Beyond 'jobs versus environment': Transitions to renewable energy present opportunities for us all

We’ve heard it ad nauseum from our political leaders and the media: we can’t do anything about climate change because it would cost us jobs and jeopardize our future.

'We will have to challenge the corporate power of the fossil fuel industry'

A carbon tax alone will not save the environment. We need a wholesale shift in how we think about energy. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

We've heard it ad nauseum from our political leaders and the media: we can't do anything about climate change because it would cost us jobs and jeopardize our future. 

"We are trade exposed." 

"We can't afford a carbon tax."

"The sun doesn't shine at night." 

"Without oil, how would we pay for education or hospitals?"

"But we are a drop in the bucket compared to China." 

In Canada's second largest oil-producing province, with the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita, this is the dominant narrative. It all points to one conclusion: dig in and do nothing.

Following an announcement on details of a federal carbon tax, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe railed against it as a "sham" that would do nothing for the environment and which would hurt the economy. (CBC News)

Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an urgent warning to the global community. If, as a global community, we allow warming to exceed 1.5 °C we face widespread species extinction, a climate change refugee crisis, and serious threats to our livelihoods, wellbeing, and security.

In order to have a chance at keeping global warming below 1.5 °C we need to reduce our emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. It is crystal clear that we need drastic and immediate action in order to rescue a habitable planet. 

This week the Trudeau government announced that it will collect a carbon tax on behalf of provinces like Saskatchewan that have refused to implement one on their own. Households in Saskatchewan should receive an estimated $600/year rebate from the tax, about double what households in Ontario will receive.

But the truth is we need much more than a carbon tax. We need a wholesale energy transition in every jurisdiction across the globe. 

'Regime of obstruction'

The idea of a renewable energy transition is exciting. It opens up space to think about not just decarbonization (replacing fossil fuels with renewables) but also enhancing democracy and acting on decolonization.

Alongside colleagues across Western Canada I have been studying what we are calling a 'regime of obstruction.' Organized by companies that profit from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, this regime is doing all it can to obstruct a transition away from fossil fuels so that it can maintain its own profitability. 

Removing the stranglehold that the industry has on our society will allow us to introduce more justice and fairness to our economies.

These companies use their enormous power to influence all aspects of political and civil society. They sponsor research, fund governments and political parties, and circulate narratives that suggest there is no alternative.
Perversely, this regime of obstruction says there is no future without extracting fossil fuels and releasing their emissions into the atmosphere.

If we are going to decarbonize our economies, we will have to challenge the corporate power of the fossil fuel industry. This will not be easy, but removing the stranglehold that the industry has on our society will allow us to introduce more justice and fairness to our economies.

'It's time to start crunching the numbers'

We could harness our Crown corporations to create new, unionized, green jobs in renewable energy with a priority on delivering the public universal access to energy at prices that we can all afford. We could empower local communities to produce their own energy and build new green economies on the lands they have stewarded for generations. We could put people to work cleaning up the liabilities of the mining and oil and gas industries that have left thousands of wells and hundreds of thousands of pipelines across the province. 

Renewable energy industries offer potential sources of jobs and other economic boosts. (Mohawk College)

According to the Green Economy Network — an organization made up of unions, environmental and social justice organizations — an investment of $3.62 billion could create more than 48,000 jobs in our province over five years in energy efficiency, conservation, renewable energy and public transit.

The fear driving resistance to a new green economy is legitimate. Workers in Coronach and Estevan are right to worry about their futures when our leaders have provided no credible, local-level, detailed plans about how a transition might work. It's time to start crunching the numbers and supporting local communities in planning for vibrant futures.

Most importantly, a wholesale transition opens up opportunities for decolonization.

The late Secwepemc leader Arthur Manuel pointed out that Indigenous communities have been reduced to 0.2% of the Canadian landmass. In order to grow their economies, lands and resources need to be repatriated and the 0.2% economy needs to expand dramatically. Crown lands that have been reclaimed from oil and gas extraction would be a great place to start, and would provide a foundation for a more just future.

To hear about these and other strategies for building Saskatchewan's Next Economy join us at the Just Transitions Summit on Oct 27 + 28 in Regina.

The research supporting this op-ed was undertaken as part of the Corporate Mapping Project (CMP). The CMP is studying the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada, and is jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Parkland Institute. This research is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ


Emily Eaton is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina where she studies the political ecology of oil and the possibility of just transition.


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