Just transition and the right to landscape

Thoughts on the project by Sinéad Mercier, PhD Researcher

Landscape is usually defined in aesthetic, conservationist terms. It is often seen as a beautiful amenity for our recreation and enjoyment. The PROPERTY [IN]JUSTICE project seeks in part to build upon a large and vibrant interdisciplinary debate which re-invigorates the original etymological concept of landscape as a ‘peopled place’; where people are supported in their democratic and collective decision-making processes when interacting peaceably with the natural formations and resources of the land. This article seeks to contribute to debates on the right to landscape by showing how the increasingly popular concept of a ‘just transition’ could be used to develop a right to ‘peopled places’, and vice versa.

Building peopled landscapes

In her book Landscape Protection in International Law, Strecker quotes the German jurist Bruno Simma; “major concerns as well as interests, beget ideas, then concepts, principles, and eventually practice of law” (Simma in Strecker 2018). The right to landscape is a useful “organising paradigm by which to approach the distribution and rationalisation of land and resources” and has sparked a wealth of debate and interdisciplinary exchange from art, geography, human rights, social studies, anthropology and many more (Egoz, Makhzoumi and Gloria Pungetti 2011). Just transition is also a productive and practical concept that has captured imaginations and creative futures. This is evident from the explosion in the use and application of the term by many different disciplines and campaign groups (Morena, Krause and Stevis 2019). 

The principle of a ‘just transition’ is a framework developed primarily by the trade union movement, but also by social justice advocates. The fundamental call of the principle to “leave no one behind” is now enshrined in international law through the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 2015 Paris Agreement, the Silesia Declaration and the European Green Deal (European Commission 2019). In contrast to previous ‘unjust transitions’ such as those taking place during the era of globalisation and privatisation, the necessary shift to a green economy must secure and even improve workers’ rights, livelihoods, and the wellbeing of their communities, and deliver social and environmental justice.

Simma’s description of law being driven by a focus on ‘major concern’ is evident in just transition law and policy, as it is one of the few terms in international law that has erupted ‘from below’ according to Edourd Morena (NESC and EEAC 2020, 13). Terms such as ‘sustainable development’ or ‘precautionary principle’ came from experts or concessions between nations at international conferences. In contrast, ‘Just Transition’ was built by communities and organisers seeking to phase out jobs reliant on environmental degradation while highlighting how communities based around fossil fuel-intensive employment have already endured mismanaged transitions, such as globalisation, de-industrialisation, and liberalisation/privatisation of the energy sector. Many of these hard-won ways of life disappeared overnight – giving rise to ‘rust-belts’ or ‘dole valleys‘’. In essence, this means we must find a way to phase out jobs that depend on destruction or extinguishing of the landscape. While also guarding against the ‘greenwashing’ of what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession’; where since the 1970s waves of privatisation, financialisation, management and manipulation of crises by powerful vested interests, and state redistributions have dispossessed communities of their land, livelihoods and means of subsistence (Harvey 2004).

A landscape analysis of a ‘just transition’ introduces the consideration of spatial consequences of a transition, articulates the spiritual and cultural loss in place-based terms and recognises communities as locally specific nexuses of land law and people. In my research of four case studies on just transition for the National Economic and Social Council of Ireland, I examined Lusatia and the Ruhr Valley in Germany, Latrobe Valley in Victoria, Australia and coastal communities in Scotland. In each of these case studies, what arose again and again was a sense of place that was lost, and the need for future transition policies to be ‘emplaced’. This emplacement was needed in order for policies to work well, and to build local trust after unjust transitions (Mercier 2020).

Springhill Mining Disaster (1958)

Moving beyond the sacrifice zone

Kenneth Olwig describes landscape as not just being an aesthetic object, pleasing to the eye, but rather “it can also be conceived as a nexus of community, justice, nature and environmental equity, a contested territory” (Olwig 1996, 632). Digging into the etymology of the word, Olwig finds that landscape comes from the term landschaft, which conceived of a particular place as a body politic: a body of citizens and a domain shaped by those citizens. It is a land that is shaped by its customs and culture, not by its physical characteristics alone. According to Amy Strecker, this meaning of ‘landscape’ has found legal expression in the European Landscape Convention (Council of Europe 2000), which:

“conceives of landscape above all as a people’s landscape, and accordingly, provides for the active participation of the public in the formulation of landscape plans and policies. It not only focuses on outstanding landscapes, but also on the everyday and degraded landscapes where most people live and work…This  shift  brings  landscape  back  to  its  early  etymological  origins  –  when  it  was  a  truly  “humanized”  word  –  and  has  a  number  of implications for human rights and democracy” (Strecker 2012, 328)

As a result of these contested, multi-layered meanings, landscape has been termed a ‘chaotic concept’. It has many enfolding elements that have not found expression in law, yet are still guided by a moral requirement of justice. When a lived-in landscape is destroyed or impeded upon, its inhabitants often feel a sense of injustice, or sacrilege.

