Opinion

An Enviro Student Asks: Is a ‘Just Transition’ Too Much to Ask For?

Canada’s hopes for a sustainable economy may be a pipedream after all.

By Gabriel Lord 16 Jun 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Gabriel Lord is an honours student at Simon Fraser University pursuing a Geography degree. He has received the Warren Gill Memorial Award and the BOMA scholarship in Urban Studies.

[Editor's note: The Tyee was a proud partner with Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Environment on a recent undergraduate department opinion-editorial writing contest. Students had the chance to workshop their ideas and turn their critiques into compelling arguments. After reading the final submissions, it’s clear the next generation is thinking critically about our environmental future ⎯ and it gives us hope. This is the second of three winning entries in the contest.]

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project shocked many Canadians across the country.

After all, the Liberal leader’s 2015 election campaign centred around a number of environmental promises including his plan for the environment and economy, which involved new climate change policies, the removal of gag orders on environmental researchers, investment in clean technology, elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and emissions-reduction targets.

News of the pipeline project’s approval left a bad taste in the mouths of Lower Mainland residents and environmentalists alike.

Trudeau’s formal announcement of the go-ahead for Trans Mountain appeared to signal a different direction for the country. “Voters rejected the old thinking that what is good for the economy is bad for the environment... Canadians know this, and they know we need to transition to a clean energy economy,” he said.

In this, Trudeau may have been alluding to a concept that is quickly gaining momentum within environmental politics — that of the “just transition,” in which a reduction in reliance on fossil fuel energy is assumed.

Developed by the labour movement, just transition is a public policy approach that works to minimize the impact of new environmental laws and policies on affected workers and communities and ensure open and transparent dialogue between involved parties.

In practice, this means investing in education programs that train tradespersons in new skills; greater income security for workers transitioning from fossil fuel industries to environmentally sustainable sectors; and building a fund through taxes and levies on resource industries to support workers, communities, and industries.

A plan to change Canada’s reliance on fossil fuel industries and end the “boom and bust cycles” that typify Canadian natural resource extraction would appear to be in line with what most people would have expected from Trudeau, pre-election.

But instead of a clear just transition policy agenda, we’ve mainly seen the approval of projects that will benefit overseas fossil fuel consumers in Asia, such as the Pacific NorthWest LNG project late last year.

Our economy was built on natural resource extraction, but Trudeau’s message implies that we, as Canadians, are happy to continue down a path of volatility and uncertainty. It’s a stark reminder that Trudeau’s vision for the future is more indebtedness to the fossil fuel industry.

Trudeau’s vague message of a balanced energy-based economy coexisting with strict environmental legislation has been central to the Liberal government to date. For example, at the 2009 G20 summit the government vowed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, which would be a crucial step in influencing environmental policies.

Yet according to a study by Environmental Defense Canada and three partner organizations, as of November 2016 oil and gas producers were receiving annual subsidies of up to $3.31 billion for extraction incentives and to promote fossil fuel research.

If Trudeau, Canada’s supposed environmental proponent and progressive leader, is content with a business as usual model in a world that is more fragile and susceptible to environmental stresses, and is unwilling to embark on a vision that would ensure prosperity for local workers, the environment, and the economy, then who will? At what point will Canada put the wheels in motion for a just transition to a sustainable economy?

Workers and unions should be at the forefront of the just transition movement, because collectively they hold enough political strength to support meaningful legislation. Unions are organized to protect the employment interests of workers, and while they balk at the prospect of job loss from deflating carbon industries, studies have shown that in the long-term, a low-carbon economy will create more jobs than the fossil-fuel industries.

Achieving a just transition will be no easy task given the current carbon-oriented trajectory of the Liberal government. Unions, workers, and their communities must recognize and believe in the full potential of a just transition in order for change to happen.

This can encourage broader public and political support, which advances policy initiatives that result in greater investment in low-carbon industries, better wage standards, and just transition programs for workers and their communities.

It is time for our government, and our labour unions, to look beyond short-term gains and start investing in Canada’s future. If our government continues to base our economic future on the fossil fuel industry, the vision of becoming a nation founded on fiscal stability and ecologically motivated policies will remain a pipe dream.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics, Environment

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