Canada can transition to a low-carbon economy, good for workers, environment

The Hill Times, March 4, 2012


Until now, we’ve been having the wrong energy discussion in Canada. As long as the attention is on individual projects like Keystone XL or Churchill Falls, it’s relatively easy for the debate to become polarized to the point that Canadians feel we must choose between a safe environment and good jobs.  But this simply isn’t true. And it’s one of the reasons we formed Blue Green Canada, an alliance between workers and environmentalists.

We agree that climate change is a threat that needs to be dealt with seriously, and that we can transition to a low-carbon economy in a way that’s good for workers and good for the environment. But that won’t happen without a strategy that looks at the big picture, not individual projects or sectors. Right now, Canada’s strategy is to just keep doing more of what it’s been doing, exploiting our natural resources as fast as possible, until we can’t anymore, either because the U.S. tells us so or the world moves on from oil. 

The mounting controversy around Canada’s export of oil sands, coupled with growing signs that hooking our economy ever more strongly to oil is a bad idea, signals that it’s time to shift the energy conversation in this country.

Just like the science of climate change has been proven to the point that the few deniers out there hold little sway these days, so too has the potential for jobs in the low-carbon economy shown that oil isn’t our only route to economic growth. In fact, the United Nations Environment Program’s study on the greening of economies found it’s an engine of growth and a net generator of good jobs. And the International Labour Organization found that the transition to a greener economy could create 15 to 60 million additional jobs globally over the next 20 years. 

And we’re not talking about the types of niche jobs some people associate with the term ‘green jobs’ like basket weaving or selling handmade soap. We’re talking about manufacturing wind turbines and building trains, buses and electric cars, as well as the production of steel and other resources that go into them. We’re talking about how we build our cities to accommodate more people, and how we move power from one place to another.  

We know that the technologies exist today to tackle climate change and create a strong economy. The question is how we get there. Our economy is heavily dependent on oil today, and the industry employs thousands of workers, so no one is suggesting that the tap be turned off tomorrow. But we need to begin planning the transition now in order to build up the industries that will provide our energy and jobs in the low-carbon economy. And, despite what some may say, there is a global movement in this direction, but Canada is falling behind. 

This transition won’t happen on a wing and a prayer. That’s why there needs to be a Canadian energy strategy—with involvement from the federal government and the provinces—to map out the pathways to a low-carbon economy. This needs to include a plan for a just transition for workers in carbon-heavy industries, one that takes into account the skills and location of the labour force and makes the creation of good jobs a priority in those sectors that will grow in a low-carbon economy. And, it needs to make sure Canada is making good on its responsibility to tackle climate change by dramatically reducing carbon pollution in the years to come.

So far, the provinces are leading the charge and the federal government is missing in action. That needs to change. 

There are some simple actions that the federal government could take now. First, it can stop handing over taxpayer money to the richest companies in the world in the form of oil and gas subsidies. Investing that money in renewable energy and energy efficiency would create eight times more jobs than it does in oil and gas. 

Second, it can reinstate the federal ecoEnergy programs, or something similar, to spur renewable energy development and help homeowners and businesses save energy and money. These programs were hugely successful, and helped reduce our climate impact and spur jobs.  

Third, it can take a serious look at how Canada can use the wealth being generated in the oil and gas sector to help Canadians transition to renewable energy, instead of letting the impacts of the petrodollar cause more job loss in the Canadian manufacturing sector. Compared to Norway, Canada is virtually giving our oil away for free. Increasing exports or raw oil is a raw deal for Canadians.

The low carbon economy beckons, promising both economic prosperity and environmental health. If the federal government continues to turn a blind eye to this opportunity we’ll find ourselves at the back of the pack. It’s time our political leaders looked at the big picture.

Dave Coles is the national president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP). Ken Neumann is the national director for United Steelworkers. Gillian McEachern is the campaigns director for Environmental Defence.

The Hill Times