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Photo: John Englart via Flickr Creative Commons
Photo: John Englart via Flickr Creative Commons

Is "sustainable jobs" the new just transition?

Shift Storm newsletter—February 2023 edition

February 22, 2023

9-minute read

The following is a re-print of the February 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. 

Canada’s long-awaited just transition plan is here… just don’t call it that.

In its interim Sustainable Jobs Plan, the federal government has put together the most comprehensive strategy we’ve yet seen in Canada for workforce development in a lower-carbon economy. It’s a big deal for workers in the energy sector and beyond, who have long called for a just transition to a cleaner economy.

“Just transition” is a term with a rich history of labour and climate activism. Fundamentally, it’s about ensuring that workers and communities aren’t left behind (justice!) by policies to shift to a cleaner economy (transition!). So why has the federal government pivoted to the more neutral language of “sustainable jobs”?

As we discuss in our full analysis of the Sustainable Jobs Plan, the most obvious explanation is that the phrase “just transition” has become a favourite punching bag of the political right. The government, unsurprisingly, wants to distance itself from those associations.

But there’s another issue at play here, too, which is the government distancing itself from the idea of transition in the first place. The Sustainable Jobs Plan downplays the need to shift the Canadian economy away from oil and gas extraction—the biggest source of emissions in the country and the most vulnerable economic sector moving forward. Instead, the federal government sees carbon capture technology, petrochemical manufacturing and blue hydrogen production as lifelines for further fossil fuel expansion.

That backwards stance on fossil fuels in a climate crisis is an unfortunate stain on an otherwise promising just transi… I mean, sustainable jobs plan. I’m excited that the government is moving ahead with much-needed strategic workforce development, but we cannot lose sight of the necessity of aggressive decarbonization to meet the climate challenge.

As it happens, the release of the Sustainable Jobs Plan is auspicious timing for the launch of Shift Storm. Welcome, by the way! Every month, this newsletter will grapple with the key issues facing workers and communities around the world as they confront the climate crisis and the economic transitions it entails. If you’re a researcher, an activist, a journalist or a policymaker, consider this your annotated bibliography for all things work- and climate-related. And if you’re a worker or concerned citizen curious about the future of work in a warming world, the analysis offered here will keep you well-apprised of the most important developments and trends in the field.

To learn more about the newsletter itself—including its origins in the now (sadly) defunct Work and Climate Change Report—check out this Q&A over on the CCPA blog. Now, let’s get into this month’s research!

Storm surge: this month’s key publications

Scottish government delivers best-in-class just transition roadmap

In its new Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan, the government of Scotland has put together one of the most complete and well-thought-out just transition strategies I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The 192-page document checks all the boxes: ambitious climate targets (including net-zero emissions by 2045), a managed wind down of oil and gas extraction, a green industrial strategy for scaling up renewables, step-by-step roadmaps for policy implementation, and criteria for monitoring progress.

Crucially, Scotland is learning from the UK’s past mistakes. This new plan recognizes that unmanaged deindustrialization is unacceptable for workers and communities. The plan includes rigorous engagement with workers and unions to ensure the right supports are in place to retain the workforce in a changing energy sector. If the plan succeeds, there will be no net loss of jobs in Scotland’s oil-dependent North Sea region.

The draft plan isn’t perfect. For starters, it’s still a draft with consultations ongoing through April. The government will need to fend off the inevitable obstructionism of the fossil fuel industry as it moves forward. The government will also need to budget for many of the programs it proposes. Another issue, as in Canada, is the government’s presumption that carbon capture and storage technologies will permit the extraction and use of fossil fuels beyond what the climate crisis demands. It’s a dangerous gamble from both a cost and climate perspective. After all, even if fossil fuels can be produced without creating emissions—a big if—those fuels will still be exported and burned somewhere else.

Still, Canada’s government has a lot to learn from Scotland about comprehensive, national-level planning. This draft strategy is an excellent starting point.

A just and equitable transition requires both a top-down and bottom-up legal framework

Speaking of national-level planning, a new report co-published by a handful of environmental organizations in Canada, including Ecojustice, Équiterre and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, gets into the weeds of how the Canadian federal government’s forthcoming sustainable jobs legislation could advance a just transition in this country.

