The Main Building and Basilica during golden hour. Trees are in the foreground.

Vatican and Notre Dame host third Dialogue on Energy Transition

The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the University of Notre Dame convened the third Vatican Dialogue on Energy Transition on Sept. 2 and 3. Due to COVID restrictions, the event was delivered in a virtual format through a two-hour session each day.

The theme of this year’s discussion was “Just Transition,” which places people at the center of the energy transition. A just transition focuses on the well-being of workers and communities that will bear an undue burden from the transition to a green economy. The focus also encompasses those who experience the adverse effects of global warming on their stability, health and livelihoods.

Saying he regretted that the participants were unable to meet in person, Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said in his opening remarks:

“Nevertheless, our focus remains the same as for our previous dialogues: We want to attend to the people whose lives have been adversely affected by the devastating effects of global warming, and also to those who will be adversely affected by a transition to more sustainable energy sources. Our focus, in brief, is with a just transition to a better future.”

He added: “Such a transition demands the fullness of scientific knowledge, technological innovation, the creativity of business leaders, wise and courageous political leadership, shrewd financial decisions and many other factors. However, we must retain at the center of our field of vision the people around the globe — particularly the most vulnerable — whose lives have been and will be affected by a transition. It is, in the first place, a moral imperative that we make preeminent a concern for the health, security and livelihood of ordinary people. Moreover, on a more pragmatic level, we simply will not succeed in making the necessary energy transition if we do not have the broad support of the world’s citizens through their votes and advocacy for sound government policies.”

Whimsical shaped trees stand in the foreground, the Vatican is in the background.

Dialogue Panels and Panelists

The dialogue featured 22 panelists speaking on six topics. Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and, with Father Jenkins, co-chair of the dialogue, spoke on the first theme, “One Common Home, One Common Family." Drawing on Laudato Si, he said “we are a single family living in a common home. Humanity is in crisis, and we must accelerate to save our common home before it is too late. At the same time, we must be fair to all people.”

Other speakers on the first panel were:

  • Nigel Topping, United Kingdom High-Level Climate Action Champion for the U.N. global climate summit COP 26.
  • Liz Shuler, president, AFL-CIO.
  • Ronald O’Hanley, chairman and chief executive officer, State Street Corp.

The second panel, “Where Are We on the Energy Transition?” provided an update on where the world stands in terms of current emissions, progress on the energy transition and actions needed to achieve Paris Agreement ambitions. Panelists offered insights from the perspectives of a global energy industry association, climate research, emissions tracking and policy studies.

The panel was composed of:

  • Fatih Birol, executive director, International Energy Agency.
  • Ottmar Edenhofer, director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
  • Mark Campanale, founder and executive chairman, Carbon Tracker Initiative.
  • Gary Dirks, senior director, Global Futures Laboratory and LightWorks at Arizona State University.

The third panel, “Just Transition: Framework and Actions,” introduced the foundational pillars and principles for just transition as formulated by the U.N.’s International Labor Organization through the collaboration of labor, government and business. In addition, the political imperative, labor perspective and the role of investors in the advocacy for just transition also were discussed.

Speakers were:

  • Moustapha Kamal Gueye, global coordinator, Green Jobs Programme, International Labour Organization, United Nations.
  • Varun Sivaram, senior director for clean energy and innovation and senior adviser to the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate.
  • Samantha Smith, director, Just Transition Centre, International Trade Union Confederation.
  • Vonda Brunsting, program manager, Just Transition Project, Initiative for Responsible Investment, Harvard Kennedy School.

The fourth panel, “Just Transition: Community Engagement,” continued the conversation. In addition to social dialogue with unions and labor representatives, just transition calls for inclusive and substantive engagement with communities and vulnerable sub-populations.

This case was made by the following speakers:

  • Chris Coons, U.S. senator from Delaware.
  • Jason Walsh, executive director, BlueGreen Alliance.
  • Clara Pratte, founder and partner, Navajo Power.
  • Brandon Dennison, founder and chief executive officer, Coalfield Development.

