What the F is: a just transition
Updated: Jul 6
As we talk more about switching to renewable and lower-polluting energy sources, you'll start to hear governments and climate action groups talking about a just transition. Many of those against climate action or who don't vote in the interest of a renewable future are people who are directly affected by removing non-renewable energy sources, ie. coal miners, and people who live in towns that rely on coal for their economy. A just transition will provide the solution for these workers and communities.
A quick definition
Just transition is a framework developed by the trade union movement that creates a transition to renewable energy sources and ensures fair and just outcomes for workers. It focuses on keeping workers' rights at the forefront of energy transitions, but the idea can (and should) be extended to entire communities. A successful just transition would mean we see completely renewable energy systems and no job loss or impact on coal communities
Why we can't just 'close the coal mines'
Some politicians and activist groups are all for closing our coal-fired power stations and investing in renewable energy systems. But it's not actually that simple. If, hypothetically, we closed every coal-fired power station in Australia today, hundreds, even thousands, of people would be out of work, which would have catastrophic consequences for many, mostly regional and rural, Australians. Unemployment would rise, people would fall behind on bills, rent, and mortgage, workers would move away from coal towns in search of work, and local economies would crumble. And that's just the start.
What does it look like for workers?
A successful just transition will mean workers are not left unemployed or in uncertain circumstances. A just transition might include an early retirement package for workers of closing coal stations who were close to retiring. It might look like government-funded retraining opportunities for younger workers to move into different careers. It might include job creation (including in renewables) so workers can continue their trade on a different site. It might include generous payouts, agreed upon by employees, that enable workers and their families to relocate, regroup, and start something new. There are many examples around the world of successful just transitions. For example, in Poland, the government worked with unions to put together social packages for mining workers when they completed mass coal restructure.
As mentioned above, it is vital to include communities when considering and planning a just transition. For example, Biloela, a small town in rural Queensland that has been in the media frequently due to it being the home of a displaced Tamil family, is a coal community. There is a large coal mine just outside Biloela, the Callide Mine. It was at Callide that the large turbine exploded, causing major power outages across Queensland in May 2021. Biloela is a mining town, and while there are other businesses in and around the area, many workers and job opportunities are in or reliant upon the mines. Historically, mine closures have caused economic and social devastation, including mass relocation, often only leaving behind the elderly population, and leaving spouses (usually women) who previously worked in the home having to seek out poorly paid or unstable jobs after their partner lost their job.
Renewable energy doesn't automatically equal better
While it's not a direct example of a just transition, the issues with solar farms are showing us that it's not enough to simply open renewable energy systems. We see solar energy as a huge opportunity, especially here in Australia, where we have an abundance of sun. Installing your own solar panels on the roof is one thing, but we're specifically talking about solar farms: big pieces of land with hundreds of solar panels that collect and distribute electricity. Sounds great, except that working conditions on solar farms are pretty concerning.
There's a huge problem with unskilled labourers (often backpackers) completing electrical work that should be carried out by qualified electricians. Management instead employs unskilled workers so they can cut costs, which also raises the question of whether these workers are getting paid a fair wage. The Electrical Trades Union has labelled conditions on one solar farm equivalent to 'modern day slavery, after reports and video showed unsafe work practices, like a dangling shipping container hovering over a building with people inside, rodents in the lunch area, unsanitary facilities, and limited or no access to fresh drinking water. With these ongoing incidents in solar farms, it's no wonder that workers (who are most likely in the same industry) are worried about what closing coal mines may mean for them. A closed coal mine might mean a new solar farm with no opportunities for skilled workers and, for the lucky ones that get a job there, extremely poor conditions.
A just transition means climate action
One very prominent positive for a just transition, even before it's implemented, is that it will (hopefully) give coal communities and workers the confidence to vote in favour of climate action when elections come around. Political parties and elected officials have begun to talk about transitioning to renewable energy on a wide scale in Australia. Many Aussies are worried by this, concerned about what it might mean for their job in the mines, their family's economic stability, or their community. It's no wonder some people in coal communities won't vote for climate action - they see it as a vote against their future. And until there is a solid and detailed plan for a just transition, they might be right. It's important we remember that for coal communities, this step towards climate action isn't just political. It's personal.