Trade Unions and Climate Justice in the Built Environment
A shorter version of this article was originally published on Context, a website powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.
Amol Mehra, Director of Industry Transformation at Laudes, and Ambet E. Yuson, BWI General Secretary, explore how the built environment is rising on the just transition agenda.
‘Human settlements’ was a key theme of the final day of COP27, but to meet our Paris commitments, the built environment must become central to the climate and equity transition.
Adequate housing is recognised as part of the right to an adequate standard of living in article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in article 11.1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Still, for millions of people this right is out of reach.
Today at least 100 million people in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) region are overburdened by their housing cost, with young people finding it particularly difficult. 
Worse yet, in a global region of relative affluence, around one-fifth (22%) of low-income residents live in a dwelling with a leaking roof, rot or damp walls, floors or foundations.3 Indeed, in some European cities, living conditions are becoming so inadequate and/or expensive that young people are beginning to share them on social media with troubling resignation. 
We work, live and meet in buildings. They shape all aspects of our lives, including their design, ownership and occupancy. Add this to the fact the built environment contributes almost 40% of carbon emissions, a disproportionately high amount.
Construction is also a huge employer. It continues to be Europe’s largest industrial workforce: 15 million people work directly as part of the building supply chain (7.5% of the total EU workforce) and a further 33 million migrant workers are indirectly connected. 
Transition must be just
The transition our built environment must go through to meet climate goals poses an opportunity to deliver better living and working conditions, but there are also huge social risks.
For example, many low-income residents across Europe live in the most energy-inefficient and uncomfortable homes. As severe heat waves continue to hit the continent, European buildings are ill-equipped to deal with extreme temperatures and are putting elderly residents at significant risk.
Workplaces are increasingly at risk of disruptions and injuries, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Other extreme weather events such as flooding, storms and wildfires are displacing workers from their communities and impacting those who are already the most vulnerable in our societies.
In addition, for those working in material production, such as cement and steel, jobs look increasingly insecure. Access to schemes to retrain for new, low carbon industries, is insufficient.
It is vital that residents and workers – those who create, shape and live in our built environment – have a central role in deciding what the sector’s transition looks like, so no one is left behind.
Workers at the centre
A ‘just transition’ is a process developed in the trade union movement; its core concern is that the transformational processes needed to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis pose major risks of leaving large groups of workers and communities behind.
Workers and communities should at the centre of the environmental debates. However, too often, they are not adequately considered or listened to. The shadow of people’s protests against the living cost crisis looms large among climate policymakers, but its lessons are quickly forgotten.
For transitions to be just, they cannot be top-down. Transformations in the built environment will depend on the workers who make them happen. From the extraction of building materials in quarries and forests, to the production of green cement and the construction of infrastructure and buildings, workers are critical to build our decarbonised future.
If the benefits for workers and communities are not made clear and the social risks are not addressed, we will not reach our goals and the climate transition will simply fail.
Knowledge for power
Laudes Foundation has a particular focus on the fashion and built environment industries, which have significant climate and social impacts that should be considered in tandem.
In October 2022, the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) announced a new partnership with Laudes, focused on strengthening workers’ position in the process of decarbonising the built environment.
While governments around the world are eager to talk about the number of jobs they can create through Green New Deal policies, they are not talking enough about the nature, quality and location of those new green jobs.
BWI will lead a combined action-research process to determine the opportunities and challenges within the process of decarbonising the sector; making available evidence from research and tools so that workers can develop their own narrative, organise, claim their rights at the workplace and advocate for climate justice for all.
Reshaping the narrative
The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) is another key collaborator in this worker-led coalition.
Laudes Foundation is supporting IHRB to lead a participatory action research process with workers and tenants to co-develop a vision and narrative, connected through strategic communications into key decision-making spaces, including at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh and COP28 in the UAE.
This partnership will produce a field-defining piece of research on what a just transition of the built environment looks like from the perspective of workers and residents. It aims to provide the missing link between social equity and decarbonisation, developing a compelling narrative around what it means to live and work in a decarbonised Europe.
COP and beyond
A just transition is the only way we will address the complexities of climate change, while ensuring those who work to deliver it are included and have their rights respected. New efforts are underway to work out how it can be achieved. What a just transition means, its challenges and its key first steps deserve more attention, engagement, and support.
This is a crucial time to amplify thought leaders’ focus on making change just, and inspiring leadership and momentum from cities, industries and policymakers. There is a window of opportunity for a new narrative on systemic change in the built environment. It must be a core focus of action at COP28.