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Caps and compromises collide at COP28

Shift Storm newsletter—December 2023 edition

January 29, 2024

10-minute read

The following is a re-print of the December 2023 edition of Shift Storm, the CCPA's monthly newsletter which focuses on the intersection of work and climate change. Click here to subscribe to Shift Storm and get the latest updates straight to your inbox.

The annual UN Conference of the Parties (COP) is no stranger to pageantry, hypocrisy or controversy. This year, the world’s biggest climate conference was hosted by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates and chaired by the CEO of the UAE’s climate-busting national oil company. COP28 also played host to a record number of oil and gas industry lobbyists—more than 2,400—who descended on Dubai to sow doubt and division about the pace of the global energy transition.

Nevertheless, the COP process plays a vital role in advancing global cooperation in the fight against climate change. The Paris Agreement, struck at COP21, has been transformative. Smaller agreements negotiated at subsequent COPs have continued to push the needle in the direction of a cleaner, safer world.

The text struck at COP28 pushed that needle further by calling on countries to “transition away from fossil fuels” in order to achieve net-zero global emissions by 2050. It is not the explicit phase-out of fossil fuels that environmentalists and many countries were calling for, since the COP text leaves room for “abated” fossil fuels in the energy mix. Kudos to all those oil and gas lobbyists on a job well done! But the COP28 agreement is still an important global acknowledgement that fossil fuels specifically, and not just emissions in the abstract, are at the root of the climate crisis.

Besides the big, international deals, COP is also where many governments introduce and promote new domestic climate policies. Canada used the COP28 platform to deliver the regulatory framework for its long-awaited oil and gas sector emissions cap. That’s welcome news given oil and gas extraction’s outsized contribution to Canada’s total emissions, but there were immediate red flags in the framework.

As drafted, the cap will not kick in until 2026. The cap’s emissions targets are less ambitious than Canada’s targets for the economy as a whole. And, perhaps worst of all, the design of the cap is rife with loopholes—what the government calls “compliance flexibility”—that will permit oil and gas companies to buy offsets or pay into a “decarbonization fund” in lieu of reducing their actual emissions. Comments on the draft framework are open until February, so don’t be shy about letting the government know what you think.

Shortly after COP, we got some better news in the form of Canada’s regulated sales targets for zero-emission vehicles. Like the draft oil and gas cap, the ZEV mandate unfortunately doesn’t kick in until 2026. But unlike the oil and gas cap, the ZEV mandate has both ambitious targets—by 2035, all passenger vehicles sold in Canada must be non-emitting—and enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance from automakers and retailers. It’s a huge win for the climate movement and a strong policy that will lead to substantial emissions reductions from the country’s second-most polluting sector.

Our final newsletter of 2023 is chock full of exciting new research from around the world with a particular focus on how to achieve equitable transitions in different contexts. Let’s get into it!

Storm surge: this month’s key reads

A step-by-step guide for an inclusive transition to a net-zero economy

A couple months ago we featured part one of the Pembina Institute and Canadian Labour Congress’ Sustainable Jobs Blueprint, which was focused on developing a robust governance framework for managing a just transition to a cleaner economy. Part two is out this month and it turns to specific policy solutions for moving away from fossil fuels without leaving workers behind. I had the opportunity to offer input on an earlier draft and I was very pleased to see where the report’s recommendations landed.

The big takeaway is that the decline of emissions-intensive industries such as oil and gas extraction is inevitable, but whether that transition is ultimately harmful to workers depends largely on policy choices. Specifically, Canada needs a more proactive workforce development plan in place to ensure workers have viable pathways into new jobs before they are displaced from their old ones. The Pembina-CLC report puts a big emphasis on strong income support paired with expanded training programs to make sure workers have the tools they need to succeed in a changing economy.

Crucially, the report does not stop at worker-focused policies. As I have long argued, a just transition is doomed to fail in the absence of industrial policies that create new green jobs. This report makes a variety of recommendations on that front, including calls for increased transfers to vulnerable regions for economic diversification, and for policies such as Community Benefit Agreements that would ensure public spending flows through to workers and not only into the pockets of private investors.

The report even dabbles in progressive tax policy—an underused tool for tackling both emissions and inequality. In addition to calling for an excess profits tax on fossil fuel companies, the report advocates for increased taxes on share buy-backs. Together, these policies would pressure companies to reinvest profits into emissions reductions and worker wages rather than shifting those profits into the pockets of shareholders.

