Commentary,  Environment & Work

Submission to Federal ‘Just Transition’ Consultation

The Centre for Future Work has made a submission to a public consultation hosted by Natural Resources Canada regarding the federal government’s future strategies for supporting the transition of fossil fuel jobs into alternative activities.

The government asked for public input regarding the scope of the transition challenge, best practices for facilitating a gradual and supported transition, and potential future initiatives (like a proposed Advisory Body to advise federal transition policy).

The submission was prepared by Jim Stanford, Director of the Centre for Future Work. It drew on extensive research published by the Centre earlier this year: Employment Transitions and the Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels. 

Major themes stressed in the Centre’s submission include:

    • The proportion of Canadians directly employed in fossil fuel production, distribution, and use is small and has declined substantially since 2014: currently less then 0.9% of total employment.
    • The most important tool in transition planning is time: having a long timeline to transition, but with firm gradual way-stations, makes it eminently feasible to imagine phasing out fossil fuel employment without involuntary job losses. Over a 20-year period, for example, current direct fossil fuel employment could be fully phased out at an annual rate of just 8000 jobs per year.
    • The advanced age of many fossil fuel workers, combined with this long-range planning, allows the majority of the adjustment process to be handled through retirement (including early retirement plans).
    • Normal labour market flexibility results in much larger flows and readjustments of labour to occur on an ongoing basis. Those sources of flexibility should be enlisted to help facilitate the adjustment required to reach net-zero targets.
    • Most fossil fuel workers are employed in cities, where transition is easier thanks to the abundance of alternative job opportunities. The hardest challenges are faced in heavily fossil-fuel-dependent regional communities (Fort McMurray is the extreme case); those communities need to be supported with targeted supports and investments in alternative industries (including the relocation of public service facilities there).
    • A range of other supports can be mobilized to support transitions and adjustments for the small number of fossil fuel workers (less than 4000 per year) who will not be able to retire from their current careers. This includes retraining, relocation, income insurance, and alternative job-creation schemes.
    • Alternative jobs in energy-related activities (such as renewable energy projects and amelioration of former fossil fuel production sites) can play a supporting role in those transitions, but a small one. Opportunities for alternative vocations are much more numerous in unrelated industries (such as health care, manufacturing, construction, and professional services).

Stanford stressed that the federal government needs more powerful institutional capacity than just an ‘Advisory Body’ to guide the coming transition effort. Rather, it needs the capacity to design and implement plans for gradual, efficient transitions: including the power to collect information from fossil fuel employers (about demographic and occupational features of their workforce), establish timelines for phased closures, and allocate funds for alternative job creation projects. The successful experience of transitions accomplished in other jurisdictions without involuntary layoffs confirms the necessity of strong planning powers to those positive outcomes.

The submission urged the federal government to make an overarching pledge, as part of its transition policy, to achieve a gradual and steady transition without involuntary layoffs of fossil fuel workers. Such a commitment is economically and fiscally possible, and would significantly change the nature of political debate over these issues.

Please see the full report for more evidence on the feasibility of a transition without lay-offs.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.