The fifth panel pivoted to the related topic of “Building Resilience” for communities that have already sustained catastrophic damage from floods, droughts, heat, fire and other disasters intensified by climate change.

Illustrating how resilience is achieved were the following panelists:

  • Claire Perry O’Neill: managing director, World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
  • Waseem Ahmad, chief executive officer, Islamic Relief Worldwide.
  • Rhoda Boateng, program coordinator, International Trade Union Confederation Africa.

The final panel, “Financing Resilience,” illustrated the potential sources of funding to support the rebuilding of communities. While such funding is usually sought from multilateral agencies and charitable foundations, this session showcased the options from private capital.

These options were presented by:

  • Greg Case, chief executive officer, Aon.
  • Jay Koh, co-founder and managing director, The Lightsmith Group.
  • Mark Lewis, head of climate research, Andurand Capital Management.

Reports and papers contributed by the panelists are available here. Key themes from the dialogue are presented below. Questions can be directed to Dr. Carolyn Woo.

Key Themes from the Panelists

The Energy Transition presents a narrow path to net zero by 2050. To avoid the consequences of rising temperatures on the frequency and intensity of floods and extreme heat events noted in the 2021 IPCC report, our needed responses will not be easy, cheap nor smooth. But it is still achievable if we act now and together. Steep reductions in emissions call for significant scaling back in both the consumption and production of fossil fuels. This is a Kairos moment calling us to go beyond what we have been willing to do up to this point. Decisions we make in the next 18 to 24 months will determine the health of the planet and well-being of generations to come. The energy transition is both a moral and a business imperative.

A grassy area is flooded. A tree and bench are partically underwater.
Dry grass burns during drought and hot weather. A bush fire and smoke in a meadow field.
To avoid the consequences of rising temperatures on the frequency and intensity of floods and extreme heat events noted in the 2021 IPCC report, our needed responses will not be easy, cheap nor smooth.

The Just Transition

The Just Transition ensures that workers and communities impacted by the energy transition do not bear the burden on their own. Clean environment and good jobs must be achieved together; these do not comprise a zero-sum game. The standards of good jobs include good wages, benefits, safety and rights to form and join unions. Managed well, the energy transition can generate new jobs, diversify the economic base of a region, provide access to reliable and affordable energy, reduce inequality, improve air quality and stimulate leadership and entrepreneurship in communities.

Up to now, large-scale transitions in the United States have been manifestly unjust. Just Transition does not happen organically or by default. It requires policy actions that address dislocations and social protection. Investments in clean infrastructure and technologies must also target areas that are hit hardest, and attend to the wage and benefit differentials between a job lost in the fossil fuel industry and one gained in the clean energy sector.

Just Transition mandates social dialogue that is the substantive and systematic engagement of labor in the planning, decision-making, monitoring and accountability processes. This requires detailed planning for the energy transition and corresponding workforce implications, as well as commitment to retain, retrain or re-deploy current employees while providing a bridge to pensions to those who seek early retirement. Investors need to play an active role in stewardship for a just transition and engage at all levels of a corporation, from board of directors to labor, to assess what is needed, advocate for good policies and monitor progress.

Rows of solar panels line a field. The sky is clear of clouds and bright blue.
Rows of solar panels at the St. Joseph Solar Farm, a 200-acre project seven miles northeast of campus.

The Just Transition also extends to the global south, which now bears significant burdens for the cumulated emissions in the atmosphere which they do not cause. The contribution in funds, expertise and technology from developed economies to emerging countries for clean and just transition is clearly a moral responsibility.

At the same time, support for developing countries in their clean energy transition is also accompanied by strong economic rationale. The costs of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is much lower in developing countries than in Western countries. Note that one ton of carbon emission avoided has the same benefit to all humanity regardless of where it is mitigated. In addition, fossil fuel imports represent significant expenditures for developing countries. Replacement of oil and gas imports with renewable energy, which is abundant in these countries, will yield significant savings. Such deployment of resources is future-enhancing with benefits of renewing the environment, fortifying infrastructures, creating jobs, engaging local people and their traditions, stabilizing society and increasing funds flow to the countries.

