O Canada: are you having a just transition?

If there ever was the illusion that society stood still during the pandemic, the honking of the truckers in Ottawa last month may have been the loudest signal for us to notice that the world around us is changing rapidly. The truth is that COVID-19 has not slowed down but accelerated change. In principle, such a dynamic could have provided us with opportunities to enhance climate action and to facilitate the goal that Canadians have set for themselves together with many other nations: a just transition towards a sustainable society, one that limits the devastating effects of global warming and reduces poverty. 

The reality, however, looks quite sobering. Climate change is progressing at an even higher speed than predicted. Global warming is currently hovering at around a 1.0°C increase compared to the pre-industrial age. This has been enough to result in the two most devastating natural disasters known in Canadian history in 2021: the devastation of Lytton, B.C. in July by wildfire and the deluge that inundated parts of the same province in November. 

Catastrophes of such frequency and dimension have been predicted for a long time–scientists have been warning us about man-made global warming and its dire consequences since at least the 1960s. It took another quarter-century before the United Nations could convince leading industrialized nations in Kyoto to address the main cause of climate change by pledging the gradual reduction of ‘greenhouse gases,’ most of all carbon dioxide, in the Kyoto Protocol

Further progress was slow, but the development regained pace when the United Nations came together in Paris in 2015, to specify for the first time the overall goal. 

“[The goal is] holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change,” the document stated.  

The reason for some states to stall the progress of this collaborative agenda is basically the same as for those who declare man-made climate change a “hoax”: both are more driven by short-term material interests than the greater good. Some bluntly insist on their freedom to do what serves them right now, leaving the bill of their actions to others. Some admit more elegantly to the need of instant change, but demand that others should start. 

In Canada, we like to blame such selfishness on rogue states, big business or corrupt politicians, but there are strong indicators that we behave with the same kind of egotism as individuals: it’s either the lowest price or the greatest convenience by which most consumers make their decisions. All of us still have a long way to go.

To the signatories of the Paris Agreement, it was clear that the common objective could only be achieved by a balanced combination of science, efficiency and justice. 

“To strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty…The imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities,” the agreement reads. In the wake of the conference, many good-willing countries declared their intention of climate neutrality (mostly) by 2050, while acknowledging the need for a just transition to achieve this. For some, this may seem like an additional burden; others regard such a radical ecological transformation as the greatest opportunity ever to establish a higher level of equity and sustainability, both among our fellow citizens and partner states. The biggest collaborative project in the history of mankind will fail, unless there is a fair division of the costs and arising opportunities and unless many of us go ahead with courage and generosity. 

As a nation trusting in science and committed to equity, Canada was on board from early on. But as a country disproportionately benefitting from the mining of fossil fuels, actions were slow to follow. Like the rest of the global community, we did not see the need to do the obvious thing and act even before knowing all the answers. For this, we needed the inspiration of a schoolgirl from Sweden. 

Only before the 2019 elections, our Liberal government finally declared a Climate Emergency and further promised to establish a Ministry of Just Transition. To date, this has not yet materialized. Instead, a consultation of Canadians on what a Just Transition may be was launched. This has been ongoing for quite a while—and perhaps it should continue for the next 30 years. Some intermediate results and a plan for immediate or imminent action are long overdue. Compared to many other (especially provincial) governments, it would be unfair to deny that our federal government has a plan, but it suffers from the typical weakness of postponing effective measures. This way, an even higher portion of the costs is imposed on future generations, which does not strike me as just.

The Council of Canadians and 350 Canada want to increase the momentum of the federal government by raising nationwide attention to the urgency to move. Dozens of local groups throughout the country will organize events at the Day of Action for a Just Transition on Saturday, Mar. 12, 2022. The timing is particularly welcome, since it will also remind Ontarians to voice their concerns in the run-up to the provincial elections in June. 

The event in Kitchener Waterloo will be organized by the Climate Justice Working Group of the University of Waterloo, of which I am a member. For some years now, this group has been trying to inform climate-friendly decisions, such as re-investing (‘divesting’) funds sustainably and encouraging more sustainable lifestyles in individuals. A particular focus of the group is justice, a notion that still needs to be explored – without making its complexity a pretext for delaying action. 

The countrywide map of actions promises many creative approaches to articulating the importance of a just transition. Some of them will be colourful and loud, located in city centers. The event in our community will seek more quiet but no less powerful inspiration from the beauty and complexity of the Huron Natural Area, which is also a cultural heritage site. Val Rynnimeri, the master plan co-ordinator of the multidisciplinary team that created the Huron Natural Area, will guide us through it. There will also be room for everyone from Kitchener-Waterloo to become part of a conversation that may challenge and inspire us as individuals and connect us as a community.