Denmark is the world’s largest oil producer to commit to ending oil and gas extraction. In December 2020, a broad majority of parliamentary parties passed a binding law for climate-neutrality by 2050, and the planned phase out of its oil and gas sector is central to meeting these commitments. With more than 55 platforms in 19 oil and gas fields in the North Sea, Denmark has cancelled all future oil and gas extraction tender rounds. As the agreement notes: “if our children and grandchildren are to live in a world that lives up to the common obligations under the Paris Agreement, fossil fuels must be phased out … It’s not a choice we face, it is a bound task” (Nordsøen 2020, 1). A just transition is central to this transformation. Denmark is committed to helping workers transition to new and well-paying jobs and supporting those regions and communities that are most impacted. (Nordsøen 2020).
Denmark, with a population of roughly six million people, is showing global leadership in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out oil and gas production both at home and abroad. As a member of the European Union (EU), its frameworks for energy and climate policy are influenced by common European objectives. However, its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets have gone above and beyond those adopted under European Climate Law1. Denmark has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 70 per cent by 2030 as opposed to the EU-wide target of 55 per cent. At the international level, Denmark, together with Costa Rica, launched the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance (BOGA) in 2021, for which signatory governments set an end date for their oil and gas exploration and extraction2. To date, Denmark is the only country with a large oil and gas sector to make such clear phase-out commitments across its entire economy. There has been an effective dialogue between Danish employers, unions, and government since the 1970s on industrial and climate policy and transitioning the power sector from coal to wind. The most recent climate commitments build on that momentum and social solidarity.
The oil and gas sector in Denmark dates back to the oil embargo crisis in the early 1970s. Denmark started producing oil and gas in 1972 and became a net exporter in 1997. Oil production peaked in 2004, and in 2018 Denmark once again became a net oil importer (Sperling et al. 2021). Today, Denmark is a relatively small oil producer with around 0.1 per cent of the global market (Statistical Review of World Energy 2021). In 2020 Denmark produced around 77,000 barrels per day of crude oil equivalent; in the same year the United Kingdom and Norway produced around one million and two million barrels per day, respectively (US EIA 2020). While oil and gas remain important to the Danish economy, over the past 20 years, crude oil production has declined by 41 per cent and natural gas by 57 per cent, while renewable energy production has increased by around 300 per cent (Energistyrelsen 2022). Denmark is presently considering increasing natural gas production in order to reduce its dependence on Russia energy. However, if adopted, this will be a temporary measure.
The declining productivity and economics of its oil and gas reservoirs has accelerated Denmark’s oil and gas transition. Its last oil and gas tender round (the eighth) saw very little interest from energy firms, indicating a lack of long-term viability for the sector (Sperling et al. 2021). Given these conditions, there has been political and industry support for a planned phase out of oil and gas in the Danish North Sea, and government support for investments in CCUS, offshore wind power, and alternatives to fossil fuels. This support has been building for some time. The target to phase out oil and gas by 2050 was announced as early as 2006, and then strengthened with a 100 per cent renewable energy strategy in 2011 under a conservative-led government. The 2020 binding law for climate-neutrality (Danish Climate Act) cements these commitments across a broad political coalition (left and centre-right), providing a degree of policy durability that is uncommon in many other jurisdictions. This robust foundation also sends strong signals to the industry and provides a consistent framework for investment.
In each of these decisions, governments were not acting alone. A coalition of NGO, union and civil society organizations were instrumental in pushing for the phase out of oil. Their collective 2020 campaign “Stop looking for more oil NOW” intensified pressure to end Denmark’s eighth oil and gas tender. Many advocates argued that the planned oil and gas phase out was too far off and needed a shorter timeframe; however, the government assessed that the cost of contractual buyouts was too high.
Phasing out oil and gas activities will have important fiscal and employment implications for the country. Oil and gas extraction in the Danish North Sea generated over C$100 billion in state revenues between 1972 and 2019 (DKK 541 billion). Cancelling future tenders and imposing an oil and gas end-date in 2050 is estimated to cost C$2.45 billion (DKK 13 billion) in foregone government revenue (Energistyrelsen 2022)3. Beyond this, the impact to employment in the oil and gas sector is another major concern. An estimated 10,000 people are directly employed in oil and gas extraction with another 16,000 indirect jobs, representing around one per cent of total Danish employment (Sperling et al. 2021)4. The majority of oil and gas jobs are located in Esbjerg—Denmark’s energy centre on the west coast of the Jutland peninsula in southwest Denmark.
