What does a just transition look like for Vancouver?

The Georgia Straight and Vancouver Tech Journal explore green energy in the Lower Mainland and beyond

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      This article is a collaboration with Vancouver Tech Journal. You can read the other half of this story here.

      Shakti Ramkumar knows how important it is to go green. 

      At university, she was part of the youth climate movements that pushed the City of Vancouver to declare a climate emergency, and lobbied the University of British Columbia to divest its endowment from oil and gas companies. 

      “Young people do an amazing job of mobilizing our peers to really expose people to the influence and overall impact of the fossil fuel industry,” she told the Straight from Surrey. 

      Youth climate protestors at a rally in Vancouver in September 2019.
      Michael Urbanek / Shutterstock

      But activism alone isn’t enough to change the world. As the need to curb carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent, practical steps have to happen. The job market is shifting, as workers in oil and gas need to find new careers—and students and young people are in a prime position to enter the workforce in jobs that will help cut carbon emissions.

      Now, as the senior director of communications and policy at Student Energy, Ramkumar is focused on identifying what young people need to help them get into clean energy jobs.

      “Even among young people who are so driven and passionate about climate action, I think the energy space, it still seems a bit murky and not all that accessible,” she said. “There is still a divide there between broader climate action and how that directly translates to the energy sector.”

      While BC is already a global hub for green business, boasting at least 175 green-focused companies and six on the 2022 Global Cleantech 100 list, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy shift into a future where we’re all driving electric cars, living in low-emissions condos, or eating locally grown food delivered by hydrogen-powered trucks. 

      For one, it’s unclear to young people how they get these kinds of green jobs. For another, thousands of jobs are tied up in vulnerable sectors that won’t exist in a low-carbon future. That’s where the concept of a just transition comes in. 

      “A just transition is one that enables and empowers individuals and communities to thrive in the coming changes to both the global economy and the Canadian economy as well,” said Jonathan Arnold, the clean growth research lead at the Canadian Climate Institute. “It comes down to education, ensuring that historically disadvantaged groups are included, and included in a way that helps level the playing field.”

      The just transition framework says that it’s not enough for the low-carbon energy transition to maintain the status quo: it needs to improve it. Workers in vulnerable jobs need to be supported, but those new green jobs need to be accessible to everyone—especially those who typically face more barriers to employment, including young people, Indigenous people, migrant workers, racialized people, or people with disabilities. 

      And while Vancouver might flourish in the coming years, other towns or cities might struggle more. A Climate Institute report estimated that only 2.8 per cent of BC’s workers are in transition-vulnerable jobs, but Fort St. John has 13 per cent of its workers involved in oil and gas. Rural, remote, and Indigenous communities are likely to see the brunt of job losses in the next few decades—which in turn could mean workers have to move. 

      “In some cases, [workers] may want to stay where they grew up, in the community where they live, but just simply can’t find opportunities to stay employed,” Arnold said. 

      That migration might happen across provinces. BC currently produces the overwhelming majority of its energy from hydro-electric sources, while some provinces like Alberta rely more on fossil fuels. While the oil fields have long been a centre of migration for workers from across Canada, a green economy might see workers instead flocking to energy projects in BC.

      According to George Benson, senior manager of economic transformation at the Vancouver Economic Commission, Vancouver is likely to see “tremendous net job growth” in the green transition, with an influx of people potentially moving to the city for these kinds of clean energy jobs. One of the core areas of job growth, he said, is retrofitting buildings to make them more liveable—both more energy efficient, but also better able to stand the effects of extreme weather events. 

      “We saw in the heat dome [in 2021], the number of buildings in the city that are not resilient in the face of overheating,” he said. “We need to retrofit our buildings not just for climate change, but to live better lives.”

      Benson said that a just transition is about “taking action to shift that economic system in a more just and equitable direction,” making sure not to “entrench” existing inequality in the future. Vancouver already has a Community Benefit Agreements policy, which stipulates that large construction projects have to create a certain amount of jobs and source a certain amount of goods from local or diverse businesses. 

      “Seeing policies like that applied in different contexts where we’re going to build a lot of infrastructure for climate change … are going to be part of how we ensure those benefits get really accurately distributed,” he said. Benson also suggested other kinds of employment models, like worker co-ops and social enterprises, as ways for green jobs to be more accessible.

      Private finance-backed companies like Hydra in Delta or General Fusion in Richmond are working on creating clean energy sources that could replace oil and gas in the long run. But they’re not the only sector where green jobs are going to grow. 

      Delta's Hydra Energy is converting trucks to run on hydrogen to help reduce emissions from long-haul trucking.
      Hydra Energy

      “Not all climate action is sexy, but all climate action is important,” Benson said. He pointed to skilled trades jobs in heat pumps and insulation as an important part of cutting emissions generally in the quest for net-zero, alongside the flashier (and more complicated) matter of transitioning energy sources. “We need to make sure that those [trades] jobs are well-paid, and that they’re socially viable and respected.” 

      Sean W. Strickland, executive director of Canada’s Building Trades Union (CBTU) that represents over half a million skilled trades workers across the country, said workers are worried about being able to find comparable jobs in clean energy.

      “We did a survey with Abacus Data, and 75 per cent of our workers are nervous for what the future holds,” Strickland said in a phone interview. “It’s really important for us to get this right for workers.”

      Oil-and-gas-related projects generally pay higher wages than comparable jobs in the clean energy sector and have higher rates of unionization, according to a CBTU report. A just transition would need to ensure workers can access skills training to move into new jobs, but also that those jobs don’t cause a drop in income or quality of life. 

      Strickland said there could be a mixture of tax credits for workplaces to decarbonize, but also a regulatory framework to ensure minimum labour standards in order to qualify for financial support: “a stick and also some carrot,” as he puts it.

      Government promises are all well and good, but follow-through is crucial. Ramkumar said that young people are well-positioned to hold the government accountable. 

      “Young people are so key. We’re here for the long haul. We’ll be around for the next 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, seeing these policies through,” Ramkumar said. 

      And governments don’t just need to lower emissions. Municipal, provincial, and federal governments need to make progress on making cities and provinces places that young people can afford to live in. 

      “We want to have talented workers stay in BC and live in BC and contribute in BC,” she said. “That'll only be possible if young people are supported now at the early stages with their basic needs, [like] housing, skills training, lots of different vocational pathways.”

      Benson said that education is a big part of what he sees as Vancouver’s just transition: helping students, schools, and universities see that there are all kinds of different green jobs. Support for lower-carbon careers exists, and building it out will help more people be able to work in climate-sensitive, future-proof jobs.

      “I’m 31, I grew up in the youth climate movement, I was one of these people once,” he said. “There are really obvious green jobs you can go to, but if you really feel like you want to be the first green dental hygienist, we can help you figure that out as well.”

      This article is a collaboration with Vancouver Tech Journal. You can read the other half of this story here.