In ​​Proposals for the Canadian Just Transition Act, lead author Matt Hulse offers a thoughtful balance between top-down policy approaches—including the need for a national just transition strategy led by a new Minister for Just Transition—and bottom-up, grassroots approaches. The latter category, which includes regional just transition plans developed in collaboration with sub-national and Indigenous governments, is essential for respecting community autonomy and adapting national strategies to local circumstances.

The paper is especially useful in light of the new Sustainable Jobs Plan. At a high level, both the paper and the plan include many of the same elements, but the government’s plan often lacks the detail or ambition of Hulse’s proposals. For example, while the government proposes an arms-length Sustainable Jobs Secretariat, it falls short of a full-on Department of Just Transition, which could better prioritize and coordinate the complex task of a country-wide, worker-focused energy transition. As the government moves forward with its plan, it would be wise to look here for the details.

Two new reports argue a transition-focused job creation strategy would be a net gain for oil and gas workers in Alberta… as long as they keep producing oil and gas

The University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute published its latest report, No Worker Left Behind, to make the case for a worker-focused transition of the energy industry in that province. Lead author Ian Hussey offers important context to the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) plan, published last year, to create or retain 200,000 energy jobs in the province by 2050. Meanwhile, the Pembina Institute published Alberta’s Roadmap to the New Energy Economy, its set of recommendations for provincial politicians in the lead up to the spring election.

Both the Parkland paper and the AFL plan it is based on are focused on how to transition Alberta’s oil and gas industry away from fossil fuels but toward other hydrocarbon-based products, such as recyclable plastics and carbon fibre manufacturing. The AFL imagines that these industries will account for 85,000 jobs in 2050, plus another 70,000 jobs in hydrogen production. In total, that’s as many or more jobs than the provincial oil and gas sector employs today. In contrast, the reports anticipate fewer than 50,000 jobs in the sectors that we’d traditionally consider “clean”, such as renewable power and electrified transportation.

The Pembina paper places a greater emphasis on strong environmental regulations to drive down emissions in Alberta. But even this paper makes “futureproofing” the oil and gas sector a top priority so that it “remains competitive in a low-carbon global economy.” Pembina recommends actions to tackle methane leaks and electrify industrial processes in order to reduce emissions from oil and gas production, but not to actually limit the amount of oil and gas produced, exported and burned elsewhere in the world.

A strategy to double-down on oil and gas extraction through carbon capture technologies that, as a recent IISD report breaks down, are risky on many levels, may be at odds with broader efforts to decarbonize the Canadian economy. And while petrochemicals and other hydrocarbon-based manufacturing will likely outlive fossil fuels, it's a big gamble to assume Canada will be the one supplying them.

A $287-billion investment plan for achieving Canada’s climate goals

Taking a step back from Alberta, new research from the CCPA and Climate Action Network – Réseau action climat (CAN-Rac) Canada lays out a comprehensive plan for federal spending to drive immediate and deep changes to the Canadian economy. The report, Spending What it Takes, offers a comprehensive, sector-by-sector breakdown of where Canada needs to be investing today to reap the benefits of the energy transformation for decades to come. The CCPA’s Marc Lee led the project alongside CAN-Rac’s Caroline Brouillette and myself in consultation with a wide variety of environmental groups.

The report includes a breakdown of all the money the federal government has already committed to achieving its climate goals. In total, federal climate spending is ramping up to $15 billion next year. But that falls well short of the government’s own estimates for how much new money is necessary to reach net-zero—closer to $100 billion per year. On the eve of the federal government’s 2023 budget, now is exactly the time to be considering far-reaching, transformative public investments that match the scale of the climate crisis.

Of note, the single biggest spending category in the report’s proposed plan—$80 billion over five years—is for just transition programs. Specifically, the plan proposes massive public spending on job-creating investments in the communities that currently depend on the fossil fuel industry. For some, that’s a counter-intuitive approach. After all, many of these communities already enjoy good incomes and economic security. But without proactive investments in economic alternatives, Canada remains vulnerable to a collapse in global oil demand. Spending on alternatives now can make sure those workers and communities have something to turn to before the coal, oil and gas jobs are gone.

