How do we transition off fossil fuels in a way that is truly just?

Roundtables make the case for a clean economy that works for everyone

In Wednesday’s Throne Speech, Governor General Mary Simon delivered a message of urgency: “We must go further, faster.” The words were an acknowledgement that leaders are quickly running out of time to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. But hampering this need for speed is the obligation of governments across the world to ensure that workers and marginalized populations are not left behind in the coming energy transition.

Leaders are grappling with this balancing act as they try to implement meaningful climate policies and keep the public on side. The question of how to achieve a just transition was central to a series of recent online panel discussions co-hosted by Corporate Knights, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Canada and the Embassy of France.

“It is not going to be easy, but it has to be effective and it has to be real,” Canadian Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said Wednesday at the final of the three panel discussions, which focused on the outcomes of COP26 from a climate justice perspective. 

The people most likely to suffer the costs of the transition live in low-income, Indigenous and rural communities. Experts worry that their energy costs may go up, at least in the short-term, if leaders fail to consider them when designing transition policies, such as carbon taxes and regulations. Energy poverty already affects people in Canada, Germany, France and across the world, and it could get worse if governments aren’t mindful of how they’ll be affected. “We need to raise questions when we design these policies: What is the social impact of these measures, [and] to what extent are different consumer groups burdened or relieved by these policies?” said Veit Bürger, deputy head of energy and climate division at the Öko-Institut, a non-profit research institute, at the first roundtable in October, which explored the concept of energy justice. Bürger said low-income households must be compensated in some way when carbon pricing policies are adopted. There are also workers to consider, who could be displaced when they lose their jobs in high-emitting industries. 

The community of Old Crow in Yukon has shown how the transition can be successful in rural areas. For many years, this small remote community of around 250 residents has lived largely cut off from the modern world without a connection to a major road system or the power grid. Residents transport everything they need – including diesel for generators – on ice roads in the winter and by air. But Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, the elected chief of Old Crow’s Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, said this isolation gave the community an opportunity to take a “short cut” when it came to transitioning to a renewable power source. Vuntut Gwitchin owns and operates a solar panel project that reduces diesel use by around 190,000 litres every year. The second phase of the solar farm was completed this summer and is expected to meet approximately a quarter of the community’s electricity demand. 

“With one single project, and a disruptive business model, we have shown the world [and] we have shown rural communities that we are a major part of the solution,” Tizya-Tramm told the first panel discussion. 

In France, the Yellow Vest movement of 2018 emerged in opposition to a gas tax and forced the government to rethink its approach to the energy transition. Since the protests, Emmanuelle Wargon, the French housing minister, said the government has come up with a three-pronged strategy. The first part of this plan, Wargon said, is to show the economic benefits of the transition through investments and jobs. The second step is to make sure policies are designed with their social consequences top of mind. And the last part is working with local communities to make sure that when a coal plant closes, the government encourages investment in the area so that workers are able to transition to new jobs.

To ensure results, Wargon sees three steps in a successful transition: “pioneering, mainstreaming and then putting obligations in place.” By pioneering a development or new technology, you show the public that making change is possible, she said. Making that technology or solution mainstream relies on ensuring that it’s affordable and simple, and then once it becomes widely accepted, you can implement constraints and regulations. 

“If you go too quickly from one phase to the other, you risk losing part of public opinion,” she said.

That public support will be vital for the array of policies – from market-based mechanisms, such as carbon pricing, to strong regulations that prohibit gas-powered vehicles – needed to decarbonize our energy systems and prevent climate chaos. “You need to have effective climate policies, but at the same time you need, in particular, to address the question of how [you] can create some kind of just transition in order not to put too much burden on the poor households,” Bürger said. 

With the support of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Canada and the Embassy of France.

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