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Big business is hijacking the language of a just transition – we can’t let that happen 

On March 20, 2022, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), Canada’s fifth-largest bank, posted an episode to their podcast, the dubiously titled “Sustainability Agenda,” called “Enabling a Just Transition.” Host Dominique Barker interviewed Deborah Zandstra and Janet Whitaker of Clifford Chance, a London-based law firm that ranks among the ten largest law firms in the world. The topic was, as you may have guessed, how banks can “support [a just transition] through financing activities.”

A just transition is a clearly defined idea – the Climate Justice Alliance calls it, “a principle, a process, and a practice” – that centers workers and communities, particularly racialized and low-income communities most impacted by economic and climate injustices. It was first conceived of by workers, labour unions, and environmental justice organizations, and it is workers around the world who are fighting for a just transition to phase out polluting industries, protect the well-being of communities, and ensure pathways into new industries.

But the CIBC podcast, like other corporate-led initiatives that co-opt the term without the content, was devoid of any of the labour, race, class, and gender analysis that is foundational to a just transition. That is, it was hardly even a transition and certainly no justice.

At one point in the conversation, Zandstra says that one of the biggest concerns of not acting on a just transition is not, as one would think, an ecological collapse that far outstrips the ability of communities and humanity to adapt, but “increased litigation.” The dialogue is a combination of gruesome and absurd. The three spoke about the most urgent threat humanity has ever faced as though it is an intriguing business challenge and an opportunity to increase profits.

CIBC isn’t the only corporation – or even the only bank – aiming to get ahead of worker- and community-led Just Transitions with an agenda of their own. The Bank of Montreal, Canada’s third-largest bank, has their own podcast episode about just transitions. Suncor, the Calgary-based energy company that operates in the ultra high emissions environment of the oil sands, also uses the language of just transition their site. So does the Canadian Energy Centre – Jason Kenney’s so-called “Energy War Room” – which was established for the explicit purpose of challenging the principles that underlie a true just transition. More and more companies are latching onto the language of a just transition while discarding the content.

We can’t be fooled – and we can’t let others be fooled either

These companies aren’t talking about a just transition for workers and communities. They’re talking about a just transition for industry, a transition where those who hold wealth and power are able to hold onto wealth and power. The story they are telling is only possible within the cultural narrative of fossil fuel industry, and the exploitative economic and social structures that megacorporations will continue to subject us to if we let them.

It is the kind of narrative that will, if it is allowed to take root and spread, undermine everything the Council of Canadians and our allies have been fighting for, and what a majority of Canadians have said they want. It will delay progress on a true just transition, possibly past the point of no return.

If these companies are allowed to take control of the narrative, if they’re allowed to restructure what a just transition is to suit their own needs, we’ll lose the momentum we’ve gained in our push for a world that is equitable and fair for all workers, a world that respects and upholds Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous knowledges, where communities are protected from extreme weather events, and we have invested public services, training, and transition supports to ensure the transition to a low-carbon economy puts people and communities – not corporations – first.

In contrast, when corporations are finally forced to make the aggressive adjustments we – and they – know are necessary to address the climate crisis, the land and water will be healthier, biodiversity will thrive, our infrastructure will be more sustainable, and our communities will be able to plan for generations without fear of massive climate upheavals.

The transition to a low-carbon economy has already begun – our choice now is whether it serves people or corporations 

Corporations devote an enormous amount of resources to analyzing trends and adapting their businesses to protect their profits from changing social dynamics. The fact that big banks and big business are starting to talk about a just transition means that they understand that a transition away from fossil fuels and an extractive economy isn’t just possible – it’s inevitable. In fact, it’s already happening.

National Resources Canada says, “an energy transition is underway,” and their agency Canada Energy Regulator says that transition “is occurring in many areas of the economy.” The shift is happening around the world, with everyone from the global management consulting firm McKinsey to the Australian think tank Lowy Institute reporting that an energy transition is not just imminent, but ongoing.If we want to keep control of the narrative and ensure a just transition for people – not big business – we need to be clear when it comes to what a just transition is…and what it isn’t.

A just transition is not…

  • Market-based “solutions”: “Financial products and services,” emissions trading, P3s, and other capitalist “solutions” aren’t components of a just transition – and won’t solve ecological crisis. They don’t get us closer to the future we want and need, where fossil fuels are left in the ground and wealth and resources are distributed equitably and fairly, not hoarded by a select few billionaires.
  • From the top down: A just transition cannot be dictated to communities and people by private industry. It must be led by the people who will be impacted the most.
  • Techno-fixes like carbon capture, “clean coal,” and other false solutions like blocking out the sun: These so-called “solutions” are nothing more than desperate attempts to maintain the status quo, allowing fossil fuel companies to continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere (and money into their bank accounts) while continuing to pollute our water, air, and soil and without making the serious adjustments to their environmental impacts necessary to meet the crisis.
  • An easy solution: A just transition requires hard work. It is a dramatic restructuring of our economy and our society. It requires massive efforts, but only massive effort can ensure a just and sustainable future.  

A just transition… 

  • Is worker- and community led: It protects and strengthens human rights and worker rights, respects Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and knowledge by including them in creating and implementing this legislation, ensures migrant justice, and emphasizes support for historically marginalized communities. It creates good green jobs and drives inclusive workforce development, led by and including affected workers and communities. It ensures decent, low-carbon work for all workers. 
  • Is transparent, public, and well-resourced: A just transition will establish public institutions and expand public ownership across the economy to implement the transition. Corporations have dictated the terms of climate policy behind closed doors for decades. A just transition requires more than community consultations – it requires shifting democratic control to communities. And it demands that communities be given the resources – financial and otherwise – to manage a transition without leaving anyone behind.  
  • Respects and upholds Indigenous sovereignty: the colonial worldview of land and people as resources to be used and discarded for profit is what got us where we are. A just transition respects and honours Indigenous people’s right to self-determination, it centres Indigenous worldviews and ecologies. 
  • Centres historically marginalized communities and low-income communities: It protects and strengthens human rights and worker rights, respects Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and knowledge by including them in creating and implementing this legislation, ensures migrant justice, and emphasizes support for historically marginalized communities. It expands the social safety net through new incomes supports, decarbonized public housing, and operational funding for affordable public transit countrywide. 
  • Winds down the fossil fuel industry: It shouldn’t have to be said, but it does – a just transition cannot happen without the phase out of fossil fuels and reducing Canada’s overall emissions by at least 60% below 2005 levels by 2030. If it doesn’t involve leaving it in the ground, it’s not a just transition.  

The Council of Canadians members, chapters, and allies have been fighting for a truly just transition for a long time. Will you join us?

Alex Birrell

Alex Birrell is one of the Council of Canadians Communications Officers, specializing in Research and Analysis.

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