Publication Labour / Unions - Socio-ecological Transformation Sustainable Work and Just Transition

Policies and labour movement actors in France, the UK, Germany, Norway, Spain, Poland, Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines





Dario Azzellini,


Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Geneva Office,


October 2023

Ordering advice

Only available online

Related Files

A worker assembles a solar panel at a factory in Freiberg, Germany, 8 February 2010. Photo: IMAGO / Jochen Eckel

Decades have passed since science established that climate change is real and caused by human activities. Some big fossil fuel companies received the first scientific reports about the negative effects of producing and burning fossil fuels on the climate already in the late 1970s. The first UN climate change conference, the Conference of the Parties 1 (COP 1) took place in 1995 in Berlin, Germany. The first agreement on emission reduction, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed at the COP3 in Japan in 1997. Many more agreements followed.

Dario Azzellini is Professor of Development Studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas in Mexico and a visiting scholar at Cornell University in the US. Recent publications include Vom Protest zum sozialen Prozess: Betriebsbesetzungen und Arbeiten in Selbstverwaltung (VSA, 2018) and The Class Strikes Back: Self-Organised Workers’ Struggles in the Twenty-First Century (Haymarket 2019). Further information can be found at

In 2006, the famous Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was released by the UK government. The report, although heavily focussed on the economy, was alarming. Meanwhile, COP27 took place in 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. The results were more than meagre.

According to the latest report by the IPCC, global net anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2019 were about 12 percent higher than in 2010 and 54 percent higher than in 1990. The highest rate of growth of emissions was 2000–2009, with an annual increase of 2.1 percent. It slowed down in 2010–2019 to an average annual growth rate of 1.3 percent. Forty-two percent of historical cumulative net CO2 emissions since 1850 occurred between 1990 and 2019, while climate change and measures against it were broadly discussed. Seventeen percent of historical cumulative net CO2 emissions since 1850 occurred even between 2010 and 2019, when several agreements were in place to stop or mitigate climate change.

The debate on sustainability has also been ongoing for more than 30 years without leading to ecologically and socially sustainable societies. On the contrary — the use of non-renewable resources is increasing faster than sustainable production and consumption. Inequality has increased in almost all countries, as well as the gap between the Global North and the Global South.

In January 2016, almost all states signed the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), with 17 goals to be achieved by 2030, including the goal of decent and development-promoting, sustainable work. Sustainable work was supposed to be included globally in national policy agendas. Nevertheless, the topic is hardly ever explicitly addressed in government policies or public debates.

Jobs and employment are a main subject in debates and policy proposals regarding the transition to socially and ecologically sustainable low- or zero-carbon societies, but rarely the social organization of work, other forms of work, or value orientations. Technologies or their use, on the other hand, play a central role. Policies promoted by governments and the private sector focus almost entirely on a “technological fix”.

Trade unions tend to privilege the aspect of social sustainability and neglect ecological sustainability, aspects of the transformation of the meaning and organization of work, and (especially in the Northern hemisphere) the issue of global just transition. Ecologically oriented sustainability discourses in return tend to pay little attention to the social sustainability of work, and rarely address work in general. They focus on consumers and companies as main actors. The influence of developments such as demographic shifts (aging societies), migration, digitalization, flexibilization, and globalization on the work-oriented societies is broadly discussed. But the ecological aspects of certain types of work and what they mean for labour and the labour market are widely neglected.

Why focus on work when human life on our planet is threatened by climate change and mass extinction? The radical transformation of production and consumption patterns alone (which is not happening anyway) will not lead to the necessary social and ecological transition. Employment and the labour markets are changing and we have to make sure that work itself becomes sustainable in all its aspects.

It can also be reasonably questioned whether the transformation of production and consumption is even possible without the transformation of the work-oriented society (and vice versa). The work-oriented society as such has to be transformed. Some alliances between trade unions, social movements and the environmental movement, as well as discourses in academia aim at making work the focus of sustainable development. We live in work-oriented societies and work is considered the medium for satisfying individual and social needs. The reconceptualization, reorganization, and revalorization of work as sustainable work is therefore a decisive tool from below to push for and guarantee a just transition.

Download the PDF