Blog: Fostering a just transition beyond growth

 “High-income countries don´t need more growth in order to improve people´s lives.
What they need is to organise the economy around human wellbeing.”

JASON HICKEL (2021, P.28)

Discussion about climate change has intensified in research and public debate in the last years and, with that, also propositions on how to handle the climate crisis. Different economic models have emerged as discussions on how to reach climate ambitious goals set in the international community. In the EU context, just transition as a policy goal featured prominently in the 2020 Green Deal, with the establishment of Just Transition Mechanism as a cornerstone. A number of Territorial Just Transition Plans are expected to be reported in the upcoming years, as a condition for EU’s member states to apply Just Transition Fund (nearly 20 billion EUR). While the principle of ‘no one left behind’ being explicitly set, the call for rethinking the economic models starts to gain more attention in the EU.

Two main economic models that are frequently debated at an international level in the context of just transition are green growth and degrowth. Green growth is prevalent in the theoretical framework for national and international policy, and it is essentially outlined as an ecologically responsible model within a growth-oriented capitalist system. Despite this predominance, there is still no empirical evidence supporting the case of green growth to achieve wellbeing within the planetary boundaries without slowing down economic activity (Hickel and Kallis, 2020). In contrast to green growth, the premises of degrowth challenge the current model based on continuous growth. Indeed, degrowth ultimately aims at decoupling wellbeing and living standards from intense use of natural resources and proposes to do so by radically rethinking our current economic model (Hickel, 2021).

In contrast to the prevalent emphasis on green growth in the international mainstream public debate, the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) gathered scholars, third sector organization, politicians and other members of civil society to debate degrowth in the conference “A just transition beyond growth?” in Brussels last December. Discussing degrowth at an EU-level sends a positive signal as it opens up more possibility than only pursuing continuous economic growth. It offers an alternative viewpoint with wellbeing at the core of society.

Degrowth and sustainable wellbeing

Rewinding the tape back, let us start on understanding why to endorse degrowth. As keynote speaker Jason Hickel summed up during the conference, the double paradox of overusing the natural resources of our planet and failing at meeting everyone´s basic needs reveals a crack in our current system. However, the ambitious international goals set in the Paris Agreement are far from being respected under the current rules of the game. A radical shift is needed if we aim at staying below the set thresholds. In this context, degrowth shifts the important questions from a growth-addicted paradigm to considering what we really need. It calls for limiting economic growth to what is necessary for our living standards without overstepping planetary boundaries. This implies reconsidering our individual and societal consumption in terms of needs and luxuries.

While discussions around degrowth and rethinking our habits and economic system raise public concerns on living standards, as Tuuli Hirvilammi specifies, “degrowth is not about austerity, but about sufficiency”. Indeed, sufficiency is the concept around which all post-growth streams of studies converge, adds Eloi Laurent, and this brings a reconsideration of the welfare state as we know it. Sustainable welfare is thus here understood in terms of satisfying human needs within planetary boundaries. While traditionally welfare states have dealt with social risks, a new sustainable welfare state adds up a socialisation of environmental risks, suggests Paolo Graziano. But what is the cost of such a new welfare state? Focusing on social saving instead of the social spending of this model shifts the perspective again. “How much can we save if we invest in prevention?” asks Eloi Laurent, mentioning for example the effects of preventing in pollution on different sectors.

Wellbeing is at the core of a post-growth welfare state. The just transition is required to have everyone’s needs met. “Degrowth society will revolve around care” argues Andrea Vetter, as care is considered as the key in guaranteeing basic needs. Ian Gough and Anna Coote make the case for Universal Basic Services (UBS) as a framework to be adapted to deliver care. Why are services so important? Among other advantages, Gough and Coote mention the highly redistributive power of services, their impact on the cost of living of individuals and household, the increase in solidarity, the stimulus for employment at different levels and the reinforcement of the social infrastructure. If framed in a proactively sustainable way, UBS can create the conditions for citizens to make more sustainable choices in their everyday life, thus bringing a positive return effect further supporting the shift to an eco-welfare state.

