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Just transition beyond climate change

There’s much more at play than shifting jobs to a low-carbon economy.

Female oil worker

There has been plenty of political rhetoric around plans for Canada's Just Transition to a low-carbon economy and how it risks jeopardizing livelihoods, particularly in the oil and gas sector. Meanwhile, those working in the policy landscape say it's a chance for communities to move away from the boom-and-bust cycles of resource development and have a say in shaping their local economies.

For others, focusing only on jobs in the extractive sector is an inadequate response to a greater set of challenges. 

For now, however, fear is driving the debate. Vanessa Corkal, a senior policy advisor on Canada's energy transition with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), says there is uncertainty among workers and communities about their livelihoods and the future of their industries in the net zero transition. Amplifying these concerns are rising inflation and costs of living.

It's easy to blame the federal government for being the architect of that uncertainty, she says. But we must acknowledge the world is also going through an unprecedented economic change in transitioning to net zero.

If conceived and implemented correctly, just transition legislation could ensure workers and communities take advantage of the immense opportunity and have a more active say in shaping their local economies.

Internationally, many jurisdictions have placed workers at the centre of their net zero transitions by drawing on principles designed by the International Labour Organization. For example, the ILO recognizes agreements to ensure that the benefits of investment and economic development are shared among local communities, workers and businesses. 

"So they move away from the kind of an extractivist model where profits don't necessarily stay in the region towards something where communities can really take ownership over that," says Corkal. "There are huge opportunities with decentralized energy as well."

Canada need not reinvent the wheel here. Spain, South Africa and New Zealand have all built more inclusive economies, she argues. What's more, a just transition can contribute to economic reconciliation if Indigenous nations are treated as full partners, not just stakeholders.

So what should Canada's just transition legislation look like?

Drawing on the 2022 IISD report, Making Good Green Jobs the Law, and working with its advisers, Ecojustice lawyer Matt Hulse recently authored a proposal in collaboration with Equiterre.

It calls for a legal framework that sets out a "top-down" and "bottom-up" scheme to be carried out by a newly created federal just transition institution, an appointed minister responsible for the transition, and regional and sectoral partners. 

It would draw on the ILO's principles, be guided by an independent advisory body, include a broad range of affected stakeholders and advance nation-to-nation relationships. 

The critical element is that social dialogue be entrenched in the process and that governments work directly with unions, employers and workers to ensure they have an active say in shaping their futures when plans are developed.

Top-down efforts call for a national just transition strategy that sets out the vision, intentions and objectives for the shift in Canada, accounting for industry impacts and ensuring mechanisms are in place to protect workers. 

Bottom-up efforts would make it possible for regions and sectors most affected by the low-carbon shift to tailor plans to their needs.

"This transition, by necessity, has to be taken by the people for the people," says Hulse. "Those who are directly affected need a role in decision making, in planning and implementing initiatives to help diversify their local economies and transition to a low-carbon economy."

The transition will affect regions of Canada differently, he warns: "We can't have a plan that's one size fits all." 

Nor should it focus on jobs alone, according to Dr. Alexandra Harrington. 

An environmental law lecturer at Lancaster University Law School, Harrington authored the book, Just Transitions and the Future of Law and Regulation. She says viewing the "just transition" only through the lens of workers' rights and the shift away from a fossil fuel-based economy is both dangerous and a missed opportunity. Stopping there removes a potentially powerful legal and regulatory tool that can be used to address current and future challenges, including the ongoing effects of climate change and future pandemics, which will continue to stress and threaten established industries. 

Consider how COVID-19 forced shifts in how many industries and economic sectors work and caused massive unemployment in specific sectors. Whether in tourism, transportation, education, healthcare or hospitality, many found themselves in far less stable situations than they ever expected. None of those sectors have anything to do with extractive industries, yet they face existential threats that require adapting to completely different circumstances.

"There is great potential for those transitions to happen in a manner that is not just, which will see people left unable to work, without skills or recourse," Harrington says. "How do we make sure that our responses to this are actually addressing the problem and the drivers that got us to that point, while also not leaving historically marginalized communities behind in even worse conditions than they have been before?"

She says that we haven't made these considerations part of traditional disaster planning. "It's not part of any type of response to anything, whether it's a pandemic, a hurricane or a cyclone, there is really no model for that." 

But it should be, says Harrington. The law is a powerful tool for just transitions to protect societies. It can help us be proactive and prepared for current and evolving challenges, which is why we ought to think of a just transition plan the way we think of an environmental impact assessment. As with a proposed project, when faced with a new or emerging challenge, thought needs to be given to immediate and future impacts, what we can do to avoid or mitigate them, and how to plan around them. Everyone who will feel the impacts needs to have a say in shaping the way forward.

A just transition must also address socio-economic impacts if communities are to move beyond defining themselves restrictively as they have for generations — as a mining or oil and gas community, for example — to broaden their identity and the opportunities that come with that. 

However, that isn't easy in a polarized society in which people's identities are very much tied up in what they do. 

The pandemic revealed how critical it is for us to be more adaptable and not get "so entrenched that the immediate response is always negative to any type of change," Harrington says. "A just transition keeps on as a cycle, more than just that one rotation into a new job. It also gives communities the idea of how to expand themselves."