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It’s not too late to fix the Sustainable Jobs Act

Shift Storm newsletter—June 2023 edition

July 31, 2023

8-minute read

The following is a re-print of the June 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.

Bill C-50, the long-awaited Sustainable Jobs Act, is not bad legislation. It enshrines vital principles of a just transition into law and creates new institutions that will carry this agenda forward.

If the bill had been tabled in 2019, when it was first promised by the Liberals based on the recommendations of the Just Transition Task Force, there would be good reason to be excited.

At the time, Canada’s phase-out of coal power was well underway with many lessons for how best to handle the coming wind-down of oil and gas production. Meanwhile, countries like Scotland and New Zealand were forging ahead with model just transition plans that Canada could have emulated.

Instead, the government waited four years to table a bill that is “ultimately of little consequence as drafted,” as my colleague Seth Klein put it. Having a new government secretariat produce workforce development plans based on the input of an external advisory council is sensible, but the mandates and timelines for these new institutions are excruciatingly vague and drawn-out.

We won’t get our first full “Sustainable Jobs Action Plan” until 2025 and even then there is no guarantee that it will advance decarbonization or inclusive workforce development in any tangible way. The ministers responsible for implementation are not bound to the targets or timelines set in the plans, and they have enormous latitude to interpret “sustainable jobs” to mean just about any kind of economic growth—including in fossil fuel extraction.

To achieve a truly just transition, the government’s strategy—and this supporting legislation—must be ambitious, specific and timely. It needs to provide tangible support to the workers and communities most concerned about decarbonization without shying away from aggressive efforts to wind down the production and consumption of fossil fuels.

It’s not too late to save this legislation, as I argue over on the CCPA blog. Simply moving elements of the preamble, which includes strong, progressive language, into the enforceable body of the text would be a good start.

There is also room for more ambitious initiatives that the federal government would do well to consider, such as a jobs guarantee. At a minimum, the legislation should enforce strong labour and equity conditions on all public investment—through green strings, community benefit agreements or otherwise—while explicitly excluding fossil fuel extraction from the net-zero economy we are working to build.

As the wildfires still raging across the country remind us, the climate crisis is here and there is no time to waste in transitioning toward a climate-safe economy. The Sustainable Jobs Act could play a key role in driving that change—but it will require more bravery than the government has yet shown.

This month’s edition of the newsletter dives deeper into the struggle over Canada’s industrial future. The evidence is mounting that we need a plan for a post-oil-and-gas economy. But, as our key reads warn, there are some major political and corporate headwinds to overcome.

Storm surge: this month’s key reads

The complete case for a managed decline of fossil fuel production in Canada

The latest release from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Setting the Pace, is an incredible resource in the fight for a cleaner economy. Through seven chapters, the report’s six authors present a detailed, step-by-step case for why Canada needs to phase down the extraction of oil and gas and how to do so while advancing social and economic prosperity.

Among other issues, Canadian producers in both oil and gas are poorly placed to compete against lower-cost producers in a context where global demand for fossil fuels is falling. Other hydrocarbon-based products, such as plastics and fertilizer, will make up only a fraction of that demand and are not the lifeline the industry claims. It should also go without saying that to address the climate crisis we need to aggressively slash emissions from Canada’s most polluting sector.

One of the most salient points for me is the risk of letting market forces drive the transition. While it’s true that Canadian oil and gas production will inevitably decline as demand and prices fall over the coming decades, it is unlikely to be a gradual or predictable process. Instead, fluctuating prices will hit certain thresholds below which Canadian projects become uncompetitive, and that will trigger sudden waves of job losses, divestment and bankruptcies that leave behind an enormous mess of orphan wells and tailings ponds.

The IISD report makes clear that Canadian governments and the Canadian economy more broadly can begin insulating themselves from these risks by stopping new investments in fossil fuels. Even if current projects are permitted to finish out their productive lives, the report argues, we should not be “risking taxpayer dollars by prolonging or increasing production.” Instead, that money should go toward job-creating investments in industrial alternatives in the clean economy.

A managed wind-down of oil and gas production is both necessary and possible, and the sooner we start, the easier it will be.

Report maps out the forces shaping—and fighting—Eastern Canada’s fossil fuel dependency

Eastern Canada is often left out of Canada’s climate policy debates, but Newfoundland and Labrador is the third largest producer of oil in the country, Nova Scotia is the most dependent on coal power and New Brunswick is home to Canada’s largest oil refinery. The entire region faces serious and unique challenges to decarbonization.

A new report from a team of researchers at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Corporate Mapping Project, Mapping Fossil Fuel Lock-In and Contestation in Eastern Canada, shines a light on these challenges. Central among them is the power of highly-profitable fossil fuel corporations to influence public policy, even as they transfer most of those profits to shareholders in Toronto, Calgary, the U.S. and elsewhere.

