Government committee recommends further study for support for workers amid transition to electric vehicle production

The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development presented their report, The Road Ahead: Encouraging the Production and Purchase Of Zero-Emission Vehicles In Canada to the House of Commons on April 13.  The Committee had received eighteen briefs and heard from twenty-one witnesses since the Fall of 2020 – available here.  The importance of reducing transportation emissions was accepted, and the topics of discussion included purchase incentives, expanding ev charging infrastructure and the impact on the electricity sector, the potential of hydrogen-powered vehicles, and more. The resulting report makes thirteen recommendations, to which the government is requested to respond. Amongst the recommendations: the existing federal incentive program for EV purchase be continued and expanded to include used EV’s, that the price cap be eliminated, with eligibility geared to income; that the Government of Canada build on existing initiatives, like the Green Mining Innovation program, to improve the environmental performance of Canadian minerals used in battery and hydrogen fuel cell production; and that the federal government  work with provincial and territorial governments to develop recycling and end of life management strategies for ZEV batteries.

Recommendation #6 addresses the concerns of workers: “The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada study opportunities to support automotive sector workers while facilities are transitioning to produce ZEVs, and consider dedicated funding to retrain automotive sector workers for ZEV production.”

Most of the input to the Standing Committee was from industry representatives, but the report attributes Recommendation #6  largely to the testimony of Angelo DiCaro, Research Director of Unifor on November 23, 2020.  From the report: “Witnesses cautioned that it will be challenging to reorient Canada’s automotive sector to produce ZEVs. It takes time for producers to bring vehicles to market, and to retool facilities and retrain workers to produce ZEVs.  Angelo DiCaro suggested that the Government of Canada should ensure that the employment insurance system will support workers during plant retooling. He also noted that the transition to ZEVs could threaten jobs in Canada’s automotive parts sector, especially among businesses that produce parts for the powertrains that propel ICEVs. To compensate, Mr. DiCaro said that Canadian governments should set rules about the afterlife of vehicles that could create jobs in vehicle disassembly and recycling.”    

Specifically, when asked later by NDP MP Laurel Collins, “what kind of retraining and income supports do Canadian auto workers need to support a just transition to a zero-emissions future?” DiCaro identified the powertrain segment of the auto parts industry as the most vulnerable, and continued…. “as plants transition, as will happen with Oakville, we have to see how long these transition times will take in our next round of bargaining. I can assure you that, if this is going to be a two-year or a 16-month transition to get that plant retooled, there are going to be questions about income supports for those workers as they retrain and wait for these cars to come online….. This is front and centre. I think the act of collective bargaining gives us an opportunity to explore that. Certainly our employment insurance system and our training systems are going to have to be looked at more carefully.”

Can Biden unite Labour and climate activists with his American Jobs Plan ?

On March 31, U.S. President Biden announced his “American Jobs Plan,” which outlines over $2 trillion in spending proposals, including $213 billion to build, modernize and weatherize affordable housing,  $174 billion for incentives and infrastructure for electric vehicles; $100 billion for power grid modernization and resilience; $85 billion investment in modernizing public transit and bringing it to underserved areas; $35 billion investment in clean technology research and development, including incubators and demonstration projects; $16 billion employing union oil and gas workers to cap abandoned oil and gas wells and clean up mines, and $10 billion to launch a  Civilian Climate Corps to work on conservation and environmental justice projects.  All of these are proposals, to be subject to the political winds of Washington, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggesting a date of July 4 for a vote on legislation.

The White House Fact Sheet outlines the specifics . Robert Reich calls the plan “smart politics” in  “Joe Biden as Mr. Fix-it” in Commons Dreams, and according to “Nine Ways Biden’s $2 Trillion Plan Will Tackle Climate Change” in Inside Climate News, “President Joe Biden aims to achieve unprecedented investment in action to address climate change by wrapping it in the kind of federal spending package that has allure for members of Congress of both parties.”   David Roberts offers a summary and smart, informed commentary in his Volt blog, stating: “Within this expansive infrastructure package is a mini-Green New Deal, with large-scale spending targeted at just the areas energy wonks say could accelerate the transition to clean energy — all with a focus on equity and justice for vulnerable communities on the front lines of that transition. If it passes in anything like its current form, it will be the most significant climate and energy legislation of my lifetime, by a wide margin.”