Fossil fuel-based employment – such as gas, coal or strip mining – is often based around a landscape selected by elites to be a ‘sacrifice zone’ for extractivism. “Extractivism” is a term used to describe the large scale, intensive and export orientated natural resource extraction that has happened primarily in Latin America and the Global South, now increasingly turning to regions in the West facing growing inequality. The term has expanded to encompass a way of seeing the world through an economic model based on continual growth and a ‘dominance-based relationship with the earth, one of purely taking’ (Klein 2014, 169). ’Sacrifice zones’ are designated by government or private industry to provide the raw resources for wealth and prosperity elsewhere (Klein 2016). The land and those working and living in the community are ‘sacrificed’, condemned to severe environmental degradation and its societal results. The mere existence of a job, however badly paid or dangerous, was and is considered to be compensation enough for such working-class communities. 

A functioning landscape is the opposite of a ‘sacrifice zone’ – both ecologically and socially. A right to landscape seeks to give legal protection to the distribution and rationalisation of land and resources through ‘stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue’ (Klein 2014, 169). Just transition tells the story of workers and their communities who fought back against their designation as ‘sacrifice zones’ and created ‘peopled’ landscapes. Cultural, social and economic strongholds were built against significant odds, including war, political suppression, removal of educational opportunities and even assassination of key community figures. For example, the building of community halls, good working conditions, high wages, parliamentary and company board voting rights through coal worker and trade union organising in the Ruhr in Germany.

Many of these landscapes embroiled in conflicts over just or unjust transitions are the clear opposite of the standard aesthetic vision of ‘landscape’. However, ‘conservation versus development’ is “overly simplistic and ultimately eschews the fundamental link between human development and the safeguarding of landscape as public space” (Stecker 2018, 7). The often politically-imposed destruction of these hand-built centres of community organising resulted in a deep sense of cultural, even spiritual loss. This sense of loss and incomprehension is not only culturally evident – within thousands of folk songs, rituals and working-class memorialisation – but physical. These areas suffered from sharp increases in suicide rates, with long-lasting severe health issues due to ‘black lung’ or exposure to chemicals, mental health crises, unemployment and loss of faith in democratic institutions. These both intangible and material results have been well-documented by social scientists, healthcare professionals, historians and culture-makers. 

Can a right to landscape support a right to a just transition, and vice versa? 

International investment law plays a major role in the dispossession of communities from the land, and the human spiritual, social and cultural connections built with it. Landscapes have been destroyed not only by the gas flare, the toxic mine, and the quarry, but by the extractivist practices played upon the physical bodies and places of working people.

International investment law has caused ecological, social and spiritual loss and upheaval. Such upheaval is not confined – as a conservationist perspective would have it – to facilitating investments in the degradation and destruction of pristine “natural” wilderness environments. Though extractivism is often described as impacting on unspoilt ‘rural’ regions, regions that have faced unjust transitions from fossil-fuel activities or highly polluting industries are also primed for further extraction. For example, cheap labour, high unemployment and ‘low tax zones’ can lead to precarious work such as call centre jobs replacing formerly strong industrial employment in the UK’s former mining communities (Foden, Fothergill and Gore 2014).

Following the principle of a just transition at international, regional and national level is evidence that the era of believing in a divine ‘free-market’ in international investment flows as a means of delivering environmental, social and political objectives is coming to an end in rhetoric if not yet in practice. The enshrining of the principle of a Just Transition in the Paris Agreement, the subsequent Silesia Declaration, the SDG Agenda 2030 and the European Green Deal could be seen as examples of an international shift in legal morality: a recognition that past economic restructurings – particularly the shift from Fordism and national energy production to globalised neoliberalism and privatisation – caused significant harm to workers and their communities. The Just Transition Mechanism and the Coal Regions in Transition Platform which accompanies new ‘green’ economic restructuring at EU level is an indication that “hands-off” economic re-structuring is becoming a generally abhorred socio-economic practice at regional level. Public international bodies such as the IMF and World Economic Forum have also published rejections of austerity (Ostry, Loungani, and Furceri 2016) alongside calls for social and climate-centred economic model (World Economic Forum 2019). 

