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Does Canada’s Sustainable Jobs Plan deliver on the promise of a just transition?

The interim Sustainable Jobs Plan is a solid framework for advancing a workforce development agenda, but there are important sticking points.

February 20, 2023

9-minute read

The federal government has released its Sustainable Jobs Plan, which outlines the government’s strategy for advancing a workforce development agenda consistent with the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

For years, labour and environmental advocates have been calling on the federal government to table a comprehensive plan to prioritize workers and communities in the shift away from fossil fuels, especially in light of the government’s 2019 promise to implement a Just Transition Act.

So is that what this is? Well, it’s complicated. Join me as we break down the Sustainable Jobs Plan piece by piece, put its proposals in context, and see how the whole package stacks up against our own benchmarks for a truly just transition.

But first, if you’re not sure what this whole “just transition” thing is all about, check out our recent backgrounder. All done? OK, let’s go!

Friendship ended with just transition. Sustainable jobs is my best friend now.

Let’s start with the name. The Sustainable Jobs Plan is very clearly the government’s just transition policy. They acknowledge as much in the plan and reiterate that “just transition” is the accepted term for this kind of policy in the international community.

But they also raise concerns about the term’s negative connotations. Indeed, if you’ve been following Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s recent crusade against “Ottawa’s just transition” then you might not be surprised by the federal government’s decision to rebrand—not to mention the government’s choice to release the plan on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend.

Is the rebranding a problem in itself? Well, you can call your policy whatever you like as long as you’re (a) committed to justice for workers and communities and (b) committed to a transition to a climate-friendly economy. The sustainable jobs framework is a promising step for the former, as we’ll discuss below, but it is distressingly non-specific on the latter.

Although the Sustainable Jobs Plan mentions “declining demand” for oil and gas, it also emphasizes that “the production and use of oil and gas will continue for many decades.”

Despite the success of Canada’s regulatory phase-out of coal power, the government makes clear that it will not be taking the same approach with other fossil fuels.

Instead, the plan makes repeated reference to carbon capture and storage technology as a license to continue producing and combusting oil and gas—an assertion that a recent IISD paper helpfully refutes.

The plan goes on to highlight non-fuel oil and gas products, such as petrochemicals and blue hydrogen, as a “regional growth opportunity.” Altogether, the Sustainable Jobs Plan fails to reflect an ambitious climate agenda and raises serious questions about the government’s net-zero commitment.

In the transition from “just transition” to “sustainable jobs”, it seems the government has misplaced the “transition” part. So, as good as the rest of the plan may be, this shortcoming can’t be overlooked.

The 10 commandments of sustainable jobs

After recounting the federal government’s varied history of transition-related policies and programs, the Sustainable Jobs Plan presents its 10-part action plan for advancing a sustainable jobs agenda. As a general point, there is very little new policy in these actions. Most of the actions are already underway or have already been budgeted for.

However, this is the first time that all of the pieces have been mashed together into something resembling a comprehensive strategy. It is a credit to the ministers of natural resources, labour and workforce development that they made all of the puzzle pieces fit.

Let’s briefly tackle each of these action items.

1. Establish a Sustainable Jobs Secretariat. Using money from the fall economic statement, the Sustainable Jobs Plan creates a secretariat to better link workers, employers and training institutions, as well as to take charge of the development of future sustainable jobs plans. It’s a crucial first step toward an all-of-government approach to transition, and it’s the closest we get to something like a Just Transition Commission or a Ministry of Just Transition (but a far cry from it). The composition and mandate of the secretariat will largely determine its effectiveness.

2. Create a Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council. Modeled on the Net-Zero Advisory Body, which provides advice on climate policy to the environment minister, the new Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council will perform a similar advisory function for the ministers overseeing sustainable jobs policy. This council will formalize and facilitate a social dialogue between the public sector, the private sector and the labour movement in a meaningful and ongoing way. Like the Sustainable Jobs Secretariat, it will be a vital component of the transition governance structure. But, once again, the details will matter.