Julian Brave NoiseCat writes in the National Observer on April 6, summing up the dilemma:   …” Each policy has the potential to unite or divide the Democrat’s coalition of labour unions, people of colour, environmentalists and youth activists. Some policies, like the creation of a new Civilian Climate Corps …. are directly adopted from demands pushed by activists like the youth-led Sunrise Movement. Others, like investments in existing nuclear power plants and carbon capture retrofits for gas-fired power plants, will pit labour unions against environmental justice activists from the communities those industries often imperil. Uniting the environmental activists who oppose the development of fossil fuel pipelines with the workers who build them will be among the Democrats’ greatest challenges.”

Some Specific U.S. statements:

Generally favourable reaction comes in a brief statement from the AFL-CIO. The  BlueGreen Alliance states: “This is a historic first step, and yet we know this and more will be needed to deliver the scale of investment needed, particularly in disadvantaged communities and for workers and communities impacted by energy transition.”  Similarly, Kate Aronoff writes “Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Needs More Climate Spending” in The New Republic; and the Climate Justice Alliance response is titled  “Grassroots, Environmental Justice Communities call on Biden To Go Bigger, Bolder And Faster For A Climate, Care And Infrastructure Recovery Package That Meets The Moment”.

The Sunrise Movement press release commends Biden for calling for passage of the PRO Act, for clean energy initiatives, and environmental justice aspects, and has a mixed reaction to Biden’s version of the Civilian Climate Corps: “This gives our movement a starting place, and with a foot in the door we can fight to expand and strengthen the CCC over the coming years.” ….. “The plan Biden rolled out today would create about 10,000-20,00 jobs in a Civilian Climate Corps, which would train and employ young people to build clean energy and decarbonize the economy. When FDR rolled out a similar Civilian Conservation Corps, it employed around 300,000 people per year, and that was back when the US population was ~40% of its current size .”   

Will Biden’s Plan push Canada’s climate ambitions?

The CBC published “Here are four ways Biden’s big climate bill touches Canada” .  Mitchell Beer compiles reactions in “Biden Jobs, Infrastructure Plan Aims to ‘Turbocharge the transition’ off Fossil Fuels”  in The Energy Mix, including Adam Radwanski’s response in the Globe and Mail, “Joe Biden’s new climate plans should jolt Ottawa” (restricted access).   And the Canadian United Steelworkers alludes to the “Buy American” elephant in the room for Canadians, in its press release titled, Build Back Better Through Infrastructure Spending on Both Sides of the Border (April 1)  “the United Steelworkers union (USW) sees U.S. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan as an opportunity to maintain and create jobs, bolster manufacturing and make our communities safer. ….A decade ago, the USW worked with the Obama administration and the Canadian government to create a North American strategy that benefited workers in the United States and Canada…. Canada is not the problem facing U.S. manufacturing and workers. Co-operation between Canada and U.S. will build on our longstanding and productive trading relationship.”

Canada’s Supreme Court affirms federal government’s constitutional right to enact carbon pricing legislation

On March 25, the Supreme Court of Canada released a majority decision stating that the federal government of Canada was within its constitutional rights when it enacted the 2018 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act — which required the provinces to meet minimum national standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The decision enables the federal government to move on to more ambitious climate action plans, since it ends a two-year battle with the provinces, and affirms the importance of the climate change issue. The majority decision states that national climate action “is critical to our response to an existential threat to human life in Canada and around the world.”   Summaries and reaction to this hugely important decision include an Explainer in The Narwhal , and “Supreme Court rules federal carbon pricing law constitutional” (National Observer) . Mainstream media also covered the decision, including a brief article in the New York Times which relates it to U.S. policy climate.

The Canadian Labour Congress issued a press release “Canada’s unions applaud Supreme Court decision upholding federal carbon pricing” – pointing out that the carbon tax is only one piece of the puzzle in reducing GHG emissions. Unifor emphasized next steps, calling on the provincial premiers of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the federal Conservative leader, to “stop complaining” and devise their own climate action plans. Similar sentiments appeared in the reactions of other advocacy groups: for example,  Council of Canadians;  the Pembina InstituteClean Energy Canada, and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) .

