.
Stakeholders gathered for vital discussions at the Just Transition Pavilion all week.

I also spoke of the clear link between climate change and child labor. We know that children and families become more vulnerable through displacement and diminished livelihoods due to a changing climate; we must ensure they do not fall into the trap of exploitative labor. That is why I announced we are taking action through a new project to build the capacity of local communities in Nepal to address child labor and forced labor, with a specific focus on confronting new challenges arising from climate change.

Thea Lee holds a microphone while speaking during a panel discussion with five other people during COP28. The backdrop says “U.S. Center, Dubai 2023.”
Thea Lee speaking about the role of workers in a just transition during a panel discussion at COP28.

Overall, I highlighted that workers are central to our ambitious net-zero goals. Without access to skills, there will not be enough workers to power the low-carbon economy. And we need workers’ buy-in to take decisive and impactful climate action. Workers are thus the key to unlocking the world’s potential for a sustainable, inclusive and prosperous clean energy future. Join me in calling for a just transition that includes workers as integral to climate action success. 


Thea Lee is the deputy undersecretary for international affairs. Follow the Bureau of International Labor Affairs on X/Twitter at @ILAB_DOL and on LinkedIn.