3. Develop economic strategies through the Regional Energy and Resource Tables. Green industrial policy is the key missing piece in Canadian climate policy. Canada simply needs more investment—like, $60 billion per year more investment—to achieve its net-zero aspirations. The federal government created these regional tables last year as an attempt to bridge that gap, but getting provincial governments and industry to the table has been challenging. It’s the right idea, but what’s the federal government’s plan if the provinces and the private sector don’t buy into the decarbonization agenda? At some point, the federal government needs to be prepared to step up with more public money or more heavy-handed policy to mobilize private capital.

4. Introduce a sustainable jobs stream under the Union Training and Innovation Program. The Union Training and Innovation Program was set up in 2017 to provide resources to union-led skilled trades training programs. In general, union-based training is an untapped resource for accelerating a just transition, though, so far, the programs funded through the program have mostly not been green initiatives. The new sustainable jobs stream might change that, but with new funding merely in the tens of millions of dollars it won’t be enough to massively expand the trades.

5. Advance funding for skills development towards sustainable jobs. There is significantly more money in this bucket—more than $800 million over three years, all of it previously announced—mainly to support young people pursuing in-demand green careers. It’s smart policy and the package even includes direct job creation through 70,000 annual summer placements. It falls well short of the Youth Climate Corps championed by the Climate Emergency Unit, which would include two-year apprenticeships and in-depth training.

6. Promote Indigenous-led solutions and a National Benefits-Sharing Framework. Indigenous-owned climate projects are win-win-win solutions in terms of reconciliation, decarbonization and economic development. “Indigenous-led” leaves more room for interpretation. What’s important is that Indigenous communities engage with the energy transition on their own terms and with the federal support that they are due. The Sustainable Jobs Plan commits to the principle of free, prior and informed consent for the National Benefits-Sharing Framework, which is a good start, though we won’t get more details until 2024.

7. Improve labour market data collection, tracking and analysis. Better data makes for better policy, so the proposal to better define and track “sustainable jobs” and all of their offshoots is welcome. The Sustainable Jobs Plan will put that data into the hands of the Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council, discussed above, to help those advisors make stronger recommendations.

8. Motivate investors and draw in industry leadership to support workers. The Sustainable Jobs Plan notes that “private sector capital and expertise will be needed” to create jobs in a net-zero emission economy. That’s true. But the government’s preferred approach—to offer incentives to investors to solve social problems out of the goodness of shareholders' hearts—has come up short time and again. Maybe the Net-Zero Accelerator and yet-to-be-revealed Futures Fund will be different, but there’s reason to be skeptical of the government’s carrots-only approach, especially given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis.

9. Collaborate and lead on the global stage. There’s nothing new in this section, and it generally emphasizes the things Canada is teaching the world rather than the things the rest of the world can teach us. Places like Denmark, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Scotland are much further ahead in their reckonings with fossil fuels and we would do well to pay attention.

10. Establish legislation that ensures ongoing engagement and accountability. The exclamation mark on the Sustainable Jobs Plan is the don’t-call-it-just-transition legislation we’ve been waiting for since 2019. The scope of the legislation, as outlined in the Sustainable Jobs Plan, is rather modest: it merely creates the institutions that will carry forward the sustainable jobs agenda rather than implement any major policies directly. On its own, that would be disappointing, but in the context of the preceding nine points, it’s not an unreasonable approach. Still, there’s room for greater ambition here and we’ll be making that case moving forward.

How does the Sustainable Jobs Plan stack up to the CCPA’s benchmark?

In 2021, the CCPA published Roadmap to a Canadian Just Transition Act, which laid out five guiding principles for an ambitious and effective just transition agenda in Canada. Those points serve as a useful benchmark for the Sustainable Jobs Plan.

