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Just Transition Explainer: Winding Down the Fossil Fuel Industry

What to know

  • In order for the climate to remain stable enough for organized human civilization to endure, we must stop extraction of new fossil fuel resources, and wind down existing extraction projects. This will require shifting our global energy supply from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. 
  • While it’s difficult to imagine, there are things that can be done, and quickly, to set us on the correct path. 
  • Ending government subsidies of the fossil fuel industry – which has never been more profitable – is necessary. No more public money can go towards these companies. 
  • Public money must instead be devoted to decarbonizing the economy, including investments in dense urban housing, public transit, and decarbonizing the food system.  
  • The RCMP occupation of Indigenous lands and surveillance of Indigenous land and water defenders must cease immediately and completely.  

At the core of a just transition is the transition itself, the move away from the fossil fuel economy and the winding down of the fossil fuel industry and its infrastructure.  

It’s a simple fact that, for the climate to have any chance of remaining stable enough for organized human civilization to endure, our dependence on fossil fuels must cease, and it must do so quickly. A simple fact, but one that presents a complex problem: what does it mean to wind down the industry upon which we have structured our society and economy? 

Global capitalism as we know it runs on fossil fuels. Therefore winding down the fossil fuel industry is incredibly difficult to imagine and implement, because it is embedded in global economies and livelihoods. This is a daunting proposal, even for those who understand the urgency of the climate crisis. As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek said, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”  

Though this is difficult to imagine, there are real, material steps that can be taken – very quickly – to move towards the goal of winding down the fossil fuel industry and shifting to a decarbonized economy that is focused on the well-being of the planet and the public, rather than on endless, unsustainable growth.  

  1. End fossil fuel subsidies  

There is no cogent argument in favour of continuing to give government subsidies in the billions to the fossil fuel industry. These companies have never been more profitable and it is difficult to comprehend the absurdity of being in the position of having to argue that companies that have, collectively, reaped profits of $195 billion in 2022 do not need billions of dollars of public money.  

This includes Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage, a technology which so far emits more than it captures, the true function of which is to greenwash continued fossil fuel extraction. 

  1. Immediately end any RCMP surveillance or occupation of Indigenous territories for the purpose of defending fossil fuel infrastructure or otherwise interfering with land and water defense 

For decades the RCMP has conducted surveillance and raids on Indigenous land and water defenders in service of fossil fuel companies like Coastal GasLink and their profits. Ending these operations is urgent, necessary, and entirely possible.  

We’ve written before about how Indigenous rights and sovereignty must be central to a just transition. Ending the RCMP’s war on land and water defenders is critical for winding down the fossil fuel industry as it puts a stop to the Canadian state’s use of public resources to wage war on behalf of private interests. 

  1. Invest heavily in public transit, high-density public housing, and decarbonizing our food system 

Much of life in Canada is built around the personal vehicle. Canada is geographically vast and the only way to get to many places is to drive. Even towns and cities give deference to the car, laying down kilometres of asphalt in ribbons two or four or six or even eight lanes wide. Urban sprawl is common, as are food deserts, meaning that many people have little choice but to drive to meet their basic necessities.  

Neither the current highway system nor the state of cities is inevitable – we ended up with these systems through active human decisions. Although it may be difficult to conceive of, we can reclaim much of the land that has been given over to cars.  

Robust and meaningful investment in public transit at every level – from trains and buses for cross country travel to street cars and networks of bike paths in cities, we can lower our reliance on the personal vehicle.  

Cities (and entire countries) can be designed in a way that makes commuting by public transit easy, safe, and accessible. The concept of a “15-minute city,” where neighbourhoods are designed in a way that ensures that residents can buy groceries or access medical care and other essentials within 15 minutes of their home, is another means of reducing vehicle travel.  

Tools like these are crucial for decoupling our society from fossil fuels and unsustainable extraction. Not only do vehicles currently account for around 11 per cent of total emissions in Canada, our dependence on them makes us dependent on the fossil fuel industry. Getting a large portion of vehicles off the road is an environmental necessity as well as a move towards liberation from capital. 

We also need to transform our agricultural system from the current carbon-intensive and corporate controlled model to a healthy, affordable, climate-friendly food system. That must include cutting emissions from agriculture in keeping with the reductions in other sectors, while addressing the inequalities in our food system.  

