Just Transition: An Idea Whose Time has Finally Come?

June 16, 2019 at 6:56 pm Leave a comment

Following the recent federal election, which suggested that the electorate is becoming more polarised about coal, everybody seems to be talking about “just transition”. Colin Long, the Just Transition Officer at Trades Hall, told us he has been inundated with calls. The National Union of Workers kicked off with a statement. The ABC is talking about it. Environment Victoria has released a blogpost, and has made it a focus of their Beyond Coal campaign. And some in Labor are talking about a Green New Deal.

Climate Action Moreland has long argued for just transition to be a key demand of the climate movement. But we need to do more. We can start by fleshing out what this means and how we should incorporate it into our campaigns.

The Latrobe Valley is the most critical region and should be the focus for Victorian climate activists. It suffered severe economic impacts from corporatision and privatisation of the SECV in the 1990s. There were more job losses from the 2017 closure of the Hazelwood power station, and more are expected when Yallourn closes. While, post-Hazelwood unemployment has declined, in Morwell it is over 15%.

What is Just Transition?

Just transition (JT) is way of moving beyond the “jobs versus environment” stalemate. It means that as we transition away from harmful industries, we should ensure the costs are shared equitably. We should not have certain communities bearing the brunt of these transitions. In Australia, it typically means that communities heavily dependent on fossil fuel extraction or combustion shouldn’t suffer as we transition away from these energy sources. There are also other meanings of JT: e.g. ensuring energy remains affordable for vulnerable households; and in developing countries, justice for vulnerable and disadvantaged people as these countries develop.

The International Labor Organisation talks about two dimensions of just transition:

  • The Outcome: Decent work, with fair pay, respect for fundamental rights at work, union rights (including right to organise and bargain collectively), gender equality and workplace democracy; plus an inclusive society with the eradication of poverty.
  • The Process: a managed transition; meaningful social dialogue; sharing the burden justly; and nobody left behind.

Note that just transition also has its critics. Some would argue that we don’t have time (but see rebuttal here). But in Australia, we have already wasted 30 years. We need a different approach.

A polarised electorate?

Labor took a weak just transition plan to the election. It covered only workers in coal power stations, and funding was about $16 million over 4 years. The Greens had a much stronger just transition plan in their policy, which included a transition for communities dependent on coal exports. They called for funding of $1 billion. The Coalition doesn’t have a just transition plan. But overall, we heard little about just transition in the election, and clearly it wasn’t resonating with voters in coal communities.

Overall we can say that the climate movement is winning city voters, particularly in wealthier areas. But it may be losing economically vulnerable voters, and it is much worse in coal areas.

There were big swings in coal areas to One Nation and United Australia Party, away from Labor. This occurred in the coal electorates of Capricornia (Central Qld) and Hunter (NSW). There were also swings in the towns of Moe (Vic); Collie (WA); Lithgow (NSW), all near coal power stations.

People in coal communities are not necessarily climate deniers. They are concerned about their livelihoods. And they have plenty of examples of communities left to bear the brunt of transitions. Their fears are justified.

Recent media articles suggest that coal communities regard climate activists as insensitive or worse. Gil McGowan from Alberta (Canada) says that if environmentalists don’t show sensitivity towards people who are being adversely affected, these communities “will no longer be just anxious, concerned people. They will become enemies.”

So a lack of sensitivity is counterproductive. It may make it more difficult to win communities over. Putting just transition at the forefront of our demands, and fleshing out what this really means for communities may help us move forward.

Improving how we talk about new jobs

JT is much more than just swapping coal jobs with clean energy jobs. But consider how we talk about jobs. Climate activists often point to there being more jobs in renewable energy and in tourism compared with coal. But we need to consider the JT demand for decent jobs. This means considering other factors, including the security, pay and conditions of these jobs. The location is also important. Expecting workers to move away for work is a recipe for destroying communities. And developing new local jobs means that the money stays within the community.

Jobs in the coal industry certainly have their problems, particularly in regards to health and lack of opportunities for women. But many coal jobs are well paid, full-time, permanent, and with a strong union (CFMMEU).

In comparison, tourism is not a very attractive industry for employment. True, there are some decent jobs in tourism, but there are also a lot of poorly paid, seasonal, casualised jobs. They typically require workers to relocate. Jobs Queensland notes: “Opportunities for full-time work with job security can be limited in the lower skilled roles.”

Renewable energy jobs also have downsides. They will probably require people to relocate since the best solar and wind resources are not in coal areas. These are typically short-term construction jobs, with fewer long-term jobs in operation and maintenance. There will be some ongoing jobs in solar rooftop installation in larger centres. But in smaller coal communities, such jobs would absorb only a handful of coal workers. Renewable energy companies are typically not unionised meaning that conditions are worse than in the unionised mining industry. Unions have complained that some new renewable energy jobs are not going to locals.

So what types of jobs should we be talking about?

  • Manufacturing of renewable energy equipment could provide local, secure, well-paid jobs. Sadly, Australia has very little of this, though Earthworker is an encouraging example.
  • Mine rehabilitation offers local, long-term employment, and offers opportunities for people with a range of skills.
  • Diversification of local economies, including more manufacturing in general, will help make communities more resilient.
  • Public sector jobs. Governments are well placed to ensure that jobs are provided in locations where they are needed. This is more effective than offering incentives to private industry.

Differentiating between different types of coal industry

Climate activists tend to speak just of shutting down coal. But there are big differences within the coal industry. We can identify three sectors, which require different approaches.

  • Coking coal mining (about half of exports, Qld and NSW) is not in decline. Finding alternatives for coal used in steel production is certainly needed, but is something the climate movement rarely addresses.
  • Thermal coal mining (i.e. for combustion in power stations) for export in Hunter (NSW) and Qld is predicted to be in decline but this will depend on global market. The Labor Party supports exports and does not have a just transition plan for this industry. We think it needs one.
  • Local coal-fired power generation (mining plus power station operation): Latrobe Valley (Vic), Collie (WA), Lithgow (NSW), Hunter (NSW) and some Qld. This sector is most definitely in decline. Labor has a JT plan for this sector, but it needs to be much stronger.

Interestingly, Labor’s vote declined dramatically in all three sectors, regardless of whether they were under threat of closures.

What can the climate movement do differently?

  • We can start by listening to coal communities rather than protesting in them. Queensland Greens Councillor Jonathan Sri argues that the pre-election convoy to Adani country would have been better if it were a listening tour. Many of these communities are quite aware of the coming transition away from coal and have their own ideas. We need to build bridges with locals trying to diversify their towns.
  • We can be more specific in our demands. Local communities will have their own ideas about specific new employment opportunities. Let’s join our voices with their voices.
  • We need to work constructively with trade unions. Unfortunately, parts of the CFMMEU Mining and Energy have backed pro-coal rallies. But most unions are onside, yet are frustrated with climate activists only paying lip service to JT. The trade union movement has a lot of JT resources and international examples.
  • We can change our language to have “transition” as the emphasis rather “stop” or “replace”. We could incorporate these demands in our slogans, not as last point in a large document that few people read.

The post-election interest in just transition means that we will undoubtedly have a lot more to say about this in the future. We welcome ideas about how the climate movement as a whole can do this better.

Entry filed under: election, Just Transition, Uncategorized, Yallourn Power Station. Tags: , , .

LaTrobe Valley Coal Power pollution poses health threat – World Environment Day

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