Principles and best practices for a Just Transition for Canada’s fossil fuel workers

Economist Jim Stanford has written a timely new report which should be required reading for politicians setting their hair on fire about Joe Biden’s stated intention to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline project on Day one of his presidency.  Employment Transitions and the Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels, released on January 18, argues that “the actual number of fossil fuel jobs and the number of communities reliant on the industry is small enough that a just and equitable transition plan for workers is very feasible” – and the key is timing.

Stanford’s report begins by setting out the statistics regarding fossil fuel employment in Canada: “under 1% of total payroll employment in Canada (or about 160,000 jobs) is located in seven industrial sectors which together comprise most of the composite fossil fuel industry. “ Using 2016 Census data, the report discusses the distribution of fossil fuel jobs by province and community, showing that Alberta  accounts for 75% of fossil-related jobs in 2016, but even there, only it accounts for  7% of all provincial employment. 18 fossil fuel-dependent communities are named, where fossil fuel jobs account for 9.5% of employment – including two well-known examples, Wood Buffalo/Fort McMurray in Alberta and Estevan in Saskatchewan.  The report continues to compare employment in the fossil fuel industry and in the health care sector, Canada’s largest employer. The aim is not to diminish the importance of fossil fuel employment, but to illustrate that employment possibilities exist in other sectors, even within fossil fuel-reliant communities.

Stanford looks ahead and states: “given weakening global demand for fossil fuels, depressed prices, continued infrastructure constraints, and aggressive cost-cutting by fossil fuel employers (shedding labour to protect profits despite lower energy prices), fossil fuel industries will see continued downsizing of their employment footprint.”   He summarizes the employment transitions of other sectors in Canada’s history, notably fisheries, auto manufacturing, manufacturing – as well as other sectors currently transitioning, including retail, transportation, and newspapers and media, and documents the overall dynamics which are always churning labour markets. All these arguments build to the report’s final section, which is to outline the principles and best practices for planning effective employment and community transitions for the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. 

Principles and Best Practices for Transition

Repeating a point he made in a similar report about Australia, Stanford speaks out for younger workers: “Fossil fuels will disappear as a major source of energy within the foreseeable future. Given that reality, it is unhelpful, and indeed cruel, to encourage more workers – including some just entering the workforce – to try to build their livelihoods in an industry that will soon disappear.”

And further

 “ …in an effective, orderly labour market transition….. Most fossil fuel workers will not end up producing solar panels or windmills; in fact, if we manage this transition effectively, most fossil fuel workers will not need to find new jobs at all. As with the climate itself, the sooner we start this transition, the lower its ultimate costs will be, and the greater its net benefits. Delaying these necessary actions only makes matters worse – including for fossil fuel workers. In this context, statements of supposed “solidarity” with fossil fuel workers expressed by some business leaders and political representatives are entirely dubious. Pretending that fossil fuel industries can carry on as “normal” for decades to come (or worse could actually be expanded) is a cruel hoax.”

Employment Transitions and the Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels  was published by the Centre for Future Work, which is a project of the Australia Institute – which also operates in Canada in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, housed in the CCPA’s Vancouver office.   The report was commissioned by Environmental Defence Canada, which released its own graphically-enhanced summary version, Steady Path: How a transition to a fossil-free Canada is in reach for workers and their communities . 

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