The report helpfully maps out the extent of “carbon lock-in” in the region and the constellation of corporate interests behind it. It also puts a welcome focus on the work of Indigenous groups and other civil society organizations fighting back against fossil fuel dependency. In fact, these struggles have been more successful than not in terms of blocking new oil, gas and coal projects. Unfortunately, putting the region’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure on a path to net-zero has been a tougher nut to crack.

The entire piece adopts a just transition framing that puts worker and community well-being front-and-centre in Eastern Canada’s economic future. While social, labour and environmental movements in the region are beginning to coalesce around the idea of a just transition, the report also warns that certain fossil fuel lifelines, such as hydrogen and carbon capture, could drive a wedge between allies. Movement leaders will need to continue working to build a consensus that does not fall prey to the false solutions the oil and gas industry is touting.

Parliamentary committee toes the party line on the energy transition

After more than a year of study, the House of Commons’ Natural Resources Committee has finally published Creating a Fair and Equitable Canadian Energy Transformation, which considers how the government can best ensure that the net-zero transition “creates opportunities for all Canadians.” My own testimony to the committee is cited throughout, including my assertion that “the world is moving away from fossil fuels whether we like it or not.”

The report makes 19 recommendations to the government, though nearly all of them reinforce commitments the government has already made. For example, the recommendation to collaborate with the provinces and stakeholders to develop regional industrial plans is precisely the mandate of the government’s regional roundtables. And the recommendation to adopt a social dialogue approach to consulting with Indigenous and labour groups is a focal point of the new Sustainable Jobs Act.

Perhaps most controversial is the recommendation to clearly classify nuclear energy as clean energy, and consequently to afford nuclear projects the same kinds of government support that renewable energy projects receive. Nuclear power is something of a third rail in Canadian politics, with most governments neither fully embracing nor distancing themselves from it. While the federal government is investing in small modular reactors, I don’t expect nuclear to be a front-and-centre priority any time soon.

Overall, the report is rather unambitious and uninspiring despite aligning in a broad sense with the idea of a just transition. I tend to agree with the dissenters that the report is “so abstract that it will be difficult to implement,” as the Bloc Quebecois put it. Ultimately, there is little here that would change or strengthen the government’s current agenda.

Research radar: the latest developments in work and climate

Just transitions are key to global social justice. The International Labour Organization held its annual conference in June with a focus on just transition. The director-general’s report, Advancing social justice, positions just transitions as one of four pillars of social justice alongside human rights, equal access and fair distribution. While just transitions are typically discussed in the context of climate action, the ILO rightly points out that transitions of all kinds require a justice focus, including technological and demographic transitions.

Rich countries stall talks on support for a global just transition. In other conference news, the UNFCCC held this year’s “pre-COP” in Bonn in June. While mainly a technical meeting to lay the groundwork for COP 28 in Dubai, it was a controversial affair with little substantive progress made, as Carbon Brief reports. A proposed work program on just transition pathways is mired in debate over the responsibility of developed countries to support just transitions in developing countries.

Why trade unions should embrace degrowth. A new working paper from the European Trade Union Institute, Beyond economic growth, explores how the labour movement could thrive in a post-growth economy. Degrowth is a touchy subject in economic circles with progressives split on its desirability and feasibility. But wherever you stand on that issue, this new ETUI paper makes a compelling case for workers to focus on measures of well-being, such as the availability of robust public services, that go beyond more traditional priorities like wages.

Unions need to play a bigger role in Europe’s auto transition. Writing in the Green European Journal, Bela Galgóczi provides his typically thoughtful perspective on Europe’s transition to electric vehicles. Without a just transition, he warns, hundreds of thousands of workers are on the chopping block. Instead of resisting change, however, the trade unions representing these workers must work to shape the transition in a way that puts worker well-being first. They would do well to learn from the work of Canada’s auto workers on this issue.

London, UK presents just transition plan. The London Sustainable Development Commission has published London’s Just Transition, the British capital’s plan for an “equitable, net-zero city.” I absolutely love seeing local roadmaps like this and have highlighted other cities in previous newsletters. Unfortunately, as is often the case, London’s new plan is very strong in its overall framing but weaker when it comes to concrete actions.

Global finance ministers to consider just transition principles in policy development. The Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action has published Strengthening the role of Ministries of Finance in driving climate action, which was developed in collaboration with the UK-based Grantham Research Institute and finance ministries from more than 30 countries, including Canada’s. Although not a central principle, just transition is a crosscutting priority in the report. Ensuring distributional consequences are considered in financial policy development is welcome, though I’d like to see more tangible expectations on this front.

The climate transition is the biggest “macrotrend” driving global job creation. The World Economic Forum’s latest Future of Jobs report, which is based on surveys of global business leaders, finds that the “green transition” and other factors related to climate change, such as growing consumer demand for sustainability, will be the strongest forces driving global job creation in the coming decades.

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