An agricultural system rooted in food justice can create many more meaningful, sustainable, unionized jobs, while reducing emissions, respecting Indigenous food sovereignty, and supporting justice for migrant workers. The crisis we face is complex, but that also means solutions rooted in justice can solve many aspects of the crisis at once. 

  1. Work collaboratively with communities that will be most impacted by the loss of the fossil fuel industry as an employer to ensure the community remains viable into the future. 

The transition should prioritize not displacing affected workers from their communities during the transition to a post-carbon economy.  

It’s imperative that a just transition wind-down and cleanup of fossil fuel infrastructure including extraction, refining, transportation, and export facilities, and ensure the polluters, not the government, pay for this essential cleanup.  

But it must be done in a way that involves workers and unions at every stage of the transition. And affected workers need to be supported in various ways through the transition, to ensure good, green, unionized jobs for all. A key part of the solution is the urgent need to set up an interconnected network of just transition centres in all affected communities. 

Anyone familiar with living and working in the relentless cycle of boom and bust that is a staple of extractive capitalism would not be surprised that there are certain communities that will suffer more than others from the changing fortunes of the oil and gas industry.  

Thriving communities that were built or adapted to house oil field workers and miners can be rendered ghost towns when a company like Suncor or Shell decides to pull up stakes. Although these are rich and robust communities where people have meaningful connections, private corporations are essentially free to sacrifice them to their bottom line. 

A just transition cannot shrug off the potential destruction of these communities as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good. Communities that are currently dependent on the extractive economy must be at the table every step of the way when it comes to navigating a post-fossil fuel world.  

Every possible avenue that could ensure the long- term viability of such communities, like the introduction of a low- carbon energy sector or other sustainable industry, must be explored. Although the government has enormous power to make changes to wind down the fossil fuel industry, there does need to be a certain amount of buy in from the people, and in order to get that, there needs to be concrete plans in place that demonstrate that communities dependent on the energy sector are not abandoned. 

If these things seem like huge, systemic changes, they are. They’re also necessary for survival. 

One way of comprehending the urgency of such a profound and radical social and environmental shift is to understand the profound and radical shifts that will happen in the coming years if we don’t act. 

Climate disasters have more than tripled since the 1970s, becoming more severe as they do. It may be alarmist to say that humans face extinction, but it’s accurate to anticipate that, if we don’t move immediately to wind down the fossil fuel industry, human civilization as we know it – highly organized, hyperconnected, and, when political will is not absent, reasonably able to respond to disaster – will cease. This collapse is something that will happen – is already happening – bit by bit, without large-scale efforts to turn the tide, like a just transition.  

A climate- related disaster will strike a region, and before infrastructure can be repaired, another will strike, leaving large portions of the area uninhabitable. The local economy will collapse and even those whose homes survived the disaster will find themselves living in an area where society is largely unviable.  

In some parts of the world, civilization is already being swallowed by the sea. In island nations like Fiji, Micronesia, Tuvalu, and Seychelles, rising sea levels due to melting ice caps threaten to displace entire populations from the lands where their ancestors had society for thousands of years.  

In 2014, the former president of Kiribati, a small island nation in the Pacific, bought a plot of land in Fiji so that Kiribati’s 100,000 residents will have somewhere to go when their homelands inevitably disappear. That same year, residents of the Fijian village Vunidogoloa were themselves forced to abandon their community to escape rising sea levels. These relocations disrupt social reproduction, posing potentially existential threats to displaced cultures.  

Wealthy countries like Canada, which have, for the most part, evaded the brunt of climate impacts, will face increasing stress on their infrastructure. Some communities and regions may experience climate disasters that they can’t recover from. In fact, it’s already happening. Lytton, B.C., which burned to the ground due to a climate crisis-exacerbated wildfire in June 2021, has yet to rebuild, and it’s unclear if it ever will. Deadly events like the 2021 Texas power crisis, which was largely caused by the intersection of extreme weather and underprepared infrastructure, will become more common.  

The choice we have right now is not whether we will make a radical, transformative change to our economy and society or stay the same, it’s between whether we drive the change forward with an eye towards justice and hope, or let the changes catch up to us, when we’re wholly unprepared. 

Alex Birrell

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

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