Taken together, the two-part Sustainable Jobs Blueprint is a thorough and practical framework for advancing a just transition in Canada and will be an important touchstone as the Sustainable Jobs Plan is further rolled out.

Seeking input without sharing power is perpetuating colonial climate policy

Indigenous Climate Action has released the second phase of their Decolonizing Climate Policy in Canada report, a multi-year project to unpack the failures of settler-led climate policy and to explore Indigenous-led alternatives. The research is grounded in Indigenous scholarship and interviews with Indigenous Peoples that offer a unique and powerful perspective at the intersections of climate and reconciliation.

Among other important findings, the report calls out the tokenistic “Indigenization” of colonial policy processes. There is no doubt that settler policy makers are increasingly acknowledging Indigenous rights and consulting with Indigenous Peoples about new policies. However, including Indigenous perspectives without sharing power and dismantling colonial systems is ultimately harmful. There is a big difference, the report points out, between assimilating Indigenous Peoples into colonial policy structures and strengthening Indigenous Peoples’ own governance structures.

The report also laments that settlers working in this space often hear what Indigenous folks are saying but do not understand or accept the implications. The belief that the environment exists to be exploited for human gain, which underpins so much settler policy, is at odds with many Indigenous worldviews. Even among environmentalists, it is common to frame climate action in self-interested terms, rather than out of respect for the natural world.

We would all do well to take Indigenous knowledge more seriously. This report is a good place to start.

Sustainable Jobs Act rushed through committee

Speaking of colonial climate policy, the Sustainable Jobs Act, which we’ve been following closely in this newsletter since its initial tabling in June, was rushed through the natural resources committee a few weeks ago to the great surprise of many environmental and labour experts who were hoping to weigh in on the study.

The revised text of Bill C-50 is nevertheless an improvement in some respects. It now has a definition for “sustainable job” that, while still a bit unclear on the “sustainable” part, is refreshingly explicit about what qualifies as decent work. The text also clarifies that the 13-person Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council must include a certain number of representatives from trade unions (three plus the co-chair), Indigenous groups (three) and environmental NGOs (one).

There are now more explicit requirements for each five-year Sustainable Jobs Action Plan. For example, the plans must provide regional and sectoral breakdowns and must account for the 2050 net-zero target. However, the first plan is still years away and there is still no mechanism to enforce the targets and recommendations set out in each plan.

I’m also disappointed that the bill includes no tangible support for workers, communities or equity-seeking groups. The bill does not preclude such support, but there is no guarantee that, at the end of the day, the Sustainable Jobs Act will have any meaningful impact on the ground.

Research radar: the latest developments in work and climate

Canada still not on track to meet climate targets as climate impacts intensify. The federal government has released its 2023 Progress Report on the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan. It’s a thorough summary of the government’s recent climate action, which is a useful resource in itself, but it unfortunately reiterates what we already knew about Canada not being on track to meet our 2030 target. The government also released the final synthesis report of the Canada in a Changing Climate project, which was a process begun in 2017 to map and project the impacts of climate change in Canada. Besides the usual dire warnings about our infrastructure and health in a warming world, the report makes a compelling business case for the private sector to take climate adaptation more seriously.

Just transition policies win support for climate action in Spain. It is often taken for granted by just transition advocates—I’m certainly guilty of it!—that workers negatively affected by climate policies can be won over with sufficiently well-designed social policies. Fortunately, a new study published in the American Political Science Review, “How to Get Coal Country to Vote for Climate Policy,” finds that Spanish coal regions did, in fact, increase their electoral support for the government after it put in place a plan for a just transition away from coal. It’s a helpful example of the political potential of good policy.

Just transition policies stalling in Scotland. The Scottish Just Transition Commission published its 2023 annual report, Time to Deliver, that finds a disappointing lack of progress from the government. We can look forward to reports like this in Canada, too, once the Sustainable Jobs Secretariat is up and running.

Countries are not upholding their obligations to Indigenous Peoples in climate plans. A second report from Indigenous Climate Action this month, Indigenous Rights and Sovereignty in National Climate Policies, looks at whether countries around the world are taking Indigenous rights seriously in the development of their climate plans. In short, they’re not. Despite frequent acknowledgments of Indigenous rights, few states are protecting, respecting and fulfilling their obligations to Indigenous Peoples in a meaningful way.

