Low Carbon Justice in Canada's Net-Zero Transition

12 Min Read

September 8, 2022

Temitope Tunbi Onifade is a Vanier Scholar and researcher for the Canada Climate Law Initiative at UBC, an instructor in climate law, policy, and justice at UBC's Climate Teaching Connector, and the coordinating co-chair of the Liu Institute Network for Africa, where he leads sustainability policy projects at UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

With the exception of a few scholars and activists, most Canadians pay very little attention to the disproportionate impacts that the policies designed to fight climate change will have on vulnerable communities. This is a significant blind spot in Canadian climate politics because, even if we choose renewable energy over fossil fuels, boost sustainable finance, and take other steps to hasten the transition, there will be winners and losers. People will not have equal access to sunlight for solar panels or batteries and wind turbines may degrade lands and subject humans, wildlife, and ecosystems within host communities to accidents and disruption.

To mitigate these disproportionate impacts on the most vulnerable among us, low carbon policies must be framed through the lens of justice. The dominant technological (e.g. renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen), economic (e.g. cost and benefit analysis), financial (e.g. screening and economically targeting investing), political (e.g. risk management, governance) and legal (e.g. regulation, corporate governance) strategies and tools play important roles in low-carbon design and implementation. But they are inadequate if they are not subject to the deeper value-based thinking that justice offers.

Among researchers and civil society members, “climate justice” is the leading justice-informed framework for thinking about the disproportionate implications of climate change generally. The “just transition” framework is often seen as an alternative in Canada for thinking about the implications of climate action, but it focuses more on disproportionate low-carbon transition impacts on fossil fuel workers and their communities. Hence, the former is more holistic than the latter in addressing implications for diverse vulnerable groups. It helps us consider impacts on Indigenous, low-income, young, and working-class Canadians, and creates room to deal with future vulnerabilities.

However, “climate justice” does not go far enough insofar as it focuses more on climate impacts than actions. Nonetheless, we can extend its ideas to “low-carbon justice,” a lens for considering the disproportionate impacts of the low-carbon transition on the most vulnerable people and communities as well as the actions taken to address such impacts. Researchers should build on the concept of climate justice to develop this low-carbon justice lens to emphasize disproportionate impacts and the actions we take to address them, including those framed through policies.

Researchers should build on the concept of climate justice to develop this low-carbon justice lens to emphasize disproportionate impacts and the actions we take to address them, including those framed through policies.

To apply low-carbon justice to Canada’s net-zero transition, we must first understand the status of Canada’s net-zero policy and science. Canadian federal law already makes net-zero emissions, defined as when “anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere over a specified period,” a national target to be achieved by 2050. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also committed Canada to this target internationally.

Achieving net-zero by 2050 is thus the law, but it is no mean feat. The most authoritative global scientific body studying climate change says emissions should peak before 2025, fall by 43 percent in 2030, and decline to achieve global net-zero by 2050. For Canada, this means that our national emissions should peak in about three years! We must, among several other steps, drastically reduce fossil fuel production and use, redirect subsidies into renewables, create clean infrastructures (e.g. transportation, heating, cooling), property and social systems (e.g. finance, trade, agriculture), and address resulting vulnerabilities. This transformation is radical for us, as a country that has historically relied heavily on fossil fuels to travel, stay warm, and enjoy high standards of living in our sprawling northern nation.

The good news is that the political will and policies for this transformation are rising. For instance, our highest court has said that Canada’s federal law to implement the country’s flagship economic strategy — putting a price on carbon — is constitutional. We also have techno-economic breakthroughs. For instance, the IPCC reports that solar, wind and battery costs are declining and becoming more competitive than fossil fuels due to innovation. Fossil fuel production is still rising, but, pressured by litigation, social movements, and other promising strategies, policymakers will increasingly close this gap, for instance as we are seeing with subsidies.

Nevertheless, we must anticipate serious low-carbon justice issues. Already, several Canadian policies driving the net-zero targets are having disproportionate impacts on people and places. For instance, laws regulating carbon markets, pressuring firms to increase ambition to meet net-zero targets, and promoting renewable energy, fuel-switching and retrofits do not affect everyone and everywhere the same way. They will create new winners and losers. Let’s put a human face to some of these impacts.

Many of Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities, for instance, rely on land, waters, and biodiversity that are likely to be exploited for low-carbon technologies. There are already reported trends of renewable energy leading to displacement, livelihood disruption, and violence against Indigenous communities outside Canada. We can expect similar impacts in Canada.

Low-income Canadians, especially immigrants, benefit from fossil fuel consumption subsidies, drive cheaper gasoline-powered cars, and hold jobs and rely on the fossil fuel value chain in other ways. The transition will impact these benefits, subjecting them to higher burdens.

Workers, especially those within the fossil fuel industry supply chain, need to be retrained to be employable in low-carbon sectors. They should also have a social safety net. However, Canada is behind in making policies to hasten these expectations.

Millennials, Generation Z, and future Canadians will bear the disproportionate financial burden of the transition. They will be forced to adopt expensive low-carbon technologies and products during these early stages of the transition.

A "Fridays for the Future" march at COP26 in Glasgow, November 5, 2021. Courtesy of the author.

These disproportionate impacts and others necessitate using low-carbon justice to frame the policies driving Canada’s net-zero journey. Policy design will vary depending on the specific issue, but there are two general principles that must guide Canada towards low-carbon justice:

1. Low-carbon policies should pay attention to racial, income, and other differences. In Canada, we already seek to build social equity even in the face of natural and social inequality, for instance financial status and other factors that might be informed by place of birth or ethnicity. This philosophy is critical for low-carbon justice.

2. Governments across levels should meaningfully include vulnerable communities in the making and implementation of low-carbon policies. There will be unavoidable impacts, so involving those vulnerable is the least governments could do. There should be written evidence that, as vulnerable stakeholders, their contributions inform the design of instruments and institutions, and written justification for any exclusion.

Following these general principles would help us limit repeating the injustices we’ve seen with our long-standing fossil fuel economy. We will be on the path to a more just low-carbon society.

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