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A just transition means no worker left behind

“Sustainable Jobs” bill shows us we need to ramp up our organizing

Overview

Imagine if a company sold you a jigsaw puzzle. You open the box and there are only two or three pieces in it, but the writing on the box claims all the pieces of the puzzle are included. That’s the Sustainable Jobs Act, a.k.a. Bill C-50.

The federal government is claiming it’s keeping its promise to implement a just transition. However, the Sustainable Jobs Act includes zero mentions of just transition and zero sense of urgency, despite the record-breaking wildfires that continue to rage from coast-to-coast, inundating our communities with toxic smoke.

There are some important—albeit vague—pieces included in this bill that are a direct result of social movement organizing. Thousands of people have been putting pressure on the federal government for just transition legislation since Prime Minister Trudeau promised it in 2019. And this bill represents some important gains that this government wouldn’t have introduced otherwise.

There’s still time between now and the fall to call on our MPs to amend the bill to address the gaps and loopholes. Whether this bill ultimately implements a just transition is up to us.

STRENGTHS, ALMOST

While Bill C-50 is far from a complete solution to the puzzle of the climate crisis, it includes some important gains – thanks to the tireless organizing of people like you.

Governance

The bill designates a federal minister with responsibility for the Sustainable Jobs Act. A full-fledged Ministry of Just Transition is needed. Is this bill a step in that direction? Not yet, but we can collectively organize to demand amendments to ensure that it is.

Supports for, and Involvement of, Affected Workers and Communities

The bill tasks a Sustainable Jobs Secretariat with coordinating the Sustainable Jobs Action Plan, including on key issues like skills development, the labour market, and rights at work. It also establishes a Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council with a mandate to advise relevant federal ministers on the progress of the legislation, once passed, through social dialogue—a key demand of the labour movement.

These provisions could help to ensure participation of workers and communities in decision-making about just transition. However, there are potential pitfalls. For example, will the federal government include fossil fuel CEOs on the Partnership Council? It’s long past time to take the reins of climate and job policies away from CEOs and billionaires and put the decision-making in the hands of workers and communities.

One of our core demands on the Climate Accountability Act was that there be no fossil fuel executives on the Net Zero Advisory Council for the same reason, and we won on that front.

Inclusive Workforce Development

The bill encourages “the creation of employment opportunities for groups underrepresented in the labour market, including women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, Black and other racialized individuals, 2SLGBTQIA+, and other equity-seeking groups.” There are mentions of Indigenous rights and the rights of people with disabilities, but they are in the preamble of the bill, not the sections that instruct government action.

These gestures towards caring for marginalized peoples are not strong enough. How will these mentions of human rights be brought to life by the bill? What is the government going to do to create these opportunities? What funding is it going to provide to create good, green, sustainable jobs to drive the just transition? What is it going to do to ensure local and regional needs are addressed? These are some of the questions that organizers and activists can and should be asking as the bill goes through the House.

WEAKNESSES

There are strengths to the bill, but there are also some notable weaknesses. This is where our voices and actions matter, and why we cannot let up the pressure.

Indigenous Rights

While the government passing legislation on the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is mentioned in the preamble, there’s no mention of the right of Indigenous peoples to free, prior, and informed consent about projects in their territories, even though it was mentioned in the “Sustainable Jobs Plan.”

Absence of Social, Economic, and Climate Justice

The term ‘just transition’ doesn’t appear once in the bill. While the term does have its detractors, there is an important meaning attached to just transition in relation to the human rights of workers and communities. Removing not just the term, but also its essence, weakens this bill’s ability to protect those rights through the transition to a post-carbon economy.

The bill is predicated on business-as-usual economic growth and contains no clear ambition or targets for the level of social and economic transformation or emissions cuts that are needed. This lack of ambition is a big part of why we’re in this mess in the first place.

The bill would “support the creation of decent work, meaning good-paying, high-quality jobs—including jobs in which workers are represented by a trade union—as well as job security, social protection, and social dialogue.” On one hand, this sounds promising. On the other hand, the absence of a clear plan for an economic transition to a post-carbon economy in the bill, let alone a just one, leaves us to wonder how and when this job creation would actually occur.

