If Summer 2021 has made anything clear, its that we can no longer deny the truth:

  • Climate change is a present day threat, not a distant probability
  • Canada’s economy needs to decarbonize fast, given how much of our activities contribute to climate change
  • If we successfully tackle climate change, oil and gas will soon be energy sources of the past, as the historically pro-oil International Energy Agency recently confirmed.
  • Inequalities are at an all time high, and Indigenous, racialized, disabled and low-income communities have suffered the most from the COVID19 pandemic.

These truths all point to one direction: Canada needs to rapidly come up with a transition plan to phase out fossil fuel production without compromising on prosperity and community wellness. This is the motivation behind the idea of a just transition.

On July 20th, the Minister of Natural Resources announced the government was opening up consultations on a Just Transition, which would inform legislation and the formation of an external Just Transition Advisory Body in the Fall. This is a step in the right direction, but details matter when it comes to transitioning an economy and its workforce.

So, why do we need a just transition? What does it really mean? What should Canada do to achieve this transition?

I’ve heard the term before, but what does a ‘just transition’ really mean? 

While the phrase ‘just transition’ is the one used by the government, many prefer to move away from the buzzword and instead focus on what matters: a fair, gradual, planned, and supported transition for workers and communities that rely on the fossil fuel sector. Canadians need a strategy to reduce their emissions, which means phasing out of fossil fuels and other polluting industries.

But it’s not fair to close down industries without a plan for people who will be directly impacted. That’s where a transition strategy comes in – the acknowledgment that nobody should be left behind.

This transition requires a national strategy that simultaneously addresses:

  • the need for national and regional industrial planning to deeply decarbonize the economy,
  • workers and communities, including Indigenous communities, who will be affected by the energy transition
  • the inequitable impact of COVID-19,
  • the ongoing harm of colonization and racism,
  • all while creating and sustaining good jobs for all.

This is what we should be looking for in a real, truly just transition plan. Anything short of that will make Canadians dangerously vulnerable to the climate crisis and to energy market shifts, as the rest of the world rapidly reduces its demand for fossil fuels to green their own activities. It will make us miss out on an opportunity to be prosperous in the fair and regenerative economy, an economy designed to restore communities and ecosystems by incentivizing regenerative, not destructive or merely sustainable, behaviours.

Is that even possible? Have we done it before? 

The transition strategy we need is definitely unprecedented, just like everything else these days, it seems.

While the term “just transition” is not a new one, the successful examples of just transitions that have occurred have not been at the scale and pace now required in Canada and around the world. Many industrial transitions have occurred in Canada, from the forestry industry to cod fisheries. Many have been accompanied by job loss and hardship – which is exactly what will happen again if we don’t make developing a smart, people-driven plan a priority. Others have been more successful, but have been local or sector specific, such as the coal transition in Ontario and other countries like Germany and Spain.

This transition plan will have to be a national undertaking. So, when you hear the term ‘just transition’, remember it will neither foster trust nor results if it is not backed by a substantial strategy that directly comes from workers and communities.

A recent poll shows Canadians are ready and enthusiastic about a just transition, but they need to feel valued and supported by their elected representatives.

CANADA ALBERTA FORT MCMURRAY 19JUL09 – View of smoke plumes emitted from the Syncrude upgrader plant north of Fort McMurray, northern Alberta, Canada.

How can we make this great idea a reality?

Those most affected by the energy transition and the climate crisis, from workers to neighbouring communities, should be the ones to design the transition strategy. Together, they should aim at decarbonizing Canada’s economy and make it more equitable, more regenerative and more circular.

If the transition strategy is to be fair and long-lasting, the table should include,

  • those who will have to start new jobs or start an early retirement, such as fossil fuel workers,
  • those who will see their current job change, such as automobile workers,
  • those whose professional lives will be affected by climate disruption, such as farmers, postal workers, and healthcare workers,
  • community leaders who want to contribute to economic development and the energy transition away from fossil fuels

Additionally, Indigenous peoples, as workers, affected communities and sovereign nations on these lands, must be given decision-making powers. Others historically excluded from high paying, dignified jobs, such as racialized communities, disabled folks, women and many others living at the intersection of these identities, will be invited in. Finally, regional interests and concerns will be taken into account early on, and region-specific strategies will be designed.

father and daughter holding small seedling at community garden greenery

Isn’t Canada already on the right track?

The government just announced consultations, a piece of legislation, and an advisory body – these are all good ideas. However, many in the labour movement and in the most affected communities are concerned that the government will put the cart before the horse.

Before settling on a piece of legislation, Canada must:

  • Align the timing of the transition for workers with a managed phase out of the fossil fuel industry itself. There can be no ‘just’ transition if there is no planned transition.
  • Get ready to spend. Conversations and meetings are futile if they are not backed by funding, and only when numbers are announced will we be able to truly evaluate Canada’s transition plan.
  • Ensure collaboration and transparency in said collaboration between the various Ministries involved, from Natural Resources to Labour and Crown-Indigenous relations.
  • Coordinate conversations between Provinces and the Federal government early on.
  • Include in every piece of climate legislation provisions related to the transition for workers of the impacted sectors.

Canada’s economic transition must be approached as a coherent, large-scale, transformational strategy, that simultaneously rights past wrongs, avoids creating new harm, and enables us to achieve our economic and environmental goals. This will be no easy feat, but we have bright minds and many willing folks on our side. We are only lacking true leadership.