Adaptation and resilience

Adaptation and resilience of communities already devastated by or exposed to climate-related catastrophes is also part of the agenda for Just Transition. Often described as “building back better,” such efforts do not simply restore communities to their past conditions, but aim to improve the quality of livelihoods, reduce poverty and inequality and enhance their preparedness for future climate disasters. Resilience mechanisms such as alert systems also bring high returns generating multiples for each dollar invested.

A marshy area along a hiking trail. Tall, full, and bare trees in the foreground.
Marsh area at Spicer Lake Nature Preserve in western St. Joseph County.

The potential contribution of business to building resilience is spotlighted as this draws on businesses’ capacity for innovations, change and implementation. Strategies for adaptation of communities in which business operates must be integral to its overall direction and guiding principles, not an afterthought or peripheral gesture. The importance of nature-based solutions such as protection of forests, mangrove preservation, restoration of depleted farmland or renewal of marshland is also highlighted. From these, we generate the triple dividends of loss prevention, increased security and productivity and environmental regeneration. Drawing on Pope Francis’ insight that biodiversity offers a depository of DNA that may foster future cures and food sources, nature-based solution is simply helping nature help us.

Community-centeredness and solidarity

Community-centeredness and solidarity is a theme that runs through all the presentations. Countries and communities that have suffered the most damage are not simply waiting for help; many have set ambitious targets and are pursuing innovative solutions. What they look for is solidarity, a sense that they are not left behind to shoulder their burden on their own. Our actions must begin with listening to the local communities, whether in our own country or half a world away, drawing on their local knowledge and preferences. Interventions must be place-based with flexibility that takes into consideration local needs, resources and obstacles. Financial benefits must be returned to the community. It is important that communities are not viewed as problems, but as assets with potential, skills and vision.


Financing is needed for both a just clean energy transition toward mitigation of emissions and for adaptation or building back better of affected communities. Government or sovereign funds have linked COVID recovery allocations to green infrastructure and green jobs. Multilateral development banks have shifted to financing renewables as a priority. Another source is private capital, which has shown an increasing receptivity toward renewable energy investments. Private equity firms play a role in growing to scale startups that bring significant solutions for building resilience.

Private capital is not likely to flow extensively to projects with significant risks and uncertainty. As such, mechanisms (such as insurance and re-insurance products) that can cover and transfer risks can unlock new and substantial funding using private capital to mitigate public risks. In addition, the mix of public funds, impact funds that accept below-market returns for social good, and regular investor funds creates a blend of financing that allows the earliest risks and first losses to be covered.

Carbon pricing and carbon credits are also noted for their capacity to bring in new revenues for nature-based solutions and clean infrastructure investments and to discourage the use of carbon-intensive products. These must be accompanied by a high degree of integrity as well as harmonization of the differential prices from carbon pricing through regulatory policy, and from carbon credits through the voluntary markets. Carbon pricing must also be beneficial to the lowest-income populations and be adjusted for cross-border differences.

It is estimated that one in four people in the world will be exposed to these risks. Given this scale, the United Nations calls for 50 percent of climate investments to be allocated for adaptation versus the current level of about 5 percent.

Collaboration and trust

Collaboration and trust are critical to the monumental challenge ahead of us. We must build together and not exclude any stakeholders. Creating our common destiny requires a whole-of-society approach involving governments at all levels, communities, labor, business, industry incumbents and entrants, civil society, faith-based groups and others. We need to assemble the broadest coalition of the willing to listen and understand the complexity of the challenges, draw on a toolkit that is comprehensive but still incomplete, note our dependence on technologies that are not yet at scale, navigate under a high degree of uncertainty and accommodate local differences.

Notre Dame's Main Building and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart near a lake, surrounded by trees. Behind the sun rises and creates rays in the sky consisting of blues, purples, oranges and yellows. A blue heron perches on a fallen tree branch in the middle of the lake.
A heron perches on a branch in St. Mary's Lake at sunrise.

We must come together in good faith with maximum transparency and a high degree of generosity.

We have done a lot, but it is not enough, not fast enough. We must act now. This is the Kairos moment.