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Just Transition explainer: Expanding the social safety net

Just Transition Explainer: Expanding the social safety net

After years of relentless pressure on government from The Council of Canadians, labour unions, allied organizations, Indigenous leaders and organizations, and the public, 2023 is set to see the introduction of just transition legislation. This hard-won legislation could be a major victory for all involved, as it could start Canada on the long road to a more just, sustainable, and equitable future.

In our petition for just transition legislation, we laid out seven demands we know are essential steps along this path.

This analysis digs into the rationale behind one of our demands: We need legislation that creates new public economic institutions and expands public ownership of services and utilities across the economy to implement the transition.

When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, a great deal of the focus is on the tools and technologies that can get us off of fossil fuels, drastically reduce emissions, protect biodiversity, and ensure that as many regions of the planet remain habitable as possible. This makes sense. If we don’t take radical action to arrest climate change, there won’t be much of a future to plan for.

However, a just transition isn’t solely about the transition away from fossil fuels and extractivism. It’s a holistic, social and economic transformation. Because this transformation must necessarily disrupt business as usual, it is essential that we create a robust social safety net to see people through the process. But what does that look like? 

New income supports 

A just transition will alleviate poverty. Through the establishment of wealth taxes, windfall taxes, and an increase in corporate taxes, we can generate enough money to ensure that everyone is taken care of.

This includes funding to retrain workers who are currently working in the fossil fuel industry in low-carbon jobs that pay well, and are fulfilling and stable. It means ensuring workers have decent wages and working conditions. It also means that we can ensure income support for those who can’t work, or can’t work full time, like elderly and disabled people.

There is more than enough money and resources to go around in our society. Justice means ensuring that no one is forced into poverty because of old age, disability, or illness. We will also need income support for people who are pursuing education – college and university courses will help people participate in this changing world.

Decarbonized public housing

Canada is in a housing crisis. The cost of mortgages and rentals is far outpacing wages, and housing has become a commodity held by the wealthy few – including many elected officials – rather than a public good ensured for all. Plus, energy use in buildings constitutes 40% of Canada’s total energy consumption, mostly powered by fossil fuels.

The fact that so many MPs have real estate holdings means that their interests as landlords are in direct opposition to Canadians who are struggling to find decent, affordable housing. Meanwhile, the housing sections of federal government climate plans have almost exclusively focused on supports for landlords and have been largely silent on supports for renters.

Decommodifying housing is possible through a combination of community land trusts, community benefits agreements, restricting the sale and purchase of publicly-owned land to real estate investors, and implementing zoning changes that strictly enforce limits to non-public housing developments. These initiatives can begin to address the brutalizing housing inequality that is contributing to houselessness and poverty in Canada, as well as to the climate crisis that is already increasing pressure on people experiencing homelessness and poverty.

Decarbonizing housing is possible, too. Deep energy retrofits are necessary to cut the energy consumption of Canada’s existing buildings significantly, and doing so without disrupting tenants and residents is possible. For example, an initiative called “Energiesprong” in the Netherlands enables communities to increase the efficiency of multi-unit buildings by adding insulating panels to the outside of buildings without any tenants having to move out during the process. In the 2021 election, the Liberal Party promised to launch a similar program in Canada but has made no moves to deliver on this promise yet.

The construction and retrofitting of low-carbon, energy-efficient public housing across the country will provide good, well-paying jobs for construction workers while ensuring that no one in Canada goes unhoused. Meanwhile, it will be important to ensure that eco-retrofits can’t be used as a pretext for renovictions.

Low-carbon public transit

One of the key drivers of the climate emergency is the use of high-emission private vehicles. While electric vehicles have been proposed as a solution, we are not going to address the climate crisis by simply swapping out gas-powered personal vehicles for electric ones.

The federal government needs to shift priorities from supporting continued and expanding private vehicle use, to meaningfully supporting the expansion of mass public transit.

Developing a robust inter and intra-community public transit system based on trains and electric buses will go a long way towards lowering emissions and making communities – and the country itself – more accessible for more people. There’s an urgent need for the federal government to provide more operational funding to improve service and increase frequency, while also supporting public, intercity mass transit, including buses and trains.

That’s why the Council of Canadians is part of the Keep Transit Moving coalition, which brings groups together from coast to coast to campaign for a just transition for public transit.

A robust system of public transit will also provide reliable, well-paying jobs in the construction and maintenance of transit infrastructure and the operation of transit fleets. Reducing the number of private, personal vehicles on the roads will result in lower emissions and less road maintenance. Also, with less reliance on personal vehicles, space currently taken up by highways and parking lots or land under threat of highway expansion can be restored to its natural state or used as community space.

A just transition is a social transition

There is much to do to decarbonize the national and global economy to ensure a livable planet. But with that decarbonization must come an acknowledgement of the human and social costs of extractive capitalism.

The fossil fuel economy has not only exploited the planet’s resources, but it has also exploited people, including workers.

Inequality is rampant and rising. Food bank use is up across Canada, particularly among workers and children. People are choosing medical aid in dying rather than going on living in oppressive poverty.

A just transition will respect the value of human life and the importance of community. We will not be able to address the climate crisis without addressing the social inequality that has allowed global capitalism to flourish. An economic transition without a social transition will never be the all-encompassing transformation we need.

Find out more about our vision for a just transition here.

Sara Birrell
Sara Birrell

Sara Birrell is one of the Council Of Canadians Communications Officers, specializing in Research and Analysis. Sara also hosts the Unmaking Saskatchewan Podcast.

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