Recognition of rights

On rights, the Sustainable Jobs Plan checks most of the boxes. Workers’ rights and “decent, well-paying, high-quality jobs” are front and centre. The integration of the International Labour Organization’s definition of a just transition is an important win for the labour movement. Indigenous rights are prominent throughout. The plan should pay greater attention to gender rights, migrant rights and to other marginalized groups who are disproportionately vulnerable to climate impacts and transition challenges.

Participation of affected workers and communities

The Sustainable Jobs Plan is very promising on this front. The new Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council will entrench the social dialogue process that started with the Just Transition Task Force several years ago. Despite their limitations, the regional tables are another avenue for workers and communities to shape their own future. Whether workers and communities are actually listened to through these processes remains to be seen. The greatest risk moving forward is perfunctory consultation that doesn’t address stakeholders’ real issues.

Expansion of the social safety net

We see little in the Sustainable Jobs Plan related to an expansion of the social safety net. Few of the policy supports traditionally associated with a just transition, such as income top-ups, workplace transition plans, job transfers or pension bridging, are specifically included in the plan. Worker retraining is a priority, though mainly as a byproduct of the general emphasis on training. The plan asserts that Canada already has a “strong income-support system, including employment insurance,” such that targeted supports are unnecessary, but that will come as little consolation to workers who are in volatile industries or vulnerable regions.

Creation of new economic opportunities

When it comes to job-creating investments in economic diversification, the Sustainable Jobs Plan reaches, but comes up short. By the government’s own admission, there is a massive investment gap that needs to be filled for Canada to pull off the net-zero transition and create good jobs along the way. As discussed above, the federal government’s preference for incentivizing the private sector rather than regulating the market and/or spending public money puts the entire transition at risk. There is nothing in this plan that resembles our proposed Economic Diversification Crown Corporation or the Just Transition Transfer touted by the Climate Emergency Unit.

Inclusive workforce development

The Sustainable Jobs Plan gets the broad strokes right here. The plan correctly identifies that national job shortages are a bigger long-term challenge than regional job losses in this transition and, consequently, that every part of the country is in need of workforce development. The plan also recognizes that we must do a better job of integrating historically marginalized and equity-seeking groups into the clean economy—not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because we will need to draw from a bigger pool of potential workers to meet the coming labour demands. The plan’s commitment to a “proactively inclusive approach” is exactly what the CCPA has called for. In fact, the Sustainable Jobs Plan cites CCPA research on this issue. But the plan offers few details about how this will be achieved. It is imperative that the lower-carbon economy of the future be more equitable than the economy of today. That will take a more concerted policy effort.

In sum, the Sustainable Jobs Plan is a solid framework for advancing a workforce development agenda in the context of Canada’s burgeoning green economy. The plan creates the right kinds of institutions and identifies the right priorities for future policies. The biggest sticking points are (1) the weak commitment to transformative climate action and (2) the lack of public money to fund the transition at scale. These are no small criticisms. We will be watching closely to see how the government addresses them.

What comes next?

In many respects, the Sustainable Jobs Plan is just a summary of everything the federal government was already doing or planning to do to support workers in the shift to a cleaner economy. That being said, the plan lays out a busy agenda for the ministers responsible.

Timely passage of the sustainable jobs legislation is essential for getting the other governance institutions up and running. If and when the legislation passes, ideally before the end of 2023, the clock will start ticking on the promise to present a five-year Sustainable Jobs Action Plan in 2025 that succeeds this interim Sustainable Jobs Plan.

In the meantime, the federal government will need to focus on getting money out the door to the various training programs that it has promised to fund. It will also need to press ahead with the regional tables and related initiatives to kickstart economic transition planning across the country.

The upcoming federal budget presents a big opportunity to push the transition forward. Even if everything goes right, the Sustainable Jobs Plan is no substitute for climate and economic policies that drive deep decarbonization across the country. The term just transition may be out, but we cannot lose sight of the necessity of a meaningful transition to a net-zero economy. Everything depends on it.

Topics addressed in this article

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