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(UN)Just Transition

To achieve the net zero emissions target, the Canadian government is working on legislation for a just transition for workers in emissions-intensive sectors. “Just transition” is a catchy title that comes accross like a favorable, visionary idea. It implies something that is easy to do and conveys movement forward to a new and exciting place, but the government literature is lacking in actionable, achievable steps that may lead to more harm than desired.

What is the Just Transition?

On March 29, 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his government’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan: Canada’s Next Steps to Clean Air and a Strong Economy. The plan sets another climate target, ambitiously striving to cut emissions by 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. With a special mention targeting the oil and gas industry, requiring a 42 percent reduction from 2019 levels.

While only a target, and not legally binding, Minister of Environment and Climate ChangeSteven Guilbeault said that an emissions cap for oil and gas is in the works. As a result, we should expect to see strict regulations that will cost companies money to implement, which will inevitably impact revenues and, eventually, jobs.

For some time, the Prime Minister has been speaking at international events about Canada’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions. He has admitted that this will have an impact on many workers in Canada, particularly those who work in emissions-intensive sectors. As a result, the government is consulting with Canadians to figure out how to best create sustainable jobs in all regions of the country for those affected by the move to a low-emission economy.

They call it a just transition.

The just transition is not a Canadian idea. It’s an international plan that’s been in the works for a number of years.

It’s said that labour organizations have been calling for a just transition since the 1990’s to support workers who lost their jobs due to environmental protection policies. However, it wasn’t until the International Labour Organization’s 2013 conference that they formally adopted a resolution that put forward a policy framework for a just transition, with a move to green jobs and a greening of the economy, which they say “presents many opportunities to achieve social objectives.”

The concept of a just transition was mentioned in the prominent 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, although it was not defined. The Agreement said the parties to it must “[take] into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities”.

Six years after COP21 and the creation of the Paris Agreement, COP26 in November 2021 called for a just transition beyond the creation of decent work and quality jobs. The Conference of the Parties included everything in their just transition from a commitment to gender equality, disability inclusion, intergenerational equity, marginalised persons’ leadership and involvement in decision-making, and more.

Where the COP crowd and Europe go, so goes Canada

The governing Liberals have opened up consultation to all Canadians to seek input on their proposed just transition legislation that will:

  • prepare the workforce to fully participate in the low-carbon economy while minimizing the impacts of labour market transitions

  • identify and supporting inclusive economic opportunities for workers in their communities

  • put workers and their communities front and centre in discussions that affect their livelihoods

The federal government wants Canadians’ input until April 30, 2022 on the following:

  • People-centred just transition principles that put workers and communities at the centre of the government’s policy and decision-making processes on climate change action

  • An Advisory Body to provide the government with advice on regional and sectoral strategies that support workers and communities

  • Other aspects related to just transition – what’s working, what isn’t, and how do we move forward in advancing equity, diversity and inclusion as we move toward a low-carbon economy?

The Government of Canada’s Just Transition website says, Taking action now to combat climate change will not only help us achieve net-zero emissions, it will make our economy stronger and more competitive. This will allow us to take advantage of new markets, new supply chains and new opportunities for economic growth and job creation, for the benefit of all Canadians.”

While the entire concept sounds reasonable and fair, it may not be as easy as the government and its climate-focused advisors purport.

RBC recently released a report entitled “Green Collar Jobs” with the following key findings:

  • 3.1 million Canadian jobs - or 15% of the labour force - will be disrupted over the next 10 years as the country transitions toward a Net Zero economy.

  • Eight out of 10 sectors will also be affected as the workforce adapts.

  • The transition will bring opportunity too, as up to 400,000 new jobs are added in fields where enhanced green skills are critical.

  • Canada’s transportation, energy and manufacturing sectors will undergo the most significant early shifts, as 46% of new jobs in natural resources and agriculture and 40% of new jobs in trades, transport, and equipment require an enhanced skillset.

  • A comprehensive skills strategy must be a key pillar of Canada’s $2 trillion Net Zero transition, particularly as other countries compete for investment.

Based on these key findings, it’s difficult to see how this plan will be just or achievable, particularly if 3.1 million jobs are disrupted, many of which will be lost entirely, and only 400,000 news green jobs are added.

Sustainable business models and policies create benefits for the short and long terms. It’s difficult to see the just transition as sustainable, for both businesses and workers.

To listen to informed, varied commentary on the just transition from oil and gas and carbon experts, please listen to The Andrew Lawton Show’s panel discussion from October 2021.

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