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We need a public-powered just transition

For a just transition to be truly just, it must be public. In order to ensure that Indigenous peoples, workers, migrants, and marginalized communities aren’t left behind in the move away from a fossil fuel economy, it’s critical that public institutions – not private interests – are in control. 

When private companies own utilities and banks, these bodies make decisions that are in the interests of shareholders and their bottom line. They answer to the demands of profit, which are often at odds with the needs of workers and communities. 

Privatization and so-called public-private partnerships should have no part in a just transition, because they’re making the climate crisis worse. Moving away from fossil fuels (and away from capitalism’s need to profit at the expense of human rights and needs) will require us to restore control of utilities to the public.

In her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, environmental activist and author Naomi Klein stressed the importance of public ownership of much of the power grid in Germany’s transition to renewable energy. That country has been transitioning steadily toward renewables, away from coal and oil, since the early 2000s. In early 2019, Germany reached a climate milestone, whereby renewable power sources generated 65 per cent of electricity for a week – although it’s important to note that a February 2020 report from the International Energy Agency says Germany is still falling short of its near-term emissions reduction targets. Still, Germany’s milestone demonstrates that using renewable power to meet our needs is possible.

Currently, 84 per cent of Canada’s electricity comes from renewable sources (with the caveat that some of that electricity comes from nuclear power, and some from megadams and other hydro-generated electricity projects.) The federal government is developing Clean Electricity Regulations to decarbonize the electricity grid and meet our climate targets – but that’s not enough. 

It is critical that Indigenous rights and sovereignty be at the forefront of conversations about renewable energy generation. Crown corporations have steamrolled Indigenous communities in the past in the name of clean electricity and the public good – we see that especially with projects like the Site C dam or the dumping of radioactive waste in Algonquin territory. 

Public institutions take their direction from the government – in a true democracy, this means they take direction from the people. We can direct such institutions to prioritize decarbonization while ensuring that Indigenous rights and sovereignty are respected and that utility rates remain affordable. 

In addition to public utilities, public banks and public insurers are crucial for protecting the people from the economic and social impacts of the climate crisis. In the U.S., particularly California and Florida where climate disasters like fires and sea-level rise are making life increasingly untenable for many communities, insurance companies like State Farm are refusing to insure people who live there against disaster. It is an injustice to tell people who live in crisis-stricken regions to “just move,” and that injustice is compounded when the structures of capitalism refuse both to mitigate the risks that such people face and to ease the financial burdens that accompany disaster. Public insurance, administered through public banks, can more effectively and meaningfully address the financial costs of the climate crisis.

Public ownership of utilities and banks can also ensure better wages and working conditions for workers. Publicly-owned utilities tend to have unionized workers, guaranteeing better wages, pensions, and other benefits. Public ownership also allows for equity hiring to be mandated in a way that is not always possible through the private sector. 

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) has a long-running campaign in support of Postal Banking. Postal banking, which occurred in Canada for over a hundred years, is the provision of financial and banking services through a post office, that is, Canada Post. 

Unlike private Canadian banks, the postal service is accountable to the public as a crown corporation. Postal banking would preserve unionized jobs, ensuring the protection of workers’ rights. Postal banking would also increase financial inclusion, promote economic development (especially in small communities), and generate revenue to preserve an important public service, Canada Post. You can learn more about postal banking and CUPW’s campaign here. 

Private ownership of land, resources, utilities, and other institutions is largely responsible for the crisis we find ourselves in today. Such ownership allows, even requires, for the interests of a small few to be placed ahead of the interests of the whole. The restoration of public control over the commons, over infrastructure, and over our collective wealth is a necessary step in the establishment of balance and equity in our society. It is critical for a just transition.

Chris Kruszewski

Chris Kruszewski

Chris Kruszewski is a Climate and Social Justice Campaigner at the Council of Canadians

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