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Climate and work: What’s in store for 2024?

Shift Storm newsletter—January 2024 edition

February 29, 2024

8-minute read

The following is a re-print of the January 2024 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.

To say that the coming year is a crucial one for climate action is a tired refrain at this point. Unfortunately, in this era of accelerating climate crisis, every year is more urgent than the last.

There is a lot of work to do in 2024—and many headwinds. In no particular order, here are some of the big stories and trends I’ll be keeping an eye on this year:

  • The ongoing El Niño global weather pattern will contribute to ever-higher temperatures, which will likely lead to even more unprecedented extreme weather events around the world. There’s a decent chance that 2024 is the first year the planet crosses the 1.5 C warming threshold.

  • While global fossil fuel demand is now projected to decline over the coming decades, the short term outlook is more of a mixed bag. Will the curve finally bend down this year? Or will oil and gas continue its ever-upward march?

  • On a more hopeful note, renewables investment has been rising at a torrid pace in recent years. Will that growth moderate in 2024, or will we see another big upswing in global clean power spending?

  • COP29 will be held in Azerbaijan at the end of the year. It will be the second year in a row that the world’s most important climate conference is chaired by a veteran of the oil and gas industry.

  • Countries representing more than half the world’s population will hold national elections this year, which means climate action will be under heavy scrutiny in many key jurisdictions. I’ll be keeping an eye on the U.S., UK, India and the European Parliament, in particular.

  • In Canada (which probably won’t have a national election in 2024), the federal government will likely pass the Sustainable Jobs Act and begin setting up its associated institutions. Workers will have to keep waiting for those institutions to produce any kind of tangible transition support.

  • The federal government will also likely finalize regulations for clean electricity generation and for oil and gas emissions. These are crucial elements of the government’s climate plan. Strong regulations will put Canada’s climate targets back within reach while weak ones will make it even harder to achieve our goals.

  • Whether or not Canada enters a recession, economic growth will likely be poor in 2024. That will put a drag on clean investment and could be the source of even more labour activism after a big year of strikes in 2023.

  • The Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion will enter operation after six troubled years of construction and as much as $35 billion in public money—not to mention the vehement and continued opposition of many of the Indigenous Peoples affected by its route. The expansion triples the pipeline’s capacity, which will help pad the profits of oil sands operators shipping their goods overseas.

  • Finally, it will be another big year for artificial intelligence—the other file I’m keeping a close eye on. The AI cat is now fully out of the bag, and the technology is moving so fast that there’s little consensus about what the impacts will be in either the short or long term.

It’s certainly going to be another whirlwind year! Let’s kick it off with some of the most important publications to come across my desk early in 2024.

Storm surge: this month’s key reads

Training Canada’s climate workforce remains an essential, but elusive, nut to crack

The just transition discourse is most often concerned with supporting and retraining (or “reskilling”) the workers who lose their jobs due to climate policies. But many of the challenges of transitioning away from fossil fuels and adapting to a warming world apply to people who keep their jobs, too. All manner of professions and occupations—engineers, teachers, accountants, city planners, mechanics and more—will need additional knowledge and skills (i.e., “upskilling”) to fully participate in a climate-conscious economy.

A new, federally-funded report from a coalition of research agencies, Upskilling for Canada’s Climate Transition, tackles Canada’s progress toward a climate-ready workforce. The report is concerned both with the assessment and standardization of climate-related credentials (who needs which new skills?) and with the logistics of upskilling many workers who wouldn’t otherwise need retraining.

The recommendations are a bit abstract. The report suggests an arms-length government agency be established (or an existing one reorganized) to develop and oversee a “national competency framework for climate action leadership.” This kind of public coordination is necessary but not sufficient, in my view. We need more concrete investment in training capacity—especially public-sector capacity through the education system or otherwise—to address the skills problem at a relevant scale. In highlighting existing retraining initiatives, the report also gives short shrift to labour unions and their training centres, which are well-positioned to deliver the kinds of programs the report describes.

In sum, the report offers a compelling case for widespread, climate-focused upskilling of the Canadian workforce, but, like so many other reports tackling this issue, struggles with the specifics.

A fresh look at just transition cases from the Global South

If you read enough of the just transition literature, you’ll find the same case studies popping up again and again from places like Germany, Denmark and here in Canada. A new report from political scientist Dario Azzellini for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Sustainable Work and Just Transition, includes some of the usual suspects, but it also offers a refreshing focus on case studies from the Global South.

In Colombia, for example, the new leftist government of Gustavo Petro has established a just energy transition program that seeks to replace the investment and exports currently associated with the fossil fuel industry with new green alternatives—especially solar, wind and small-scale hydro. The government has adopted many of its ideas and much of its language from the Colombian labour movement and its allies, who have long campaigned for a just transition away from fossil fuels. It’s all very promising, though it’s too early to call it a success.