False Solutions are Still a Giant Loophole

The government, unsurprisingly, is pushing false solutions as “opportunities,” including critical minerals, hydrogen, carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), and small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).

Investing in false solutions helps prop up the fossil fuel industry and delays an actual transition towards decarbonization, which hurts everyone including fossil fuel workers. A common phrase people use when talking about climate emergency and just transition is ‘change or be changed.’ In this context, employing false solutions to delay winding down fossil fuel production might delay workers’ precarity, but will make it worse in the end as interest in fossil fuels drops steeply in the future. Now is the time to plan for a soft landing for workers moving into other industries.

We need to build affordable and reliable public transit for all, which is better for jobs, communities, and the climate than relying solely on the mass adoption of electric cars that would drive “green extractivism” for so-called “critical minerals” for batteries materials both abroad and here at home.

Experts agree that the only near zero emissions hydrogen is green hydrogen, produced from renewable energy. A 2021 peer reviewed paper shattered the climate credibility of blue hydrogen, finding that its greenhouse gas intensity can be up to 20 per cent worse than burning natural gas for heat. Hydrogen derived from fossil fuels is also a way of greenwashing continued fossil fuel extraction.

Not only does carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) not reduce emissions, but it’s also an unproven technology that emits more than it captures. In the process, it gives false hope to fossil fuel workers, while CEOs squeeze the last bit of profits out of extraction that they can.  

Nuclear energy infrastructure, including small modular reactors (SMRs), takes far too long to build given the urgency of climate action by 2030; it is incredibly expensive, making renewables like wind and solar far more cost effective; and it is a dangerous form of power in a world with a deteriorating climate.

The inclusion of these “solutions” is a loophole in the bill that’s big enough to build several pipelines through.

The Needs of Regions and Sectors

The government argues the needs of communities and regions will be addressed by “Unlocking Opportunities through the Regional Energy and Resource Tables.” However, this remains to be seen.

As Seth Klein notes, “the act is silent on regional planning and governance. It does not mention the government’s own Regional Energy and Resource Tables, let alone something more ambitious like provincial/Indigenous Just Transition Agencies.”

The just transition bill will also need to address regional and sectoral mechanisms to ensure major sources of emissions like food production and transportation, housing, and transit are included in job-creating transition plans.

The federal government needs to get much clearer on what the plans and decision-making processes look like for each of these sectors and how to ensure provincial and territorial buy-in. The Climate Emergency Unit’s proposal for a just transition transfer should be part of these regional plans.

Governance, Accountability, and Climate Science

According to the Climate Action Network’s calculation of fair share emissions reductions, Canada needs to reduce emissions by at least 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and make significant contributions to emissions reductions in countries in the Global South, but the bill sticks to the government’s insufficient plan of 40 per cent by 2030.

The government’s “Sustainable Jobs Plan,” of which this bill is a part, has so far relied too much on funding re-announcements and buy-in from provinces and the private sector, with no concrete framework for how that funding will be distributed or evaluated. The federal government needs to spend what it takes to win. So far, they have yet to invest in a just transition that the scale of the crisis requires.

The bill would require the government “to publish Sustainable Job Action Plans every five years to ensure that the government will continue to be transparent and accountable to Canadians as it takes action to support workers and foster the creation of sustainable jobs across the country.” And the first of these plans isn’t scheduled until after the next federal election. This is a far cry from what’s needed.

When the pandemic started, the Prime Minister was holding daily press conferences to update the public on what was happening and what the government was doing about the public health crisis. And yet, the climate emergency – which poses an existential threat to human civilization – for some reason only warrants an update on what the government is doing once every five years. This is so far from what’s required it’s insulting.

What we can do

Because of all the organizing and hard work of labour, Indigenous, migrant justice, environmental, and other allied groups, the federal bill is much stronger than it would have been.

Now’s the time to redouble our efforts. We need to contact our MPs and demand they ensure that the bill is amended so that it implements a just transition and isn’t just a vehicle for greenwashing and profiteering by Big Oil CEOs.

Dylan Penner

Dylan Penner

Dylan Penner is a Climate and Social Justice Campaigner at the Council of Canadians


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