The urgency of a just transition in the face of climate change

New Zealand is about to embark on a transition to a low carbon economy and future.  It’s one of the most important transitions we will make, and it has to be done well. Our lives literally depend on it.

For people who work for a living, and the unpaid work that supports this, change and transition are permanent features of employment, nationally and internationally.

But big transitions in work can make people anxious. New Zealand hasn’t done them well before. Photo credit: Takver on Flikr under Creative Commons 2.0. The climate march in Bonn before COP23 for climate justice. 

The massive economic restructuring in the 1980s including the removal and reduction of tariffs saw tens of thousands of people sacked without any consideration of the impact on them and their families. We won’t let this happen with the transition to zero carbon.

The Government has an important call to make on the future of oil and gas exploration in New Zealand. The Prime Minister has indicated they are close to a decision on this.

The science is clear that there is no future for us on our planet in the long term if we can’t move past relying on fossil fuels. As the rallying cry of the trade union movement globally on climate change puts it– there are no jobs on a dead planet.

How we manage this transition is critical. It was a huge relief for working people to hear that the new Government has committed to a ‘Just Transition’. Since being elected, the Prime Minister and her Ministers have backed up this position repeatedly in public.

We’re all agreed on the need for a just transition. But what does one look like?

For a start, it needs to be well planned. A good plan needs sustainable industries to ramp up, and the creation of new sectors at the same time as phasing out old ones. New, decent work should already be in sight for affected working people and communities. 

We don’t have to wait for the inevitable to act. Retraining can happen as part of current jobs. We should offer the assurance of a full transition package that maps the move to new secure jobs, recognises existing skills, and provides financial support to protect people’s quality of life.

An example might be help upgrading someone’s class of driving licence, providing a travel subsidy, and relocation assistance for someone moving to sustainable work.

For affected people and their families, any old job won’t do. Many of the jobs in extractive industries have been reliable, decent paying jobs which have supported communities and regions.

While the previous Government liked to repeat that thousands of new jobs were being created in New Zealand each month, our analysis showed around one third of jobs are insecure, poor quality positions.  

The new Government can drive economic diversification away from New Zealand’s heavy reliance on extractive industry, particularly in the regions. This is already underway with the combined weight of the Provincial Growth Fund and the Green Investment Fund. 

The Climate Change Minister James Shaw has said that a Just Transition provides equivalent or higher wages, and secure work that matches people’s skills. If someone has experience in fuel pipe laying, for example, our water infrastructure around the country badly needs upgrading – it’s similar skills, in a valued job, that’s also sustainable and good for public health.

There is a level of urgency around this now. We need to work up a transition plan for people employed in the oil and gas industries, and we need to do it right now. This will give confidence to current employees that they’ll be protected and have a say in in the transition away from fossil fuels.

The good news is we’re not alone. Just Transitions are already happening in Germany, Australia, Canada and Norway.

Last year in Australia the Victorian state government minimised the impact of the Hazelwood power station and mine closure on workers and communities. They developed and funded the multi-employer pooling and redeployment Latrobe Valley Worker Transfer Scheme. People working at other power stations will be given the option of a voluntary early retirement payment. The resulting vacancies at these power generators are then used to create positions for the Hazelwood workers.

But it’s not just people working with fossil fuels that will be involved in a Just Transition. Some of the easiest steps we can take, like changing our transport patterns or Government purchasing, are small changes over many industries. Just Government carefully assessing what it buys can make a major dent in emissions. And, the processes we create to help people facing climate-related change now can be used for other transitions, like the impact of robotics.

Our Just Transition will only be successful if we find a way forward which is fair to everyone. No one person can fully mitigate the impact of climate change through their individual actions, no matter how noble. If we are asking some people to move their homes, their families and their careers for the good of us all, we should expect them to ask what they are being offered by society in return.

Now’s the time for everyone to chip in, for the sake of us all.

You can read more about the Council of Trade Unions Just Transition policy here

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