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Conversations worth having: Just Transition

Comparing strategies and solutions for a just transition in Alberta (Canada) and Silesia (Poland)

Although Canada and Poland are geographically distant and have very different political contexts, exchanges of experience and insights between the two countries can provide inspiration for them both on their individual paths toward a just transition. This was clearly demonstrated during a webinar hosted on September 30, 2021, by Climate Reality Leader Ymène Fouli from The Climate Reality Project Canada. The online conversation between Joie Warnock of Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, and Patryk Bialas, a seasoned climate activist and campaigner from Silesia, touched on the political, environmental, and economic context of the energy transition in the two countries; expectations related to the just transition, and lessons learned in terms of the challenges of coalition building.

Just transition in Canada: A vital piece of the plan

The Canadian national government has set the goal of a 40% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 compared to 2005, but little action has been taken to date in terms of concrete planning to ensure that workers are protected during the energy transition. Unemployment, which has been rising since 2014, has recently been exacerbated by the global pandemic. By highlighting existing inequalities, the COVID pandemic marks a turning point in Canada with respect to decarbonization — the country’s post-pandemic recovery strategy must be sustainable not only environmentally, but also in terms of jobs protection. It is essential to identify what decarbonization means for workers and their families and communities, and to integrate workers’ concerns into plans for economic recovery. By claiming to support the interests of workers in the fossil fuel industry, there is a real danger that government and industry will leave workers to pay the costs of the transition in terms of wage cuts, weakened health and safety provision, and reductions in injury compensation.

The just transition in Canada is one piece of an overall plan for the economy that is aimed at investment and full employment. In order to be fair, inclusive and resilient, the planning process as a whole must include the active involvement of labor unions in decision making, the better communication of the benefits of the energy transition, a commitment to income protection and retraining for workers, as well as tax credits and investment support.

The political pressure being applied by Unifor and the trade union movement in Canada has the support of global partners, including the Just Transition Centre of the International Trade Union Confederation. Unifor is also working with Blue Green Canada, an alliance between Canadian labor unions and environmental and civil society organizations to advocate for working people and the environment by promoting environmental solutions that have a positive economic impact. The Climate Action Network Canada is also committed to ending energy poverty and championing workers’ rights.

In 2017, Canada’s Coal Transition Coalition produced the document “Getting it Right”, initiating conversations in local communities and communicating local fears, possibilities, and priorities to the state government. In 2018/2019, Canada’s government Task Force for Just Transition met with a broad range of stakeholders, including workers and their families, employers, labor unions, business representatives and municipalities, to draw up a road map of recommendations.

Both funds and planning are needed for the just transition in Canada, which must take place in the context of the country’s overall economic goals. Income insecurity is being magnified by climate challenges, thus Unifor’s Build Back Better campaign is putting pressure on government and industry to get the transition right, ensuring protection for vulnerable workers and sustainable jobs and communities in the long term.

Poland and the EU Green Deal

The situation in Silesia needs to be viewed in the context of Poland’s membership in the EU. In December 2019, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the European Union’s Green Deal, a strategy supporting the transition to a climate-neutral economy. Just transition is one of the three pillars of the Green Deal, and as part of it, funding of up to EUR 17,5 billion is being dedicated to alleviating the impacts of the energy transition.

Poland’s transition in fact began over 30 years ago. At the end of the 1990s, the coal industry produced 163 million tons of coal per year and employed 400,000 people, while the respective figures today are an annual 62 million tons and a workforce of 80,000. Coal mining still plays a major role in terms of regional identity, defining cuisine, customs, and calendars of events. People are afraid of what the transition will mean, despite the poverty and unemployment already visible in the region. This local resistance is compounded by determination on the part of the state government, trade unions, and private investors to maintain the coal industry. In December 2018, for example, at COP24 in Katowice, the president of Poland, referring to coal as Poland’s national treasure, stated that Poland’s coal mines would continue to be in operation for the next 200 years. At the same time, private investors have announced plans to open new mines in Silesia. Not only does this make the situation extremely difficult for climate activists but it also jeopardizes Silesia’s chances of accessing support from the EU’s Just Transition Fund. In order to apply for funding, regions are obliged to submit aTerritorial Just Transition Plan (TJTP), outlining priorities and actions. These plans will only be approved at EU level if the region has a commitment to climate neutrality and has a date for the complete phase-out of coal mining. Thus, despite the fact that 28% of the Territorial Just Transition Fund is dedicated to Poland, and half of Poland’s allocated sum is destined for Silesia, the largest of the country’s six coal regions, there is a real danger that without a commitment to the phase-out of coal, the region’s TJTP will not be approved.

Whatever the message being conveyed by the national government and the industry, Polish people are not isolated. They are aware of the global conversation taking place: they know that the energy transition is happening and that coal is inevitably becoming a thing of the past. Thanks to efforts by organizations such as BoMiasto, and with support from The Climate Reality Project Europe, public consultations on the region’s TJTP have been held (online during the pandemic), along with online debates and workshops. One such event, aimed at journalists, resulted in participants gaining an understanding of the just transition process and even becoming advocates for the just transition themselves. Another event involved an exchange of best practices with participants from Canada and Scotland, while a workshop for civil society activists resulted in a two-page document of demands that were subsequently presented at national level. An informal coalition of 12 NGOs was formed, which by June 2021 had expanded to 22 NGOs and three city halls. This grassroots movement developed seven golden rules for planning for the just transition: invite openly; include all partners; give equal status to all partners; share information; expect and allow feedback from stakeholders; ensure transparency from the outset; and engage local and regional communities.

A conversation worth having

In 2019, in his capacity as a city councilor, Patryk Bialas attended a meeting held at one of the coal mines in Katowice. At the entrance to the mine, he overheard some of the miners referring to him as “the man who is trying to close our mine.” This provided an ideal opportunity to engage in a conversation about what the energy transition means in practice for those currently employed in the mining industry and who fear for their livelihoods. Patryk was able to point out directly to the miners that they already have the necessary skills to work in the nearby renewable energy technology plant, doing jobs that would be more secure, healthier, and better paid. The message he was able to convey is in direct contrast to the government and trade union narrative that supports continued and long-term investment in the coal industry.

What emerged from the contributions of both speakers during the webinar was the need for transparent communication among all stakeholders: conversations in which climate-related demands and workers’ rights can be voiced through safe and effective coalitions in the interests of just transition.

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