Municipal climate plans are dropping the ball on equity. A new report from the David Suzuki Foundation, Equity Strategy for Municipal Climate Action Planning, assesses the climate strategies of cities across Canada. It finds that most do not include equity considerations and even fewer have meaningful policies for advancing equity in the context of climate action. Fortunately, the report doesn’t stop there. The authors propose a robust implementation plan that municipalities can use as a template for building an equity framework into their climate plans. On the whole, it’s a useful report and a practical companion piece to the CCPA’s Don’t Wait for the State, which was published earlier this year.

Municipal climate plans are also dropping the ball on… climate. A sobering meta-analysis published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, “Cities and regions tackle climate change mitigation but often focus on less effective solutions,” finds that many cities are not prioritizing the most effective (and least risky) climate policies. Instead, emissions reductions are often a secondary benefit of policies designed to achieve other priorities. It’s not a particularly surprising conclusion, but it lays bare how much of an afterthought climate is for many local governments around the world.

LNG case study highlights the threat of trade policy to climate action. A new report from my CCPA colleague Scott Sinclair, Toxic Legacy, exposes the ongoing attempt by an American fossil fuel company to sue the Government of Canada for Quebec’s decision to deny a new liquified natural gas facility on environmental grounds. It’s merely the latest egregious example of how the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system, which Canada has in place with nearly all of our major trading partners, allows foreign investors to challenge public interest regulations under the guise of “fairness.” The CCPA has long documented the threat that the ISDS system poses to environmental policy, which is all the more chilling in an era of urgently-needed climate action.

Michigan picks up the mantle of climate leadership. The U.S. state of Michigan passed a bundle of legislation that, among other things, requires the state to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2040. Modeling by a coalition of NGOs published earlier this year suggests the new legislation could create 160,000 new jobs in the state.

Decentralization a unique opportunity for job creation. The annual Renewable energy and jobs report from the International Renewable Energy Agency in partnership with the International Labour Organization highlights the rapid rate of growth in renewable jobs around the world. For me, the most interesting finding in this edition of the report is how decentralization—replacing a single coal plant with dozens of distributed, small-scale solar facilities, for example—is a big net job creator in addition to reducing emissions.

Nordic trade unions stand up to Tesla. The notoriously anti-labour American automaker Tesla is facing headwinds in Sweden as its mechanics in that country strike for a collective agreement. Labour unions in Denmark, Finland and Norway have joined sympathy strikes and made plans to disrupt the delivery and servicing of Teslas across the region. Although Scandinavia is a relatively small market for Tesla, this fight could have wide-ranging ramifications for Tesla’s labour relations in other countries.

Middle East’s acute vulnerability to energy transition means strong just transition policies are needed. The International Labour Organization and the Islamic Development Bank have partnered on a report, The social and employment impacts of decarbonization and green industrial growth scenarios for the Middle East and North Africa region, that finds the region could be a net beneficiary of a net-zero global economy but only if proactive green industrial policies are put in place. It’s a common enough refrain at this point—the transition is inevitable but the social impacts will be determined by policy—though it’s the first time I’ve seen that finding in the context of the oil-dependent Middle East.

What can we eat instead of emissions-intensive meat? The UN Environment Programme has a new report, What's Cooking?, that concludes we cannot sufficiently reduce emissions from our food system through efficiency improvements alone. Instead, we need substitutes for the worst offenders, especially industrial livestock.

New toolkit exposes fossil fuel greenwashing. Greenpeace and Canadian Physicians for the Environment have teamed up on a pair of publications connected to oil industry deception. The first, Greenwashing Big Oil & Gas, calls out seven strategies used by these companies to mask the environmental impact of their products, such as cherry-picking data and overselling carbon capture technologies. The second, Take Action Against Fossil Fuel Greenwashing, offers a toolkit for identifying deceptive advertising practices and reporting them to the appropriate regulatory bodies. I was heartened to read about the various European countries that have regulated or even outright banned fossil fuel advertising, which is something we ought to do here, too.

Newsletter tackles climate action from a youth perspective. If you like Shift Storm, you might just like the new Down to Earth newsletter from the youth-led NGO re•generation. The first few issues have offered thought-provoking takes on how we approach climate action conceptually. I particularly appreciated their case for utopia.

Newsletter tackles climate justice from a U.S. perspective. I have often cited the Labor Network for Sustainability in this newsletter and the LNS has a newsletter of their own that’s well worth subscribing to. It summarizes and discusses the latest developments in work and climate much like Shift Storm, but it does so from an American rather than Canadian perspective.

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