Why a 'just transition' doesn't have to pit jobs against the environment

Some politicians and business leaders say that climate change presents a binary choice between preserving jobs or the environment. But a lot of working-class people don't see it that way.

Many labour groups support Paris targets, global climate strikes

A study by Clean Energy Canada found that the clean-energy sector was growing at a faster rate than the rest of the economy. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

This story is part of a CBC News series entitled In Our Backyard, which looks at the effects climate change is having in Canada, from extreme weather events to how it's reshaping our economy.

One of the recurring themes among some politicians and business leaders is that climate change presents a binary choice between preserving jobs or the environment.

But that's not the way Dwaine MacDonald sees it. MacDonald is one of the co-founders of Trinity Energy Group, a company based in Stellarton, N.S., that makes commercial and residential buildings more energy-efficient, through better insulation and thermal barriers. And business is very good.

To give a sense of Trinity's expertise, in 2010, the company worked on a 14-bedroom farmhouse that every year required 14 cords of wood and two barrels of oil for their heating needs. Trinity's retrofit brought it down to four cords of wood and half a barrel of oil.

Dwaine MacDonald established Trinity Energy Group in 2006, and the business has grown to 80 employees since then. (Submitted by Shelby MacDonald)

This example shows why the International Energy Agency has identified energy efficiency as one of the most effective ways of reducing carbon emissions. It also shows why a concerted transition to a low-carbon economy can be beneficial to both the environment and blue-collar and unionized workers, including those in the fossil fuel industry.

Since MacDonald and his partners launched the company in 2006, Trinity has grown to 80 full-time employees — and he estimates that about a quarter of them are people who were let go from, or simply left, jobs in the Alberta oilsands.

"I could be hiring more people if I could keep up with the demand," said MacDonald. "It's slowing us down right now, just trying to find the right people."

As a sign of labour's stake in the environmental challenge, Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada, voted to join the global climate strikes scheduled to take place across the country and around the world, on Sept. 20 and Sept. 27.

Major unions in France, Germany and Italy have also announced their intent to join the climate strikers.

Changing tone

The working class is increasingly on-side with climate action, said Jamie Kirkpatrick, program manager at Blue Green Canada, an organization that advocates for workers and the environment, and is aligned with Unifor and the United Steelworkers.

But Kirkpatrick acknowledges there is "fear and concern" among some workers about what a transition to a low-carbon economy means for them. Part of that has to do with the sometimes abrasive tone of climate activists.

Trinity's specialty is making homes and businesses more energy efficient, which the International Energy Agency has identified as one of the best ways to reduce carbon emissions. (Submitted by Shelby MacDonald)

"I think a lot of environmental efforts were focused on 'shut this thing down,' 'phase this out,' 'get rid of that dirty, nasty industry,'" said Kirkpatrick. "And I think we've learned a lot about how everybody involved is a human being, and we could talk about [a transition] in a more human way."

You can see that more measured tone in the messaging of the federal Green Party, for example. The party's platform includes halting federal subsidies to the oil sector and cancelling the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project as part of a larger effort to drastically reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.

But Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has stressed "we are not at war with fossil fuel workers. We are not at all willing to leave any part of Canada or any community behind."

Kirkpatrick said his organization strives to "make the connections, and make it true that you can have a good job and a healthy environment."

'We're missing half the picture'

Kirkpatrick said it has been hard for a lot of workers to visualize the employment possibilities in what's become known as a "just transition." Some of that has been down to a lack of data about the size of the green sector.

Earlier this year, Clean Energy Canada, a think-tank at Simon Fraser University, put out a report that quantified the number of clean-energy jobs by combing through the latest available data from a variety of sources, including Statistics Canada.

Clean Energy Canada found that in 2017, there were almost 300,000 jobs in the clean-energy sector — more than the approximately 200,000 positions in the petroleum sector.

"When we talk about energy, we really all think about oil and gas," said Merran Smith, executive director at Clean Energy Canada. "But we're missing half the picture."

Electric buses made by Winnipeg's New Flyer Industries have been purchased by Montreal and Laval, as well as American municipalities. (New Flyer)

Clean Energy Canada's research also seeks to expand the understanding of what "green jobs" even means. Smith points out it can include everything from energy efficiency to installing solar panels to companies building electric buses, such as New Flyer in Winnipeg and the Lion Electric Company in Quebec.

Personal challenges

Unifor and the United Steelworkers have both passed resolutions on the need for Canada to meet the emissions reductions targets in the Paris Agreement. But acknowledging the need to preserve the environment doesn't mean there aren't significant personal challenges.

Roy Milne, who has worked at the Highvale Coal Mine near Wabamun, Alta., since 1983, has seen how rocky this transition can be. Operated by TransAlta, Highvale has supplied coal to the Sundance and Keephills power stations for decades. As part of government efforts to draw down coal power, the plants are moving to cleaner-burning natural gas within the next few years.

Milne, who is president of United Steelworkers Local 1595, understands the need to reduce carbon emissions and attended last year's international climate conference in Katowice, Poland, to learn about how other countries were managing the transition.

He said TransAlta "got a big chunk of change" from the provincial government in compensation for an early shutdown of the Keephills 3 plant and the cancellation of power-purchase agreements. This, combined with the federal government's extension of operating licences for switching from coal to natural gas, is resulting in hundreds of layoffs.

Roy Milne, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1595, said laid-off coal workers are struggling to find decent jobs in the cleantech sector. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Milne, who is 60, said he's less concerned about his own future than that of younger union members considering their options in the cleantech sector. He said that an electrician working at Highvale currently makes between $120,000 and $150,000 a year. If that person were to switch to installing solar panels, after taking a government-sponsored course, they could expect to make about $40,000-$60,000.

"It's pretty hard to get workers enthused about a transition to a green economy when it means the reality, at least for us out here, is cut my wages in at least half and take away all my benefits and pension and make it precarious employment," Milne said.

Ensuring a just transition

Given that government is setting these environmental goals, Milne said government should also provide a blueprint and the necessary training to ensure a transition is indeed "just."

Dwaine MacDonald can certainly attest to this. Trinity Energy Group benefited from Efficiency Nova Scotia (formerly Conserve Nova Scotia), a program that aligned utilities with local contractors in a concerted bid to improve energy efficiency provincewide.

"That support from the province was instrumental," said MacDonald, who points out that Efficiency Nova Scotia's operating model has garnered interest from other provinces, U.S. states and even Bermuda.

"It's doing good for the environment and it's doing good for the residents of the province," said MacDonald. "It's mind-boggling the spinoffs we see."