Fate of 3,500 coal-power workers, and more, at stake with new ‘just transition’ task force

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The task force will lay out a path to help Canada transition to the new, job-rich low carbon economy.

 

It has been a long time coming. The Trudeau government is poised to launch Canada’s first federal task force on a “just transition” for workers affected by policies intended to mitigate climate change. In this case, it’s the government’s plan to virtually eliminate traditional coal-fired electricity generation by 2030, which may put up to 3,500 coal miners and power workers out of work in several provinces.

The task force announcement comes more than a year after the government declared its intention to phase out coal in November 2016. Since then, coal-dependent communities have been left wondering if they had been forgotten by the federal government, and labour leaders have been calling for action by Ottawa.

Establishing the Just Transition Task Force for Canadian Coal-Power Workers and Communities is more than good policy— it’s good politics.

Policy-wise, the terms of reference released by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna on Feb. 16 task the nine-member panel and two cochairs with providing knowledge, options, and recommendations to the minister on implementing a just transition for workers and communities directly affected by the accelerated phase-out of coalfired electricity in Canada. The federal budget included $35-million to support those efforts.

Politically, by acknowledging and acting on the need for a just transition for coal miners and power workers, the government is helping to ensure that it continues to generate the social licence required to combat climate change, and to move the country down the challenging path to a low-carbon economy.

Public opinion currently supports climate change-fighting efforts, but if working people are left with greater economic insecurity than before, a backlash could be generated—the same kind of backlash that generated millions of votes south of the border for Donald Trump and his anti-Paris Agreement stance. Nobody wants that.

In affirming this proactive approach, Ms. McKenna acknowledged in a statement that: “We know the environment and the economy go hand in hand, so we’re committed to making that transition a fair one for coal workers and communities.”

Members of the panel will have diverse backgrounds, including workforce development and sustainable development experts, a past executive from a major electricity company or utility, and a municipal representative appointed in consultation with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The five remaining members will be drawn from labour, including the Canadian Labour Congress, a provincial federation of labour, and three from unions representing affected workers.

It makes sense that there be strong representation from labour.

Unions support the kind of action that links reducing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, with the growth of jobs that “green” work itself. Active workplace environment committees promote and practise conservation. Unions provide green education programs for their members, and have been on the front lines with allies in the environmental movement demanding positive change. Recently, Canadian and European Union unions have begun exchanging “climate bargaining” clauses when negotiating with employers.

Unions have also been working closely with Canada’s universities to research the best approaches to climate action in the workplace. The Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW) project based at York University brings together 56 individual researchers and 25 partner organizations and unions in seven countries, and its ground-breaking research on the idea of “just transition” has been recognized by the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The world of work is both a major cause of climate change and a potentially powerful actor in slowing global warming. Unions and professional associations are very well placed for adapting work itself in order to mitigate greenhouse gas production.

Despite generating only 11 per cent of Canada’s electricity supply, coal-fired electricity is responsible for 72 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, which is Canada’s third highest greenhouse gas-creating sector after oil and gas, and transportation.

This makes ending coal a good place to start. Achieving a just transition to a low-carbon economy on that scale calls for strategic creativity in repurposing coal communities so that new enterprises are enticed to set up shop in a former coal region, creating a need for new and retrained expertise.

Federal and provincial governments will need to contribute to every phase of these green transitions. It will take some years, but there are already models in Australia, Germany, and elsewhere, for transitioning not only fossilfuel workers but also formerly fossil-fuel communities.

That’s why this important first step will teach us a lot about how we can help workers and communities join the emerging renewable energy boon. The task force will hear from stakeholders from local communities, labour, industry, clean tech, finance, academics, and non-governmental organizations, and will make site visits to a representative number of facilities and communities that will be affected by the coal phase-out.

When the task force makes its recommendation in the fall, let’s be ready to ensure that there is the political support to turn these ideas into action.

Carla Lipsig-Mummé is a professor of work and labour studies at York University, and winner of the 2018 Sefton-Williams Award for Contributions to Labour Relations.
The Hill Times

 

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