The just green transition: Canada’s proactive approach

How Canada is pushing towards ambitious energy and green economy policies and what Europe can learn from it

Jan 12, 2017 · 6 min read
Christian Reimer, Flickr

Béla Galgóczi, Senior Researcher at the ETUI

The EU is losing its leading position in climate and energy policymaking

In the search for good practices and ambitious policies and initiatives on how to manage climate change and the transformation to a zero carbon economy, we increasingly need to look beyond Europe.

Since 2004, Europe has been a leader in adopting ambitious climate policies. However, in recent years the EU has lost momentum in greening its economy and its leadership in this area is eroding rapidly. Since 2011, clean energy investment in Europe has halved, mostly due to austerity and policy uncertainty. Progress in energy efficiency has also been extremely modest and much of the reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions recorded in Europe is attributable to slow growth and recession.

Europe is losing ground: New investment into renewable energy, bn USD (Bela Galgoczi, Europe’s energy transformation in the austerity trap, ETUI, Brussels, 2015)

The recent ‘Clean Energy’ package launched by the European Commission can be seen as a recognition of the loss of Europe’s former leading role in the green transformation. While it is a positive sign that the Commission has once again set itself the target of ‘achieving global leadership in renewables’, it does not mention that this was a position already occupied by the EU between 2004 and 2011.

The success of the COP21 in Paris showed that there is now a global commitment to getting climate change under control. Several regions and countries outside Europe are setting out ambitious energy and climate policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency and move towards a greener production and consumption model.

Canada, which until only recently had a bad reputation in this area, is catching up with its energy policy and green economy ambitions. Europe has clearly had a better track record in the past, but in terms of current climate policies and ambitions, Canada and certain US green states are outperforming it. Furthermore, it is China that now takes the global leadership in clean energy investment, far outstripping Europe.

What can Europe learn from Canada in this field?

  1. By way of a carbon tax, Canada introduced a carbon price of 30 CAD per ton of CO2 (approximately 22 EUR), with a mid-term target price of 50 CAD. In Europe, the emissions trading system (EU ETS), the first large GHG emissions trading scheme in the world and still the biggest, resulted in an effective carbon price of only 5 EUR (the current price of an EU Allowance (EUA) unit of a ton of emitted CO2), which is far too low to provide a proper incentive to reduce GHG emissions in line with COP21 commitments. The reform of the ETS is on the agenda, but despite high expectations the Environmental Council again failed to reach a compromise at its meeting on 19 December 2016.
  2. Following the end of the Stephen Harper years (‘our Trump’, as a speaker called him during a conference on Canada’s Green Jobs Plan), Canada seems to have developed an ambition to embark on a “green revolution”, not least because it sees its economic potential. With the adoption of energy efficiency policies, for example, retrofitting buildings is seen as a large job creator, and there is also much talk about job creation in public transport and public services, particularly in health and social care. In addition to all this, Canada plans to phase out coal-based electricity by 2030 and has set itself the goal of generating 90% of its electricity from sustainable sources by then. (In British Columbia, 93% of electricity is now generated from renewable sources and by 2027 the state plans to move to a net-zero energy requirement for new buildings).
  3. The rhetoric about green jobs seems to be of a more honest and realistic nature in Canada than in Europe. It is openly declared that renewable energy generation will not in itself create jobs on a large scale. In fact, the net employment effect in energy generation might even be negative, as renewables are less labour-intensive than fossil fuels, especially coal-based energy. This is why the just transition is an important priority for them and why measures to deal with labour market transitions, training and education are high on the agenda.
  4. With all its contradictions, digitalisation is also seen as a green job creator, particularly as regards the sharing economy and crowdworking.
  5. Trade union involvement in supporting these government actions is high at the national, state and company levels.

Walking the path to a just transition: trade union action in the green transformation

In Canada, trade unionists have been focusing their attention on how to manage a ‘just green transition’ in this fast-changing political landscape, working via such networks as the ACW (Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change).

In this context, all three aspects of the just green transition are being addressed and taken seriously:

  1. just concerns the issue of inequality; the ecological transition should not leave anyone behind (both the safety net dimension and the proactive ‘managing change’ dimension are seen as equally important in this regard).
  2. green (meaning zero carbon) aims to counter the re-emerging climate scepticism that is being fed by populist and right-wing forces (known as ‘dark politics’).
  3. transition emphasises the change (or even revolution) that needs to and is taking place, and takes account of all its consequences. This is something that needs to be stressed to counter the claims of populist movements and parties that the jobs of the past can be preserved and that they can take us back to the 1960s/70s.

The just transition should not be restricted to a defensive policy framework (although the current reality comes close to this), but rather work as a proactive policy tool to manage the full complexity of the transition process. A just transition involves: 1) a general labour market policy framework that facilitates transition; 2) specific policy measures to fend off any negative employment effects of greening; and 3) training and investment policies to support job transitions.

The ACW network collected more than 160 green collective agreements from across Canada in an online database. From these collective agreements, we can see how workers’ participation in climate policy can have a significant impact on the green transformation (there are clauses included that relate to green training and education, workplace environmental committees, recycling, commuting, green procurement, energy conservation, workforce adjustment and social responsibility).

From a European perspective, one particular lesson to take from the situation in Canada is that even if trade unions are in a generally weaker position in that country or in the US than in Europe, their engagement in climate policy is more pronounced. Unions in North America are very active in mobilising for low carbon economy objectives with campaigns and workplace greening policies, and they even have collective bargaining clauses on greening.

Stronger unions and well-established institutions for workers’ participation constitute a great asset that Europe can mobilise in its efforts to adopt good practices for managing the just green transition.


Written by


The European Trade Union Institute is the research & training centre of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

More From Medium

Also tagged Trade Unions

Also tagged Environment

Also tagged Environment

Objective Tragedies

Top on Medium

Ed Yong
Mar 25 · 22 min read


Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade