Focus on "Transitioning to a 21st Century Energy System"

Ross Gould


As we begin 2020, Just Transition stands out at me as a concept and a movement that will require significant attention. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), the historic legislation passed last year, is being implemented. The CLCPA is a law that regulates greenhouse gas emissions across the entire economy of New York. The law:

  1. requires reductions for greenhouse gas emissions of 40% by 2030 and 85% by 2050;

  2. sets specific targets for the amount of electricity generated by renewable energy including 70% renewable energy by 2030, as well as including targets for offshore wind and solar;

  3. creates a 22-member Climate Action Council to develop recommendations for reducing emissions across all sectors of the economy, including the transportation, building, industrial, commercial, and agricultural sectors;

  4. establishes a Just Transition Working Group to among other things “advise the council on issues and opportunities for workforce development and training” and “identify sector specific impacts of the state's current workforce and avenues to maximize the skills and expertise of New York state workers in the new energy economy”; and

  5. calls for a study to look at the jobs created to counter climate change and most importantly the workforce disruption that will result from a transition to law carbon economy. [1] 

The work beginning this year will shape the policy and investment decisions that will drive the opportunities of the future workforce. The CLCPA will also begin to shape how New York deals with the inevitable job losses and job gains that will occur as we transition from high carbon-based industries to low carbon-based industries. It will also start the discussion on whether or not workers and communities are harmed from this transition. This is where Just Transition comes in.

So, what is a Just Transition?

The goal of Just Transition is to ensure that workers and communities are left unharmed by the resulting job and tax revenue when power plants close.  Different groups have adopted different definitions. Part of the reason for this is that a Just Transition is not a “one size fits all” approach. Regional and industry characteristics should define how Just Transition looks. So, should the types of sectors that already exist or the predominant skill sets in that region. Just Transition plans in Buffalo will vary from plans for Long Island, the Southern Tier, New York City, and so on. To be effective, Just Transition must be built from the realities and priorities of local communities and their workforces.

As we outlined with our co-authors International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Cornell ILR in Transitioning to a 21st Century Energy System the principles or values that are required for a Just Transition include:

  • No economic harm to workers or communities

  • Create jobs that have family sustaining wages and benefits

  • Incorporate local economic development

  • Authentic job training for jobs in good paying fields that will actually be in the community in which the displaced workers live

  • Knowledge sharing

  • Labor standards and collective bargaining

  • Social dialogue

  • A sector approach customized to regions

  • The process must be equitable and inclusive. Just Transition needs to have an equity framework where all of society equally shares the benefits and burdens.

As we wrote, “[a] Just Transition is achieved when dislocated workers and host communities are left unharmed by the closure of a power plant.” That will be the struggle as we move to meet the requirements of the CLCPA-- leaving workers and communities unharmed. This is a struggle that the environmental community that championed the law, the environmental justice community, the labor unions, the elected officials who supported the legislation, Governor Cuomo who signed the legislation, and the public at large who called upon the state to enact this law have all implicitly agreed to shoulder.

Just Transition is not a new area of emphasis for WDI. Over the course of the last decade, WDI has focused a significant amount of attention on the energy sector, the implications of climate change, and Just Transition. WDI convened the Apollo Alliance in New York to start the honest social dialogue around what a transition from a carbon intense economy to a carbon free economy could look like. Social dialogue is one of the pillars on which a Just Transition is built. WDI has worked to identify the emerging job opportunities in offshore wind. Our report New York State and The Jobs of Offshore Wind Energy[2] was an effort to focus attention on some of the job opportunities available in an economy transitioning to low carbon fuel sources. Creating new good paying jobs in emerging areas is also an important component of a Just Transition. We have also participated in forums and roundtables specifically to share information on the components of a Just Transition.

We have also helped our partners in defining what a Just Transition means for them. One of our most significant pieces of work on Just Transition occurred earlier this year when we worked with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to help define what a Just Transition looks like for workers working in energy, a workforce who is at the heart of the transition envisioned under the CLCPA. Our work resulted in a paper that IBEW, WDI and Cornell ILR co-authored titled Transitioning to a 21st Century Energy System: A Moment of Great Peril, and Possibility for New York State’s Energy Sector Workers.[3] The paper outlines what a “just transition” means to IBEW’s current workforce; the shortcomings of past programs attempting to support transitioning workers and makes recommendations for a future wherein workers and communities are held harmless as New York embarks on its goal to a cleaner environment for all of its residents.

Now with the passage of the CLCPA, the fact that the law calls for a Just Transition Working Group and implementation of the CLCPA will begin this year, the issue of Just Transition has moved to center stage in New York.

WDI has already started the conversation of holding workers and communities harmless but we plan to take this conversation and turn it into action. We invite all of those who worked to make the CLCPA law to join us to ensure that the CLCPA does not result in economic harm to workers and communities but rather results in new good paying jobs and prosperous communities.

Let’s not let the CLCPA be a race to the bottom that results in the outsourcing of industry and jobs. Instead let’s grab hold of the opportunities for new jobs and healthier communities that can be created by the CLCPA so New York’s families can enjoy the benefits.