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‘Clean growth’ vs climate jobs

By: 
Brian Champ

April 19, 2016

The 2016 federal budget climate change programs are included in a section titled “A Clean Growth Economy.”  In amongst the details of how much (little) money is to be spent on different programs is included a commitment to move “towards a pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change that will meet or exceed Canada's international greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets.” But what is “Clean Growth”?

‘Clean growth’

In early March of this year, Trudeau and the premiers met in Vancouver and subsequently released their declaration on “clean growth and climate change.” The declaration makes promises to meet Canada's GHG emissions reductions targets and to transition to low carbon economy. But this declaration and any government actions stemming from it are unlikely to make a dent on Canada's emissions, due to three key components of the declaration—which replicate the “Alberta Climate Leadership Plan.”

Firstly, far from identifying fossil fuel development as the main problem to be solved, the declaration recognizes “the economic importance of Canada's energy and resource sectors, and their sustainable development as Canada transitions to a low carbon economy.” The budget has borne this out, where not only have oil and gas sector subsidies not been cut, but $50 million more has been added to improve the “efficiency” of extraction. They’re really saying to the big oil and gas corporations to not worry, we won’t be coming after you. Which means more pipelines, more tar sands extraction and expanding carbon emissions. This is a serious flaw in any real attempt to combat climate change when the main thing that must be done is to keep carbon in the ground.

Secondly, one of the key components of this plan is to price carbon. According to the budget, “Pricing carbon will be a key element to transition Canada to a stronger, more resilient low-carbon economy while also improving our quality of life.” Putting a price on carbon emissions and trusting that market mechanisms will gradually reduce emissions highlights the lack of political will to pursue real action that would require real public money, commitments and a confrontation with the fossil fuel industry. Pricing carbon allows polluters to pay to keep polluting, instead of actually reducing emissions. It also opens the door to emissions trading and offset schemes that are good ways to make money for some companies, but do little or nothing to reduce emissions in reality.

Finally, while there is a language around promoting renewable energy production, a great deal of the solutions on offer in the plan are for improved energy efficiency. And there is a widespread belief among many people that the more efficient use of fossil fuels will help reduce carbon emissions. But the truth has been known for a long time: a 19th Century economist, William Stanley Jevons noted, that there was a paradox involved in the improving steam engine efficiency: as the efficiency of coal burning steam engines improved, the cost of the coal dropped, allowing its use to be expanded dramatically leading to the overall increased use of coal in production. Efficiency improvements in the extraction of oil from the tar sands have to be seen in this light, and are part of the problem, not the solution: leaving the carbon in the ground.

Climate Jobs

While our so called leaders make flowery speeches to cover up their inaction, the growth of the climate justice movement in recent years has seen the coming together of Idle No More, environmentalists and labour activists into a growing movement. One of the crucial components of a winning strategy for the climate justice movement is the demand for the development of, and just transition to Climate Jobs for workers.

The One Million Climate Jobs campaign originated in the UK after workers at the Vestas Wind Turbine plant on the Isle of Wight occupied the plant in August 2009, after the multinational company announced its closure, demanding that it be nationalized to save their jobs. It grew into an international campaign, in South Africa and now in Canada. Developed by the Green Economy Network (GEN), a coalition of national union, environmental NGOs, and social justice groups, the campaign asserts that if the Canadian government spends a mere 5 per cent of the annual federal budget “in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transportation, over five years Canada could create one million new jobs while reducing our annual greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 35 per cent.”  

This requires a total investment of $81 billion in these three areas over 5 years. The details of the exact dollar amounts, job numbers and greenhouse gas emission reductions associated with the plan can be found on the GEN website: greeneconomynet.ca.  The entire amount being spent on "Clean Growth" over the next two years is on the order of a few billion dollars, and much of this money will not curtail GHG emissions.

As seen above, the plan identifies jobs in the following three sectors as being climate jobs: renewable energy production, energy efficiency and public transportation. Basically a climate job is a job that keeps carbon buried in the ground.  

So, for example, factory jobs manufacturing renewable energy systems (e.g. wind turbines or solar panels, etc.) are climate jobs. But so too would those jobs required in the operations and maintenance of these renewable energy systems in the field, as would the associated clerical jobs. These jobs help keep carbon buried by replacing fossil fuel energy production.

Improving energy efficiency in the stock of buildings across the country by retrofitting the estimated 90 per cent of buildings that have low energy efficiency could employ half a million construction tradespeople in climate jobs. These jobs help keep carbon buried by reducing the amount of energy consumed per building.  This is necessary in the short term, but insufficient in the long term to curtail the growth of emissions because home and building heating has to be converted to renewable sources to continue to keep carbon in the ground.

Jobs in any part of the public transportation sector are climate jobs. This includes jobs to manufacture the vehicles and other components of the public transportation systems and any job involved with the operations or maintenance of a public transportation system. These jobs help keep carbon buried by reducing the number of cars on the road and thus reducing the amount of energy consumed per kilometer travelled. In the long term public transportation has to be converted to renewable energy in order to continue to keep carbon in the ground.

In addition to climate jobs that lower carbon emissions through energy production and efficiency, there are also many jobs that are green by the fact that they are low-carbon jobs. As the Leap Manifesto explains, “Shifting to an economy in balance with the earth’s limits also means expanding the sectors of our economy that are already low carbon: caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts and public-interest media. Following on Quebec’s lead, a national childcare program is long past due. All this work, much of it performed by women, is the glue that builds humane, resilient communities.”

Grow the Movement

A key element of expanding climate and low-carbon jobs is government spending.

Clearly, given the small relative levels of investment in renewable energy across the economy and the continued dominance of a handful of global oil companies, the drive for profits is a barrier to the development of the green economy: witness the drive to fully exploit the tar sands even though the world scientific consensus is that this is a sure recipe for climate chaos. While there are privately based climate jobs, significant public investment is necessary to ensure that there are enough of them to make a difference on the direction of the economy. 

Trudeau claimed his budget spends lavishly on green infrastructure, but it’s a fraction of what’s needed for a just transition—and it’s a fraction of the funds available, as is clear from the leaked Panama Papers. There are growing numbers of workers demanding federal and provincial governments invest in climate jobs, including oil sands workers themselves: as the organization Iron and Earth writes, “We’re calling on the government of Alberta to invest in training programs, starting by retraining one thousand out-of-work oil industry electricians in Alberta in solar panel installation…By preparing the renewable energy workforce it is a win-win for Canadian workers, our families, our economy and the environment.”

Only by continuing to build the movement and push for real solutions can we force our governments to act, and ultimately build a better world run on the power of people and renewable energy.

Join the conference Ideas for Real Change: Marxism 2016, including the panel “Climate Justice Now” including guest speakers Myeengun Henry of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, and oil sands worker Ken Smith. Register today and join/share on facebook. 

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