The climate crisis, low oil and gas prices and accelerating automation in Alberta’s oil and gas industry has reignited decades-long pleas to diversify the province’s economy and has strengthened calls for a just transition – that is, ways to manage the industrial transition so harmful impacts on workers and communities are minimized. A coalition is needed to consider the supports and interventions that will best fit the unique circumstances of Alberta and its communities. The Parkland Institute is thrilled to announce a two-day conference to take place February 2022 that will convene experts and practitioners engaged in diverse aspects of managing a just transition.
An urgent call to action
From its labour union origins, the concept of a just transition has captured the zeitgeist as societies struggle to balance the urgent need to phase out environmentally destructive industries while addressing the impacts on workers and communities. This is an agenda for sociotechnical transformation, a call for social, economic and environmental justice and a political imperative to manage the decarbonisation of economies.
This transition is urgent. Alberta’s oil and gas extraction economy accounts for approximately half of the province’s total emissions — emissions that have increased by around 60 per cent since the 1990s. There are growing calls for divestment and for the oil and gas industry to reduce emissions in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to below 2 C. At the same time, Alberta’s oil and gas industry is reaching maturation and shedding jobs. This includes high-paying jobs that have sustained families and communities. High-emissions sectors have a human face, and transitions need to include them.
The majority of Canadians want their governments to act now to address climate change and the majority of fossil fuel industry workers support climate solutions that will lead to net zero carbon jobs. There is political support! What’s needed is a roadmap for the implementation of a just transition. What does a post carbon economy in Alberta look like and how can we get there? How can this be achieved in a just way so rights holders and stakeholders are included in decisions that impact them and the costs and benefits of transition are fair?
Learning from Alberta’s coal phase out
The idea of a just transition was first introduced in Canada in a public policy setting in 2016 as a result of the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) government’s decision to accelerate the phase-out of coal-fired electricity generation by 2030. Labour groups were highly engaged in this work, including the Alberta Federation of Labour and a broad alliance of unions (together known as the Coal Transition Coalition). Transition supports included measures for workers such as a bridge to re-employment or retirement, relocation support, tuition vouchers and employment services. For communities, a $5-million Coal Community Transition Fund was established alongside a $50-million carve-out of the Community Generation Program for small electricity projects (since cancelled by the current government), and access to a $30-million general-application Community and Regional Economic Support Program for rural communities.
Following Alberta’s coal phase-out, the Government of Canada announced additional funding to support the phase-out of traditional coal-fired electricity by 2030 alongside greenhouse gas regulations for natural-gas-fired electricity. The federally convened Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities has propelled this work. This has led to investments of $35 million for the federal Regional Development Agencies to establish transition centres and a $150-million infrastructure fund to support projects and diversification in impacted communities (announced in the 2019 federal budget).
Both the Government of Canada and the Alberta government have been recognized for their leadership, as this was one of the first times a transition had been managed by the state, moving the political conversation forward. A great deal of progress was made as a result of labour advocacy, but the initiatives have remained reactive and missed the opportunity to address structural inequalities in communities — with supports mostly focussed on displaced workers. Moreover, retrofitting a coal-fired generating facility to a natural gas facility may save some jobs in the short term, but will this still be a viable source of energy in the coming decades? Communities that rely on single industries are growing tired of booms and busts. Efforts to reinvent industries must include resiliency and consider longevity and sustainability in every sense of the word. Just transition measures must consider the context of the communities and the people who depend on the sector.
Comparative learning and made-in-Alberta solutions
The literature on just transitions emphasises the importance of timely and targeted supports, community investments and regional development, transition measures in the social insurance/support system and place-based coalitions. Only some of these interventions have been used in Alberta’s coal phase out. Successfully transitioning the oil and gas industries is a much bigger job.
There is now a large scholarship on just transitions and many practices to learn from. In the past 20 years, around 80 regions in advanced OECD countries have shifted from high-emissions economies. We can learn from how these transitions have been managed and take lessons on what to do and what to avoid. But this type of comparative learning will only get us so far. Alberta needs place-based solutions fit for its industries, communities and workers. It is essential to convene both international expertise alongside home-grown experts, networks and stakeholders to consider the wide range of interventions needed for a transformation of this scale — from social supports to regional and community development, climate solutions, industry supports, workforce and skills development and economic development programs to name a few.
We hope you can join us in February 2022 for this call to action to implement a just transition in Alberta. We are grateful for the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada alongside our conference partners: the Alberta Federation of Labour, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-BC, the Corporate Mapping Project (UVic), UNIFOR and the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Arts.
Stay tuned for more conference details!