Political reactions

The reaction and explanation of the case from the federal government is here. The CBC provides a survey of political reaction here. Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta were the three provinces who lost their Supreme Court case: in a press release,  Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney pledged that his government will continue to “fight on”, and will now begin to consult with Albertans on how to respond to the court’s decision – as reported in the National Observer, “Alberta has no carbon tax Plan B, was hoping to win in court: Kenney” (March 26) . Kenney further stated,  “We will continue to press our case challenging Bill C-69, the federal ‘No More Pipelines Law,’ which is currently before the Alberta Court of Appeal.”  [Note Bill C-69 is actually titled An Act to enact the Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Energy Regulator Act… and was enacted in June 2019]. Ontario’s “disappointment” is described in this article in the Toronto Star and Saskatchewan’s government reaction is described here by the CBC .   A sum-up Opinion piece appears in The Tyee: “Sorry Cranky Conservatives! Carbon Pricing Wins the Day” (March 29).

Updated: Supreme Court upholds legislation underpinning Canada’s carbon pricing system

On March 25, majority of Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in what  EcoJustice calls a “monumental” decision, that the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act does not violate the Canadian constitution. The Summary decision is available at the Supreme Court website as of March 25, here. The Justices noted that global warming causes harm beyond provincial boundaries and that it is a matter of national concern under the “peace, order and good government” clause of the Constitution. The Justices further noted that the term “carbon tax” is a misnomer, and the fuel and excess emission charges imposed by the Act were constitutionally valid regulatory charges and not taxes.

The federal government’s constitutional right to set the framework for pollution pricing lies at the heart of our national policies to fight climate change – originally, through the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (2016) and now, through the Healthy Environment Healthy Economy Plan released in December 2020, which proposes to raise the existing carbon tax to $170 per tonne by 2050.

The Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act allows the federal government to impose a carbon price, a “backstop”, in any province or territory which fails to design their own policies to meet the federal emission reduction targets. The provinces of Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Alberta all filed separate challenges to the federal jurisdiction – with the provincial appeals courts in Saskatchewan and Ontario both upholding the federal government’s constitutional right to enact the law. In February 2020, the  Alberta Court of Appeal upheld the provincial challenge, and appeals to the Supreme Court from all three provinces were heard in Fall 2020. A more complete chronology of the legal cases is here .

The Supreme Court decision is summarized here – with a link to the full Decision (the Court notes that the Full Decision is so lengthly that it may cause an error message when trying to download it).

Federal Advisory Committee on Net Zero policies appointed to augment existing research and recommendations

In late February, the federal government appointed a Net Zero Advisory Committee   with fifteen expert members, including Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuf and  Climate Action Network-Canada (CAN-Rac) Executive Director Catherine Abreu, as well as  Linda Coady,  Executive Director of the Pembina Institute,  climate scientist Simon Donner from University of British Columbia,  Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Kluane Adamek, and others from government and  industry.  As explained in  “Canada’s new Net Zero Advisory Body and Bill C-12” (March 4) by the Climate Action Network Canada, this Advisory Committee was a platform promise made by the Liberals during the 2019 election, and is intended to provide ongoing expert advice until 2050 to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Its mandate, here, is to provide advice on the next framework for Canada’s climate change policies, as currently before the House of Commons in Bill C-12,  the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act.

An article in The Energy Mix emphasizes the independent nature of the advisory body, and the fact that there are no current oil and gas industry representatives included.   However, in “Accountability Bill Lacks ‘Clear Path’ To Net-Zero Targets, Climate Scientist Warns Ottawa”, Catherine Abreu is quoted as saying that despite the Advisory Committee, Canada still lacks clear accountability in climate policy, and that Bill C-12 is  “not the robust piece of legislation we need to make sure Canada never misses another climate target. To make sure it’s set up to drive up ambition, especially in the near term, we need the 2025 goal and a stronger 2030 goal enshrined in law.”

Other policy voices on the Net Zero ambition are found in Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition, released on February 8  by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices , and described by the Institute as “the first in-depth scenario report to explore how Canada can reach net zero emissions by 2050”. It  advocates for two pathways: “safe bets” in the short term, and in the long term, “wild cards” which include negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available.

On March 11,  the Pembina Institute released  How to Get Net-Zero Right,  which recommends top priority for “early, deep, sustained, and technologically feasible direct emissions reductions in every sector. …..Canada’s pathways must define an appropriate role for carbon removal and offsets. Achieving net-zero will require the use of carbon removal to address hard-to-decarbonize sectors or essential end uses that cannot yet be decarbonized. Carbon removal and offsets, however, cannot be approached as an alternative to mitigation, but rather in addition.”

How to Get Net-Zero Right  is the first of a promised series of reports on the issue by Pembina, and will consider social justice and equity concerns.