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Toward A Just Transition

The evidence of climate change is getting harder to deny, and we're running out of time.

Toward a Just Transition

John Cartwright, Toronto & York Region Labour Council

The global climate crisis is real. Canada is warming at twice the global rate. The evidence of climate change—fires, floods, heat waves and droughts—is getting harder to deny. And we’re running out of time to make the permanent transition to a truly low-carbon economy.

In the past year, students have mounted global school walkouts, and cities and countries have declared climate emergencies. But during the same time period, new political forces have launched a massive counter-attack against the consensus reached with the Paris Accord in 2015. Lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry and conservative politicians want to roll back the clock, and resurrect the flawed argument that the economy will suffer if we try to save the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth—if we use our skills and knowledge to plan for a sustainable, low-carbon economy. It’s a matter of which choices we make.

There is a saying in the labor movement about how our society will respond to the dynamics of change: “Transition is assured, justice is not.” We have witnessed hollowed out communities and poverty wage jobs. That is why the principle of Just Transition must be embedded in any plan for climate action. There are many examples of injustice from past economic restructuring, and today’s disruptive technologies are set to displace or change far more jobs than environmental regulations will ever do.

The concept of a Just Transition for workers and communities is slowly being embraced at the international level. This year, Canada’s Just Transition Task Force issued its report calling for a phase-out of coal while supporting affected workers and their communities. There is no doubt that changing our economy will take hard work, but there are examples of how to make the right changes. Four decades ago, Canadian unions undertook the need to build a health and safety movement to challenge the accepted norm of workplace accidents and deaths. We had to confront employers and politicians, educate our members, fight for regulations, and win laws for the implementation of workplace health and safety committees. Together with allies in the medical profession and enlightened employers, we succeeded in dramatically reducing fatalities and occupational disease.

Back in the 1990s, the construction trades in Toronto faced massive unemployment after the real estate marked collapsed. They championed an innovative government-led program of energy retrofits of existing buildings. Unemployed tradespeople went back to work, while contractors and design firms adapted to the different tasks required for success. Since its inception, the Better Buildings Program has provided 45,000 persons years of employment while reducing CO2 emissions by 680,000 tonnes.

Today some of the most exciting examples of leadership on transition are coming out of California and New York. Governor Cuomo has spearheaded massive initiatives in wind energy and building retrofits that will create thousands of good-paying jobs while shifting the state’s energy mix to 70% renewables. New York unions and the ClimateJobs coalition were an integral part of developing the plan which includes training, equity hiring and local manufacturing.


Lessons Learned

The fundamental lesson from the past is the need for strong public policy and programs. Whether to incubate new business models, encourage innovation, or force a change in negative behavior, government has a key role in ensuring success. A just transition model must include the following:


  • Income support for workers during the full duration of transition
  • Local economic development tools for affected communities
  • Realistic training/retraining programs that lead to decent work Knowledge sharing—the adoption of best practices from other jurisdictions
  • A framework to support labour standards + collective bargaining
  • A sectoral approach customized to regions and work processes Research and development to provide support for technological adjustment
  • An equity lens to understand the impacts on racialized and Indigenous communities


Just Transition is a long-term commitment from all of society as we prepare for the future. The goal of resilience is not just for physical spaces but also social infrastructure, which will be tested by storms, droughts, and wildfires, and the migration of climate refugees. Long-term planning, focused investment, and deep respect for workers and their communities are the only way that justice will be assured in this global transition.


John Cartwright is the President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, which represents 200,000 women and men who work in every sector of the economy. A carpenter by trade, he has years of experience working for social, economic and climate justice.