The Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy from a Social Impact Lens

September 22nd, 2023 | Becca Francolini, Merriam Haffar

The term, “Just Transition,” was originally coined by labour unions looking to incorporate social dialogue and rights in the workplace and to help counter the idea of decent work and environmental protection being at odds (the “jobs versus environment” dichotomy). Internationally, this concept was affirmed at the 2015 Paris Agreement and gained further momentum at the 26th Conference of the Parties Climate meeting (COP26) in 2022.

The hope of a “Just Transition” approach is that the transition to a low-carbon economy will be more positive than those of the past.

The Risks of an “Unjust” Transition

Achieving a low-carbon economy will require economic, industrial, and technological shifts – shifts that a majority of society has yet to ever experience. Such large-scale shifts will require intensive system-wide change, with the largest burden disproportionately placed on Indigenous peoples and frontline communities.

Globally, governments have been looking to securitise key industries needed for the low-carbon transition which could lead to the exacerbation of negative social externalities. Additionally, transitioning out of high carbon industries could lead to economic and workforce instability – with concern for workers and communities on job transferability and community impact . With that in mind, it is evident that the private and public sector will need to collaborate to encourage the transition towards “sustainable” jobs and economy.

The Global Just Transition

As is most likely evident, the Just Transition will differ depending on several factors including, but not limited to, an organization’s size, demographics, strategy/business, and location. Embarking on a “Just Transition” will require the reconciliation of several complex challenges, including job security, rising energy costs and security issues, financing the transition, the impact on Indigenous communities, and equal access to clean energy .

How are North American government/regulatory stakeholders supporting the “Just Transition”?


In Canada, rulemaking around the Just Transition has taken a top-down approach, starting at the federal level, and cascading down to the provinces. Over the past few years, the Federal Government has put forth several regulatory measures to enable a Just Transition, including the release of The Just Transition Act (2021) – strengthening their pledge to transition to a clean and inclusive economy. As Canada has committed to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, a key piece of the puzzle will be winding down fossil fuel-related projects in a way that considers potential economic impacts. Additionally, Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is progressing with the introduction of “Just Transition” legislation – one of the major mandates meant to be achieved in 2023.

United States of America:

In contrast, the United States has followed a more fragmented approach, with many of the policies and programs originating at the state/regional levels.

Various states within the nation’s largest coal-producing and consuming regions have introduced laws—all within the past 5 years—around the Just Transition to support workers and revitalize local economies. In Colorado, for example, the State’s General Assembly passed a bipartisan House Bill in 2019 that framed the Just Transition as a moral imperative and established a plan for how it will help workers transition to new, green jobs, and to channel investments into coal communities. A handful of other US states have since also followed suit, passing similar laws, and initiating state-level plans for a Just Transition.

In contrast, the US Federal Government has been slower in acting on the Just Transition. In 2021, a Just Transition for Energy Communities Act was introduced by democratic Representatives in Congress but did not receive a vote. The Act aimed to establish a federal program to provide payments to States and Tribes to support transition and economic development efforts. Since then, no further Just Transition bills have been introduced at the federal level.

How Companies and Investors Can Aide the Just Transition

As public transition policy gradually accelerates at the national level, at the corporate level, there is growing expectation for companies to account for, and address, the impact that their climate transition has and will have on their workforce and communities. Companies that fail to do so risk “not only stranded assets but also stranded workers and communities, along with the loss of their social license to operate” . This risk impacts not only individual companies but investment portfolios as well.

As a result, as we move further into the global net zero transition, investors are increasingly expecting companies to disclose and act on their transition impacts (e.g., through reskilling and retraining workers) and to institute policies and governance mechanisms to underpin this process. Although efforts to categorize company progress on the Just Transition remain nascent, Climate Engagement Canada and Climate Action 100+ have both recently updated their respective Net Zero Benchmarks to include new and detailed criteria around this issue.

Supporting a Just Transition is increasingly both a business and moral imperative. Greening the economy must occur in a way that is both fair and inclusive to ensure that no one is left behind. More public policy is needed to support communities and corporations in addressing the transition impacts and to help companies to define medium- and longer-term transition priorities.

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Becca Francolini

Manager, Environmental Strategy
Mackenzie Investments

Becca Francolini is Manager, Environmental Strategy at Mackenzie Investments. Becca is responsible for Mackenzie’s environmental strategy including external reporting on our progress on climate-related topics, environmental-focused research, and oversight, and played a key role in the company’s push to join the Net Zero Asset Manager’s Initiative in 2022. Becca has 3 years of experience in the asset management industry including roles in Investment Management and Sustainability. Becca holds a Master of Science in Sustainability Management from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Bio Resource and Environmental Management from the University of Guelph.

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Merriam Haffar

Senior Manager, ESG Corporate Engagement
Mackenzie Investments

Merriam Haffar is the Senior Manager of ESG Corporate Engagement on the Mackenzie Sustainable Investing team. In this role, Merriam leads the firmwide Climate Engagement Program and is responsible for engaging the firm's highest emitters on climate risk and opportunity, in collaboration with Mackenzie investment boutiques and in service of Mackenzie's Climate Action Plan and Net Zero commitment. Merriam holds a PhD in Environmental Applied Science and Management and is a SSHRC Vanier Scholar with over 15 years' experience in sustainable investing and corporate sustainability. Before joining Mackenzie, Merriam served as the Manager of Sustainable Investing in the commercial real estate sector and as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the Ross School of Business. Throughout her career, Merriam has led multiple ESG workshops and industry roundtables at global ESG fora, such as Sustainable Brands and Innovation Forum, and has published numerous research papers on ESG disclosure and strategic decision-making in several FT50 business journals and other thought leadership channels.