By Amanda Bryant
Alberta’s environment minister, Sonya Savage, recently took issue with the term “just transition”, which is often used as shorthand for ‘leaving no one behind’ in the transition to net zero. If anything can be seen as a unifying goal, you’d think it’d be that.
Yet Savage is urging that Ottawa stop using the term, which she believes to be “divisive, polarizing language” that should be scrubbed from government websites and consultation pieces. In her view, “It means phasing out fossil fuels immediately, keeping it in the ground.”
The Pathways Alliance, which represents Canada’s major oil sands companies, apparently shares her concerns, though it supports the creation of plans to address shifting labour needs.
Terminology sometimes matters and sometimes doesn’t. Names aren’t always neutral and interchangeable: they can have rich histories and connotations, shape perceptions, encode bias, cause harm, or be otherwise problematic. On the other hand, we can define terms of art however we want, and quibbling about them can be a merely terminological exercise that distracts from the core issues.
So which is it with “just transition”? The real problem is one of trust, not terminology.
The term “just transition” emerged in the context of the North American labour movement in the late 20th century, when trade unions were advocating for workers as they transitioned out of hazardous jobs. It gained prominence when the Paris Agreement declared “just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities” to be imperatives.
In 2019, the Government of Canada promised to develop just transition legislation — a Just Transition Act, which should finally materialize this year.
The government characterizes a just transition as one that protects, prepares, and supports workers and their communities as the nation transitions to a low-carbon energy system. It emphasizes the importance of fostering opportunities, equipping workers with key skills, and including them in discussions that affect their livelihoods.
Beyond supports for existing oil and gas workers, “just transition” sometimes signifies the creation of a more inclusive energy system — one that integrates members of equity-deserving groups as workers, decision-makers, and owners.
None of that seems the least bit objectionable. However, Savage believes the government is not being entirely forthcoming with its intended meaning.
“If what Ottawa is talking about, if — and they repeatedly say it’s not — but if what they intend… is to have a government-forced shut-down of oil and gas in the province… they’re going to have to compensate the people of Alberta for 180 billion barrels of reserves of oil in the ground”, Savage remarked. “It belongs to us, and a forced shut-down would be an expropriation. So they better come with a pretty big cheque if that’s their plan.”
The concern, then, is not about the term’s explicit meaning but about a potentially hidden agenda.
In her remarks, Savage also emphasized the term’s international significance. She claimed that, to the international community, the term means keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
The International Labour Organization guidelines for just transition state that governments should “promote sustainable production and consumption patterns.” A Just Transition Declaration signed by more than 30 nations advocates supports for workers, inclusive social dialogue, funds for clean energy, local and inclusive opportunities for decent work, supply chains that maintain rights and climate resilience, and transparent reporting. Nothing about an immediate end to fossil fuels.
The term “just transition” doesn’t prescribe any particular path to net zero. It simply signals a shared desire for just outcomes — and a commitment to ensuring that climate action and socio-economic justice are pursued in concert.
Perhaps the terminology will shift. Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson now says he prefers the term “sustainable jobs”, and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has penned an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau asking, among other things, that the “Just Transition Act” be renamed the “Sustainable Jobs Act”. But even if the prevailing terminology changes, it won’t change underlying suspicions regarding the government’s real agenda for oil and gas. The issue here is one of trust, not terminology.
So go ahead and change the terminology — or don’t. Either way, the politics of resentment and mistrust will remain, and that’s the true obstacle.