Research radar: the latest developments in work and climate

Climate advisory group calls for green industrial policy. Canada’s Net-Zero Advisory Body (NZAB) issued its First annual report to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, which includes a big focus on industrial policy “to solve problems that, left to itself, the market will not address.” NZAB’s position is as welcome as it is unexpected. Last fall, the CCPA published Bet Big, a deep dive into the need for a worker-focused green industrial policy in Canada. I’m excited to see more environmental groups connect the dots between climate and economic policy.

Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is already paying off for workers across the United States with much more to come. A new analysis by advocacy group Climate Power counts more than 100,000 new clean energy jobs created since the IRA was passed in August 2022. In another new analysis, the Rocky Mountain Institute finds that tens of thousands of green jobs will be created in almost every state by 2030 as a result of the IRA. That’s green industrial policy at work.

Australian coal region bands together to develop a community blueprint for a post-coal future. Hunter Renewal, a coalition of groups in Australia’s Hunter Valley, published After the Coal Rush, the Clean Up. It’s a sober, practical and hopeful assessment of how a region can move on from the fossil fuel industry, including a big focus on reskilling the energy sector workforce. More Canadian communities need blueprints like this.

Academics in Scotland offer a deep dive into the opportunities and challenges of a just oil and gas transition in Aberdeen. The University of Aberdeen’s Just Transition Lab published its first report, Just Transition for Workers and Communities in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, that lays out a research agenda for a worker-focused transition in Scotland’s oil and gas heartland. I’ll be keeping a close eye on Aberdeen, which may prove to be a key case study for just oil phase-outs elsewhere, especially in the context of Scotland’s broader just transition strategy discussed above.

High inequality in coal-dependent South Africa makes a just transition all the more important. A new book from the U.S.-based Brookings Institution includes a chapter, South Africa’s “Just transition”, by the University of Cape Town’s Richard Calland. The chapter details both the challenges and opportunities of moving from an extremely high carbon, high inequality society to the opposite: a low carbon, low inequality society. It’s a “wicked problem,” as Collard explains, but South Africa is pushing ahead. The chapter concludes with a list of clear and useful lessons for the rest of the world.

European coal phase-outs proceeding with EU support. The European Parliament's Policy Department published its assessment of the EU’s Cohesion Policy in EU Coal Regions. The Cohesion Policy, which includes a specific Just Transition Fund, is the EU’s main investment vehicle and accounts for a third of the EU’s budget. This analysis, commissioned by the Committee on Regional Development, finds that the Cohesion Policy has, to date, been effective at accelerating coal phase-outs in less-developed communities that might otherwise struggle with transition costs, such as Yugoitztochen, Bulgaria and Śląskie, Poland.

Climate adaptation holds potential for significant job creation in the Global South. This year’s edition of the International Labour Organization’s flagship publication, the World Employment and Social Outlook 2023, includes a section on the job creation potential of climate change adaptation. The report notes that Africa, which is highly exposed to climate impacts despite historically contributing little to the problem, is particularly well-positioned to create good adaptation jobs given the need for skilled workers in climate-ready infrastructure. It will require supportive public policy to take advantage of those opportunities.

Building wind turbines out of oil rigs is a win-win just transition solution. Over on the Just Transition Research Collaborative’s blog, Peder Ressem Østring explores the promise of oil and gas decommissioning in a just transition. Recycling old offshore oil infrastructure into new offshore wind infrastructure is a beautiful, untapped synergy that would create a huge amount of work for offshore energy workers.

Upcoming webinar explores idea of a Youth Climate Corps. The Climate Emergency Unit is hosting a webinar on March 7th with an impressive line-up of speakers, including Anjali Appadurai, Naomi Klein and Seth Klein, to discuss the potential for a government-funded climate corps to create jobs and advance climate action in Canada. You can register here.

That’s it for this month! My thanks to Danielle Matta, Trish Hennessy, Jon Milton and the rest of the CCPA team who helped get this first edition of the newsletter off the ground. If you found it helpful, tell a friend or a colleague to subscribe. And if you think we missed something or have any other feedback, please get in touch with your suggestions.

Until next time…

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