Scaling just transitions: Legitimation strategies in coal phase-out commissions in Canada and Germany

Political Geography Volume 88, June 2021, 102406


Climate change mitigation triggers both spatial and moral complexities, as demonstrated by the contentious issue of phasing out coal power. The success of the Paris Agreement depends on, among other things, the acceptability of climate policy measures and thus, from a moral perspective, on the ability to organize transition processes in ways that do not damage the livelihoods of workers, communities, and entire regions. Spatially, the unequal distributions of burdens and advantages of both climate change and respective mitigation measures provoke struggles over their legitimacy in contexts ranging from local to global. Phasing out coal mining and the respective power generation capacity thus triggers processes of structural transformation that cut across geographic scales, vertical levels of policy and politics, as well as sectoral boundaries.

In light of the urgency of the climate crisis, countries such as Canada and Germany have established stakeholder-driven commissions to develop proposals for just transition pathways for phasing out coal production and consumption. We argue that these commissions are arenas in which spatial, moral, and sectoral (re-)negotiations materialize. Comparing the Canadian and German stakeholder commissions through expert interviews with their members, the article traces how governments use commissions to legitimize their transition policies. Expectations at different levels and from different actors in turn place commission members under pressure to justify their involvement and the outputs of the commissions. We find that the Canadian task force showed greater commitment to collecting and reflecting the needs of communities in its coal regions, and to communicating these to the federal government. In the German coal commission, legitimation strategies focused mainly on a broad representation of interests, and on government spending for affected regions, workers, and industries. In that case, a compromise was reached that satisfied most, but not all, of the diverse requirements.


  • Radboud University, Institute for Science in Society, Heyendaalseweg 135, 6525 AJ Nijmegen, The Netherlands

  • Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Berliner Straße 130, 14467 Potsdam, Germany