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What is a “sustainable job” anyway?

Shift Storm newsletter—October 2023 edition

November 29, 2023

8-minute read

The following is a re-print of the October 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 most curious omission from Bill C-50, the federal government’s proposed Sustainable Jobs Act, is its missing definition for the term “sustainable job.” Given that the stated purpose of the legislation includes “the creation of sustainable jobs,” one could be forgiven for assuming that the bill would provide a modicum of guidance about the kinds of jobs it is hoping to create.

February’s Sustainable Jobs Plan did, in contrast, offer a definition: “any job that is compatible with Canada’s path to a net-zero emissions and climate resilient future.” Of course, any job in any industry can be “on the path to” another economy if you squint hard enough. Indeed, the federal government is squinting very hard these days as it tries to fit the square peg of an oil-crazed petrostate into the round hole of global climate leadership.

Reproducing that deliberately vague characterization in Bill C-50 would not be especially helpful. But I maintain that arriving at a robust definition of a sustainable job—or a “green job,” as literally everyone outside the federal government might say—is actually important for achieving a just transition.

Without it, the Sustainable Jobs Act is fundamentally immeasurable and unenforceable. Worse, it could be used as an excuse for investments in industries—abated fossil fuels, petrochemicals, blue hydrogen, etc.—that are ultimately a distraction from real climate action. It is not cynical to suggest, given the federal government’s explicit commitments in these areas, that they are still trying to keep every door open (cf. square peg, round hole).

So what should the definition be instead?

The Pembina Institute and Canadian Labour Congress provided a good place to start in their joint Sustainable Job Blueprint: “any decent, well-paying, high-quality job that is compatible with Canada’s net-zero economy (i.e., aligned with Canada’s climate change commitments that involves the most likely pathways to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 in a matter that prioritizes emissions reductions over removals) and a climate resilient future, that can support workers and their families over time, and includes such elements as fair income, job security, social protection, and social dialogue.”

It’s a mouthful, but it’s clever. This definition avoids the pitfall of being overly specific (we don’t want to start itemizing industries) while implicitly calling out false solutions such as carbon capture. It also gives some teeth to the “good jobs” promise found elsewhere in the bill. Ultimately, the goal here is to make sure workers and communities are left better off by the transition. Locking them into fossil fuel derivative industries is not that future.

The Pembina/CLC joint offers a variety of other good recommendations, especially in terms of connecting the sustainable jobs agenda more explicitly to the government’s emissions reduction agenda. The report also calls for a one third labour presence on the Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council. And it sets out some concrete expectations for what each Sustainable Jobs Action Plan should address, including a focus on industrial strategy and workforce development.

Altogether it’s a very helpful piece for understanding the current landscape of just transition policy in Canada. A follow-up report is expected later this fall just as the bill is working its way through committee.

Speaking of reports, a big pile of new research came across my desk over the past several weeks, not to mention some important political developments, so let’s get right into it!

Research radar: key reads in work and climate

IEA confirms oil is on its way out. The International Energy Agency published two related reports, the 2023 update of its Net Zero Roadmap and its latest annual World Energy Outlook. Together, the reports paint a picture of a world that must and can decarbonize by investing aggressively in renewable energy and deliberately winding down coal, oil and gas infrastructure. In the IEA’s net-zero scenario, global oil demand falls 23 per cent by 2030 and 76 per cent by 2050. That’s in line with the Canada Energy Regulator’s estimate of an 83 per cent decline in Canadian oil sands production by mid-century under a global net-zero scenario. However, that will only occur with more stringent climate policies. Although the IEA is clear that fossil fuel demand will likely peak this decade in any scenario, we are not on track for net-zero based on world governments’ stated policies.

Trans Mountain pipeline now a $35 billion black eye for feds. Reuters reports that the cost of completing the Trans Mountain oil pipeline is now pegged at $35 billion, even though its market value is only in the range of $15-25 billion. The public will eat the difference of this massive and misguided fossil fuel subsidy, which is intended to pump nearly a million barrels of oil per day.

Oil industry dupes Alberta into cleaning up its massive mess. Speaking of black eyes, the Alberta government’s policy on oil well reclamation is a “massive regulatory failure” according to a new paper, A Made-in-Alberta Failure, by academics at the University of Calgary. More than 300,000 oil wells in the province have either been abandoned or soon will be with no real plan for cleaning them up. The authors point to regulatory capture by the oil industry as one of the main reasons not enough money has been set aside to cover this enormous and growing liability.

One million global coal jobs on the chopping block. Canada’s coal phase-out is well underway, but many countries are still heavily dependent on the coal industry. A new report from the U.S.-based Global Energy Monitor, Scraping By 2023, finds that nearly a million coal workers worldwide, particularly in China and India, will be laid off in the coming decades even without additional policies to phase out coal. The report calls for a proactive just transition for these workers instead of waiting for inevitable facility closures. Unfortunately, as the latest Global Coal Exit List from the German NGO Urgewald finds, 95 per cent of global coal companies are digging in rather than taking a proactive approach to transition.