In Mexico, the just transition movement manifests itself mainly in the context of Indigenous and popular struggles against extractive projects. Activists and land defenders have managed to stop several projects that would have violated human and land rights. Unfortunately, there has been little progress on advancing the idea of a just transition formally through the political system, and only a handful of trade unions have made it a priority.

In the Philippines, climate action has become a priority in light of the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather and rising sea levels. The country passed a Green Jobs Act in 2016 and has worked with the International Labour Organization to develop just transition pilot projects for workers in various sectors. In practice, though, there has been little progress on either an ecological or social transition. The many civil society groups fighting for a just transition continue to run up against a right-wing government that makes promising pronouncements but fails to deliver meaningful policies.

These cases and others help paint a more complete and nuanced picture of global progress toward a just transition. Folks working in this area would do well to consider the lessons—good and bad—from their allies in the Global South.

Research radar: the latest developments in work and climate

A plan to make a clean energy plan for Ontario. Back in 2022, the government of Ontario established an independent panel to make recommendations to the energy minister about the province’s transition to a cleaner economy. The panel has released its findings in a new report, Ontario’s Clean Energy Opportunity. Most of the report’s 29 recommendations are not particularly novel, ambitious or specific (set a target, make a plan to meet the target, assess progress on the plan, etc.). However, I am glad to see the panel suggest a mission-oriented approach to industrial strategy, which implies a more active role for the government of Ontario in directing the economy toward public goods.

German energy politics highlight the need for a just transition. The transition from coal to green industry in Germany’s Ruhr Valley is a success story frequently cited by just transition advocates. However, the key decisions that enabled that transition were taken by policy makers back in the 1990s. More recently, Germany’s efforts to achieve a national-scale clean energy transition have faced headwinds. A new article in the European Green Journal, “Lessons from Germany for a Just Transition,” explores the latest political backlash to green initiatives in Germany. It concludes that progressives in Germany and elsewhere need to double down on just transition priorities—support for workers, social dialogue, etc.—to head off the anti-climate politics of the far right.

Big Oil is buying out academic energy research… A new report from Greenpeace, Bad Cheques, exposes the disproportionate amount of financial support that academic fossil fuel research receives compared to research on alternative energy. So-called “sponsored” research accounts for a third of Canadian universities’ operating revenues, and much of that funding comes from the oil and gas industry with strings attached. In contrast, there is little financial support for research that challenges fossil fuels or promotes greener alternatives.

…and under-reporting its greenhouse gas emissions (again). A new study in the journal Science, “Total organic carbon measurements reveal major gaps in petrochemical emissions reporting,” finds that the methods used by oil sands companies to measure their own emissions undercount some types of emissions by as much as 6300 per cent. It’s not the first time the oil and gas industry has been exposed for under-reporting pollution, but will regulators take note?

Petrochemical “sacrifice zones” can’t end soon enough. A new report from Amnesty International, The Cost of Doing Business?, exposes the horrific effects on human health, rights and wellbeing caused by the oil and gas industry in largely low-income, racialized areas of Texas. The report argues that a clean energy transition in the region will not only alleviate those negative impacts, but also create positive economic alternatives for workers and their communities.

More evidence of critical minerals extraction contributing to human rights abuses in Africa. Unfortunately, it’s not only the fossil fuel industry linked to human rights abuses. The NGO Global Witness has published a report, A new rush for Lithium in Africa risks fuelling corruption and failing citizens, that documents exploitation and destructive extractivism at lithium mines in Zimbabwe, Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not only are workers routinely exploited in these projects, but the promised social benefits of foreign investment rarely materialize. Countries like Canada, which play host to many multinational mining companies, need to play a bigger oversight role as demand for these minerals grows.

The potential labour market impacts of artificial intelligence are too big to ignore. Figuring out how to transition millions of fossil fuel workers to new industries is a big enough challenge on its own. What do we do if a further 40 per cent of jobs in the global economy—and as many as 60 per cent of jobs in advanced economies such as Canada’s—are exposed to disruption by generative artificial intelligence in the coming decades? That’s the headline finding from a new IMF report, Gen-AI, which tries to forecast the impacts of AI on the global workforce. It’s no foregone conclusion that AI will be bad for workers in general, but there’s a real risk in governments being caught flat-footed as these tools proliferate at the hands of profit-focused employers.

The growing electricity demands of artificial intelligence are also too big to ignore. Buried in the International Energy Agency’s latest electricity forecast is the finding that the amount of electricity consumed by data centres, which already account for two per cent of global demand, may double by 2026. Much of that growth is due to cryptocurrencies and the large language models that underpin AI tools like ChatGPT. Electricity use is not a problem in itself, but we need better regulatory oversight to ensure data centres are using clean electricity and that they’re as efficient as possible.

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