How to shape a 'just' future for both proponents and critics of Canada's pipelines

The climate change conversation needs to focus not only on emission targets but also on fostering a ‘just transition’ for the Canadian and global economy, argues Matthew Hoffmann.

By: /
December 19, 2016
An Enbridge high pressure oil pipeline sign stands as smoke billows from the Fort McMurray in Kinosis, Alberta, Canada, May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

The debate over the future of Canada’s energy and climate policy is on. A single question from Tzeporah Berman’s recent analysis of the Trudeau government’s approval of two pipeline projects — the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 — captures what Canada is now asking as a nation: “Where are we going?” 

Following the approval of the projects, the federal and provincial governments announced a new pan-Canadian climate plan on Dec. 9 as a partial answer. However, the fundamental questions remain of how to balance economic health and climate change action and where the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure fits into the equation. 

While arguing the merits of the recent pipeline decision is healthy, the fact is that both those that cheered — or at least cautiously supported — the decision, and those that decried it are arguably right. They both bring to bear compelling evidence and argumentation, signalling the need for a new national conversation about climate change and Canada’s economic future. 

Essentially, we need to bridge the aims of both climate advocates and the energy sector by coming to grips with the fundamental transition that is necessary in Canada and across the world. More concretely, we need to change the nature of the choices available, alter what is currently understood as the “delicate balance” between the environment and the economy and put the notion of a just transition at the core of our national conversation.

Let me explain further. 

Those who are cautiously optimistic about the government’s approval of pipelines contend that carbon pricing is a more efficient means of pursuing emissions reductions than blocking pipelines. The substance of this argument is correct — carbon pricing is a more efficient means of reducing emissions than blocking pipelines. Those who are dismayed by the decision argue that it makes achieving our modest Paris climate commitments very difficult, if not impossible, and that facilitating the expansion of bitumen production is a poor choice for the long run economically as the global community (hopefully) moves towards decarbonization. This is likely right too. Canada probably cannot reach its Paris commitments if pipeline capacity is expanded and utilized. Estimates about that utilization probably do rely on problematic assumptions about future demand for fossil fuels. 

Going further, we can find arguments that show how approving the pipelines was a sound political decision and good for people in multiple regions of Canada. It is hard to argue with this. It probably is a good decision for supporting a progressive government in Alberta and, problematically, in the short term, for those communities that rely on fossil fuel extraction. Still, others contend that beyond causing environmental harm, approval of these pipelines also tramples the rights of Indigenous communities and will ignite civil society protest. These are compelling points and the decision will certainly have political costs for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his left flank.

Here’s the rub, then. If all sides are right (or at least convincing), then the differences arise not from the evidence but from different underlying perspectives about a sustainable future and reasonable paths to it. This is what makes this issue so politically fraught for Trudeau. One “reasonable” position wins out by fiat or force (government approval or civil society backlash) and the supporters of the other will be left with the righteous anger of having a different “reasonable” position dismissed. 

A new, national conversation

We need a new set of reasonable positions; a new set that doesn’t necessarily reconcile these perspectives, but rather transcends them. This needs to be the focus of the national conversation. 

Let me suggest two possible foundations for that discussion: First, addressing climate change is not only about emissions, it is also about fostering transformation. And second, justice should be at the forefront of our conversations about transitioning towards a low-carbon economy (both in Canada and globally).

Greenhouse gas emissions are the proximate cause of climate change, but it is our reliance on carbon-based energy that is the underlying problem. If emissions were the sum total of the problem, we really could implement a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, sit back and wait for the magic of market forces to bring climate change to heel. Unfortunately responding to climate change is also, and mostly, about transforming our economy, energy and transportation systems away from the rampant use of fossil fuels. Carbon pricing policies have a crucial role to play in this transformation because they are cost-efficient ways to put pressure on carbon-intensive activities, but carbon pricing is not a silver bullet. Further, if we reduce our domestic emissions but send our fossil fuel resources abroad in increasing quantities, we risk exacerbating the problem rather than contributing to a solution.

"The economic security worries in Newfoundland and Alberta are real."

Economic transformation and transition have to become the parameters for what is considered reasonable, feasible and practical. It is business as usual that must become the unreasonable, infeasible and impractical. Of course, many will say, “We cannot change over night.” Undoubtedly that is true. The economic security worries in Newfoundland and Alberta are real. The instincts of politicians who sense that we cannot yet make a radical shift to decarbonization given current political constraints are valid. These are as real as the concerns of those who want to see the pipelines blocked because of their potential to contribute to activities that exacerbate climate change and more localized environmental destruction from the extraction and shipping of oilsands. 

But we can make transformation the touchstone of our national conversation and the criteria against which we judge potential actions by constantly asking: “Will this make transformation easier or harder?” Unfortunately, the way we have dealt with real economic insecurity concerns and the lack of political support for dramatic change is to make short-term decisions that reinforce the very system that is generating climatic change. That will make us more economically insecure and environmentally challenged in the future. This must change. 

Perhaps even more importantly, the change towards assuming transformation must be accompanied by a focus on the justness of transformation. Defining and pursuing a just transition toward a low-carbon economy and world should have pride of place in our national conversation for both practical and moral reasons. This is the path to devising a better set of options rather than choosing between Paris and pipelines.

In the absence of this mindset, the natural reaction to the Fort McMurray fires of May 2016 (either caused in part by climate change or a preview of what’s to come because of climate change) was to get the oilsands operations back up and running. Similarly, the natural choice for a centrist prime minister is to trade climate policy for pipelines and economic growth, as if climate change is not an existential threat but a policy like any other. The problem is that we see these choices as the obvious alternatives. With a just-transition mindset, our decisions would be oriented to transformation and be approached in a way that protects the vulnerable — those vulnerable to the effects of climate change itself, vulnerable to the environmental ravages of fossil fuel extraction, and vulnerable to the effects of pursuing decarbonization in a serious way. 

Choosing the right policies

Planning a just transition means acknowledging and addressing dislocations. This is not about paying off fossil fuel companies (who have made plenty of profit over the years from extracting, selling and burning fossil fuels), but rather directing resources to communities that have depended on the fossil fuel industry and those industries tightly tethered to it. It means moving resources away from supporting fossil fuel extraction and production towards areas of the economy that support a just transition. It means building the sustainability of all kinds of communities — socially, economically and environmentally — to prepare ourselves for a post-carbon and climate constrained world.  

The specifics of a just transition should be the subject of a national conversation, but there are some places to start. The Trudeau government had pledged to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies during its 2015 campaign and re-affirmed this commitment at the G20 meeting in China this past September. It is time to follow through on this pledge, and, in acting on it, ensure that the $3.3 billion that provincial and federal governments are providing to the fossil fuel sector are redirected towards programs and policies that facilitate a just transition. The organization Iron and Earth, founded by oilsands workers, has ideas for how this should play out — policies that support rapid expansion of renewable energy industries with retraining for the energy sector’s highly skilled workforce. 

More generally, we need a national conversation like the municipal conversation that the city of Toronto has started with Transform TO. This program’s motto is “Climate action for a healthy, equitable, prosperous Toronto” and it is engaging in widespread public consultations to spark citizens’ thinking about, as Berman asked, “Where are we going?”  

We do not know what a decarbonized society will look like or what the path to getting there entails. Uncertainty is a reality and that makes this difficult. Yet we cannot shrink from the challenge and the prime minister, premiers, other politicians and, frankly, all of us must develop better choices than balancing climate policy with further and contradictory development of fossil fuel resources. 

We can and must plan for a just transition that makes the pursuit of economic security and sustainability the same goal.