The much-anticipated final report of Canada’s Just Transition Task Force was released on Monday. The task force was announced in late 2017 and spent the past year studying the potential impacts of the national phase-out of coal-powered electricity generation for coal workers and their communities. The new report—and its 10 recommendations for the federal government—are the culmination of extensive cross-country consultations.
A just transition refers to a smooth and productive shift away from fossil fuels in contrast to an unplanned, unjust transition reminiscent of historical resource busts. Taking serious action to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the worst effects of climate change has direct costs for the many workers and communities currently dependent on fossil fuels. A just transition is necessary not only to ensure a sustainable future for the people directly affected by climate policies, but also to win political support for ambitious climate action more broadly.
For long-standing advocates of a just transition, including the CCPA, this report is a milestone achievement. So what does it say? And does it go far enough to ensure a cleaner, more sustainable future for all?
Task force reinforces decades of progressive advocacy
First, the good news. The task force report builds on and reinforces decades of advocacy from labour unions and other progressive voices for a worker-centred just transition strategy. The report makes it clear that affected workers and their communities must be at the heart of any plans and policies moving forward.
In terms of specific program recommendations, the report echoes calls from the CCPA and others to provide income support, skills (re)training, pension bridging, re-employment support and other services to affected workers.
One of the biggest challenges for a just transition is creating new employment opportunities in the vacuum left by the closure of fossil fuel facilities. Crucially, the report also recommends funding for local infrastructure projects in the places that need it most. The new geothermal plant being built in the coal-dominated region of Estevan, Saskatchewan is a positive example of government efforts in this direction.
The task force makes a number of recommendations related to ongoing research and reporting to ensure just transition programs continue to meet the needs of workers and communities into the future.
Narrow mandate limits potential impact
Now, the less encouraging news. The greatest limitation of the report is its focus on a small set of affected workers and communities, which reflects the narrow mandate given to the task force by the federal government.
According to the report, only 3,000 to 3,900 people spread across 50 Canadian communities are directly impacted by the coal phase-out. Nationally, the coal industry only accounts for a fraction of a percentage point of GDP and, most importantly, less than 10% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In other words, Canada’s coal phase-out, while important, is a relatively minor transition both economically and from the perspective of climate change mitigation. It is much easier for Canada to phase out coal power than it is to phase out oil and gas production, which accounts for a significantly greater proportion of Canadian employment, economic output and emissions.
Nevertheless, getting the coal transition right is essential since it establishes a precedent for other industries. To its credit, the task force concludes its report by recommending a consultation on the phase-out of the fossil fuel industry more broadly.
Eyes on Budget 2019
Achieving a just transition has its own costs, which the task force acknowledges. The report calls for “hundreds of millions of dollars” in new funding over the next decade, beginning in Budget 2019, to augment the initial $35 million allocated by the federal government for just transition initiatives in Budget 2018.
The task force also recommends the allocation of previously-announced infrastructure funding to support new projects in affected coal communities. The most expensive aspect of the just transition will be the economic diversification of regions historically dependent on coal.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on Budget 2019 to see if the government follows through on these recommendations. It’s one thing to “welcome” the report, as the federal government has done, but without significant, stable funding for just transition programs they are unlikely to succeed.
Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood is a researcher on international trade and climate policy for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow Hadrian on Twitter: @hadrianmk.