Cities need concrete green jobs plans. The Brookings Institution has published an important analysis of green jobs policies in U.S. cities’ climate action plans. It finds that, while most cities mention green jobs as a priority, very few cities actually have a plan for creating and supporting green jobs in practice. The piece calls for more “intentional, proactive local leadership” in its recommendations, which is just as applicable to Canadian cities.

What does it take to build a just transition policy from scratch? The Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics has produced a helpful new report, Just and robust transitions to net zero, that offers a “modular reference resource” for jurisdictions trying to develop just transition policies of their own. While the report focuses on the EU’s Green Deal, the advice is comprehensive, practical and broadly applicable.

Eastern Europe taking small steps with EU-funded just transition programs. The EU-based Bankwatch Network has published a pair of papers, Mapping the road to a just transition in central and eastern Europe and Planning for social justice in Territorial Just Transition Plans in central and eastern Europe, that document and critique the just transition policies of seven countries that are receiving funding from the EU’s Just Transition Mechanism. In short, these countries are checking the main boxes for a just transition, but they lack climate ambition and have not given adequate consideration to the equity impacts of their policies.

UK falling behind on green industrial policy. I’ve talked a lot about how the EU, U.S. and China are pushing ahead with aggressive, state-led green industrial policies. Where is the UK in all this? According to a short new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, From missed chances to green advances, the UK’s climate progress has not been paired with a commensurate green growth agenda—at least compared to its European peers. Future research will offer a different path forward.

A UK-focused just transition primer. The UK government’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology has released a brief report, What is a just transition for environmental targets?, that provides a concise overview of the just transition concept in the UK context. It includes a thorough literature review and some thoughtful discussion questions, though it stops short of offering recommendations to Parliament.

Rising pressure: key developments in work and climate

Sustainable Jobs Act proceeds to committee. The House of Commons debated Bill C-50 on October 19 and October 23. There is a lot of the typical bluster in the transcripts but also some good criticism from all sides that the bill, as drafted, is too focused on process at the expense of substance. The bill ultimately passed second reading and is now being sent for study to the Standing Committee on Natural Resources.

Manitoba gets back on track. Although climate wasn’t a top priority for any party in the recent provincial election, Wab Kinew’s new NDP government has at least committed to achieving a net-zero economy by mid-century in line with the federal goal. Read The Narwhal’s full breakdown here.

Auto workers secure big wins, end strikes. As discussed last month, the United Auto Workers have been on strike since September to demand better pay and security as the North American auto sector shifts toward zero-emission vehicles. It now seems they’ve reached agreements with all three of the big automakers that include a roughly 25 per cent pay raise over four years. In Canada, Unifor reached tentative deals with GM and Stellantis shortly after strikes began. More details to come.

EU calls for fossil fuel phase-out… The European Union’s official negotiating position heading into COP28 is to push for a deal to phase out all unabated fossil fuels worldwide. It’s an important commitment that departs from previous, softer language around “lower-carbon” or “sustainable” policies. Nevertheless, the abatement loophole is a red flag that the EU’s more recalcitrant members fought to include.

…and major corporations get on board. More than 100 global corporations, including major multinationals such as Ikea, Nestlé and Unilever, have signed onto a letter calling on world leaders to enact “a full phase-out of unabated fossil fuels.” This is stronger language than we have historically seen from the corporate sector, but, as with the EU, the loophole for abatement provides cause for concern.

Scholarly squalls: key academic publications in work and climate

What exactly do we mean by “decent work”? A meta-analysis by academics in Poland published in the journal Social Sciences finds that despite the prominence of the term “decent work” in European political and legal discourses, there is scant agreement within the literature about how it should be measured (not unlike “sustainable jobs”). That’s a problem for just transition programs, because without agreed definitions it is impossible to enforce government and corporate commitments to creating good, green jobs.

Training isn’t enough if displaced workers have no jobs to turn to. Writing in Nature Communications, an American-Swiss team finds that most U.S. fossil fuel workers are not located in the regions poised for growth in the clean economy. That means even with retraining support those workers are unlikely to end up with clean jobs. Geographic mismatches are something I’ve written about a lot as it’s a major oversight for Canadian governments, too. We need targeted industrial policies to create the new opportunities that displaced workers truly need.

Solar power is winning the renewables race. Also in Nature Communications, a team of UK-based academics finds that we may have already passed a tipping point—due almost entirely to cost-competitiveness—where solar inevitably comes to dominate the entire global energy system. Why aren’t governments talking more about it? As a different study published in Energy Research & Social Science by an international team of researchers concludes, most of the emissions models that policymakers rely on “maintain a preference for inefficient combustion” rather than reflecting the most recent estimates for the low cost of solar power.

Are we ready to eat less meat for a cleaner future? A widely-circulated study published in CABI One Health by researchers with the Stockholm Environment Institute makes the case for a wind-down of industrial animal agriculture to help the world meet its climate targets. Unlike most environmental writing I’ve seen on this topic, the SEI researchers apply a just transition lens to the problem and offer a thoughtful discussion of the health and cultural consequences of policies intended to cut agricultural emissions. Reducing meat consumption is rarely on the table in the Canadian climate discourse, but we probably ought to be talking more about it.

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