Limiting global warming to ‘safe’ levels will require rapid and radical reductions of greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the global economy. The discontinuation of incumbent industrial structures, that will be an unavoidable part of such sustainability transitions, will disproportionally burden certain groups. Recent events including the social and political unrest linked to the imminent deterioration of coal communities and the fuel tax protests of the ’Gilets Jaunes’ have loudly shown that distributional effects of climate transitions cannot be ignored. Trade unions and NGOs have for some time called for an inclusive transition and brought increased attention to the justice dimension of energy transitions. In this paper, we analyse potential social impacts in a concrete case: the planned transition from coal to hydrogen-based steelmaking in the Swedish steel industry. To this end, we conduct a series of semi-structured interviews to examine the role of trade unions and the national trade union federation in reorienting the industry. By doing so we aim to widen the scope of the just transitions debate to include process industries and to explore the concrete meaning of a just transition in the case of the planned transition of the Swedish steel industry.
We analyse, on the one hand, the capacity of trade unions to influence the transition process, and, on the other hand, the potential social impacts of the transition on the labour force and local communities. As the transition of the Swedish steel sector kicks into gear, we highlight a number of social issues that should be addressed both within industry and through policy. We conclude that it is important to early on: include stakeholders in the process, bring up social and political aspects of the transition, and acknowledge and address potential conflicting interests associated with it.