Human rights have long been criticised as unfit for purpose when it comes to extractivism and large-scale “dispossessions by accumulation” as they tend to ignore the ‘root causes’ of abuses in the structure of the economic system itself (Marks 2011). Yet, a human rights approach remains appealing for its emphasis on “controlling the abuse of power and its capacity to equip social movements with a language of protest” (Gearty in Strecker 2018, 8). For lawyer-activists then, we must look to Simma’s ‘major concern’ and built a right to landscape democracy that can give strength to the ‘right’ to a just transition emerging in both international and European Law. Both ‘rights’ give expression to deeply held connections to land and place that fall outside the dominant legal construct of economic or property-based worth (Byer 2021). Both concepts see flourishing environments and flourishing communities as their raison d’être and can only be strengthened by being brought together. This will involve weaving a thread that brings together three hitherto forcibly separated international strands: human rights, climate change and environment and international trade law. These legal tools could provide a framework to give expression to an emerging right to a just transition within a legal international framework of landscape democracy, which draws together landscape, social justice and public participation (Centre for Landscape Democracy).

With thanks to project colleagues Amanda Byer and Amy Strecker for their comments and to V’cenza Cirefice for her brilliant description and analysis of extractivism. 



Bruno Simma, ‘Foreword’, in Nico Schrijver and Friedl Weiss, International Law and Sustainable Development (M. Nijhoff 2004), quoted in Amy Strecker, Landscape Protection in International Law (Oxford University Press 2018), 8.

Shelley Egoz, Jala Makhzoumi and Gloria Pungetti (eds.) The Right to Landscape: Contesting Landscape and Human Rights (Routledge 2011). 

Edouard Morena, Dunja Krause, Dimitris Stevis (eds.) Just Transitions: Social Justice in the Shift Towards a Low-Carbon World (Pluto Press 2019). See also Daniel Magraw, Anabella Rosemberg and Deepika Padmanabhan. ‘Human Rights, Labour and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change’ (2016) Environmental Law and Policy, 46(5): 313.


Irish National Economic and Social Council (NESC) and European Network of Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils (EEAC), 28th Annual Conference: ’A Just Transition for All’, 27-28th October 2020, p. 13.

David Harvey, ‘The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession’, Socialist Register, 2004, 40: 63-87.

Sinéad Mercier, ‘Four Case Studies on Just Transition: Lessons for Ireland’, National Economic and Social Council Research Series, Paper No.15, May 2020.

Kenneth Olwig, ‘Recovering the Substantive Power of Landscape, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1996, Volume 86, Issue 4 p. 630-653, 632.

Council of Europe, European Landscape Convention, Florence 2000.

Amy Strecker, ‘The Human Dimension to Landscape Protection in International Law’ in S Borelli and F Lenzerini (eds.), Cultural Heritage, Cultural Rights, Cultural Diversity (Nijhoff, 2012), pp.327-345, 328.

Naomi Klein, ‘Let them drown: The violence of othering in a warming world’, London Review of Books, 2 June 2016, Volume 38 , Issue 11.

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Allen Lane, 2014), 169. 

Mike Foden, Steve Fothergill and Tony Gore, ‘The State of the Coalfields: Economic and social conditions in the former mining communities of England, Scotland and Wales’, Coalfields Regeneration Trust (Sheffield Hallam University 2014).

Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri, ‘Neoliberalism: Oversold?’, Finance and Development, June 2016, Vol. 53, No. 2. See also IMR Independent Evaluation Office (IEO), ‘IMF Response to the Economic and Fiscal Crisis’ (IEO Reports 2015) and Davide Furceri, Prakash Loungani, Jonathan D. Ostry, and Pietro Pizzuto, ‘The Rise in Inequality after Pandemics: Can Fiscal Support Play a Mitigating Role?’, IMF Working Paper, April 2021.

World Economic Forum, The Great Reset, Webpage Accessed 2021
Susan Marks, ‘Human Rights and Root Causes’, The Modern Law Review, January 2011, Volume 74, Issue 1, pp.57-78.
Conor Gearty, ‘Do Human Rights Help or Hinder Environmental Protection?’, Journal of Human Rights and the Environment, 1(1) (2010), quoted in Strecker, 8.

Centre for Landscape Democracy (CLaD)