Alberta and Ottawa kicked off the New Year arguing in the media while making little progress on issues actually affecting Canadians. This time, Alberta came out guns blazing against the term ‘just transition’ after the Federal government announced progress on its just transition strategy for workers affected by the transition to the low-carbon economy. While it is clear the legislation simply got caught in the crossfire of the upcoming Alberta election, we can not let this “war on words” delay necessary conversations about the economic changes taking place, and become a real war on workers. 

Just transition is about ensuring workers have a say in their future 

The term “just transition” was coined by labour unions in the 1970s to describe bringing workers to the table to engage in conversations about environmental policies that may affect their jobs. 

Labour unions have fought hard on the international stage to make the definition of Just Transition meaningful. 

This resulted in the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Just Transition Guidelines, which state that sustainable development policies must come alongside policies that guarantee social protection, rights at work, employment and social dialogue. Social dialogue means ensuring parties that will be affected by policies are included throughout negotiations, essentially ensuring workers and communities are at the table, not on the menu. 

Canada has signed on to the ILO’s guidelines, and the current government made an electoral promise to pass just transition legislation. If Canada backs away from these commitments, workers could be left out in the cold with a pink slip in hand, as employers negotiate deals with the government about the net-zero transition behind closed doors.

There is a real risk of an unjust transition.

Unjust transitions have already happened, for example in Alberta with the coal plant closures.  The Alberta government announced in 2015 a phase-out of coal power generation, which was set to happen progressively all the way up to 2030, and companies negotiated a $1.36 billion deal with the government to keep coal in the ground. Workers and their unions were not included in these negotiations, resulting in an unfair deal: government funding came with no strings attached, meaning there were no worker retention or worker support conditions. Still, the decade-long phase-out was supposed to give workers time to reach retirement age or to identify their next steps. 

However, companies ended up unilaterally accelerating the phase-out of coal-powered generation to 2022 to switch to gas, leaving workers with little turnaround time and only a $40 million transition fund to be shared between workers and communities, a fraction of what companies received. 

Throwing punches at the term ‘just transition’ won’t stop the energy transition that is already underway. Global markets are turning their attention to renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. The transition away from high-carbon industries such as Canada’s oil and gas sector is taking place, yet absent of a just transition strategy, for now, workers’ fates are left in the hands of investors and markets.

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Actions speak louder than words

While Alberta and Ottawa bickered, Scotland tabled its Energy Security and Just Transition plan. The plan lays out the government’s proposal to ensure communities reap the benefits of the energy transition, from affordable energy to ownership of local projects, good jobs in low-carbon sectors, and promises further sector-specific plans as a recognition that a one-size-fits-all plan is not adequate. 

Canada must catch up to Scotland, Spain, New Zealand and the numerous other countries that have developed just transition strategies. This starts with passing legislation that commits the government to co-developing plans, per region and per economic sector, with parties potentially affected by the energy transition. It is way past the time for disagreements on words: we must now develop plans, negotiate fair deals and deploy resources to respond to the transition taking place.