Employment decoupled from productivity

Employment, work, and wages are also major topics considered when discussing degrowth and social policy. Among others, the current dependency on productivity growth received the most critiques in the conference. As Elise Dermine said, the enemy hindering the just transition is productivism. Taking a perspective from social law, she proposed to reimagine the ‘purpose of work’, which is free from its economic value to growth. Facing the contradiction between sustainability as one objective and productivism as another, Jeremy Green elaborated the potential of monetary transformation through which labor income growth can be decoupled from productivity. To escape the growth and job treadmill, Jan Mayrhofer and Katharina Wiese further indicated that work ought to be decoupled from livelihood through universal basic income or working time reduction.  Most importantly, it should be decoupled from environmental degradation through for example job guarantee and expanding care sector. In doing so, Ruairi Fitzgerald pointed out that increasing wages should be further prioritized in trade unions’ collective bargaining system. It is crucial to empower workers, as active union members, to have more influence in their workplaces’ decision making.

A just transition beyond growth in Finland?

Achieving a just transition in a degrowth scenario where all citizens are involved is not part of the mainstreamed discourses in Finland. Just transition is a topical issue discussed in Climate Policy Roundtable. Both academic discussions and public policy debates tend to consider the just transition as an overarching framework which functions to guide the national climate policy making and implementation. Scholars emphasize that just transition should not become another buzzword like ‘sustainable development’.  However, how to comprehensively perceive just transition seemly prevails over the question of how to systematically translate the ideals into policy interventions. The importance of identifying various forms of (in)justice and (in)equality in transition is being highlighted. Therefore, the discussion on the role of trade unions, compared to other actors such as the states, industrial or business sectors is largely missing. In political debates, it appears that the main focus has been placed on the upcoming phase of peat production and on the accompanying transitional policies in the field of food and energy production, mainly from the green growth perspective.

The density of unions in Finland is among the highest in the world. The labor movement is an integral part of society. However, very little consideration is given to just transition when it comes to union’s agenda setting, even though in 2019, a report focusing on just transition was already published by SAK (The central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions).  With aim of providing information to substantiate Finnish climate policy making in line with the principle of social justice, Pia Björkbacka (2020) has explored other countries’ just transition strategies and reflected how to involve more workers in climate actions. She points out that the progress in incorporating just transition of workers into climate policy in Finland (and other Nordic countries) has lagged behind many other countries in central Europe.

Trade unions have the institutional capacity and can be the vehicle through which to organize social movements around just transition. In the historical development of the welfare states, social movements have played a fundamental role. Now they could mimic the same pattern in the transition towards an eco-welfare state. This, in turn, can bring political change.

Currently, no political party took clear stands to endorse neither just transition nor degrowth-related policies as part of the campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Finland. While just transition movements and development of social policy in post-growth context is limited in Finland, it seems that it is gaining interest in the EU context. The upcoming “Beyond Growth 2023 Conference” at the European Parliament in Brussels signals such tendencies. It shows that degrowth is an appealing concept that offers alternatives and prioritizes the main objective of social policy: contributing to well-being. Not only social policy researchers, but also policymakers should deliberate degrowth as part of potential policy solutions.

Alessia Greselin & Jing Ding

Reference list

Björkbacka, P. (2020) A Fair Climate Policy for Workers. Implementing a just transition in various European countries and Canada. SAK report. Retrieved from.

Hickel, J. (2021) Less is more: how degrowth will save the world. London: Windmill Books.

Hickel, J. & Kallis, G. (2020) Is Green Growth Possible? New political economy. [Online] 25 (4), 469–486.

Additional material

To watch the full interventions during the ETUI conference please visit:

To learn more about the ETUI:

To follow the Conference on Degrowth in Brussels in May:

To learn more about research on degrowth:

About the authors

Alessia Greselin, Doctoral Researcher, Tampere University

Jing Ding, Doctoral Researcher, Tampere University

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