Policy response and transitions management
Denmark’s 2020 climate-neutrality law included a commitment to a just transition initiative in and around the Danish west coast seaport of Esbjerg, where energy industries are concentrated. There is political consensus that the North Sea will remain the key energy producer, but instead of oil and gas, will focus on wind energy and other renewable energy activities. Therefore, Denmark’s just transition is being managed in place; new economic activities are in sectors that require similar skills and expertise as the oil and gas sector. Although the Esbjerg community and surrounding areas are changing their economic orientation, they will retain and strengthen their energy economy, maintaining their identity. The strong growth and proven effectiveness of the renewable energy sector reduces risks for both workers, industry, and the community.
Within this context, Denmark’s approach has focused on securing major investments in sustainable energy research and innovation, and in creating an effective regulatory environment for sustainable energy investments alongside transmission infrastructure for export. Close connections with industry and unions have been at the forefront of this approach. Denmark has both a Ministry of Environment and a Ministry of Climate, Energy, and Supply. Together, they coordinate Denmark’s just transition policies. As part of the Danish climate effort, the government has established 14 climate partnerships with the business community and, in 2019, established a Green Business Forum. Their purpose is to strengthen the dialogue between the government, business, and the trade union movement on opportunities and barriers in the green transition of business (Klima Energi-og Forsyningsministeriet 2022b).
The Ministry of Climate, Energy, and Supply is also involved in North Sea co-operation with 10 European countries to reduce the cost of offshore wind development and to develop a European offshore wind market5. The European Commission has estimated that wind energy from the North Sea will be able to cover up to 12 per cent of the electricity consumption in the EU in 2030 and up to 20 per cent in 2040; it is being called the “Silicon Valley” for offshore wind and could potentially become a power plant for the whole of Europe (Klima Energi-og Forsyningsministeriet 2022a). Danish companies are world leaders in offshore wind, and the wind turbine industry employs more than 31,000 people in Denmark (Klima Energi-og Forsyningsministeriet 2022a). The 2020 gas phase out agreement included a commitment to invest C$17 million (DKK 90 million) by 2025, to support the expansion of the Port of Esbjerg as a hub for large-scale offshore wind. While wind energy sector support is important, Denmark is planning the first offshore wind farms in Europe without subsidies and it is expected to be the cheapest energy source in Europe—surpassed only by onshore wind power (Klima Energi-og Forsyningsministeriet 2022a).
Part of the existing oil and gas offshore workforce are close to retirement and early pensions are being offered as part of the transition. However, new businesses in offshore energy are expected to be the major source of transition employment and growth (Sperling et al. 2021). An influential 2015 assessment of Denmark’s potential to meet 100 per cent of its renewable energy needs by 2050, estimates an additional 50,000 additional jobs per year will be created by 2050 (Vad Mathiesen et al. 2015)6. The analysis finds that “renewable energy systems create more domestic employment compared to the fossil reference, and that the earlier the investments are made, the earlier will the employment effect appear” (Vad Mathiesen et al. 2015). It further notes that innovation and export potential may spur additional economic and employment gains. They have the potential to be the most important long-term contributors to Danish employment with an annual export potential of €20 billion which would generate up to 150,000 jobs by 2050 (Vad Mathiesen et al. 2015)7. More recent assessments by key labour unions echo the economic and employment potential of green energy investments. There has also been strong growth in the renewables-related machinery sector.8
Denmark’s strong social welfare state, with among the lowest income inequality of any OECD country, is also helping to smooth the transition. Their renowned “flexicurity” model makes it easy to hire and fire workers while safeguarding their financial security by providing a robust system of social and employment supports. Active labour market and education policies ensure that individuals have the skills they need to transition to new employment. As one example, the municipally owned port authority, Port Esbjerg, in co-operation with the United Federation of Workers in Denmark is introducing an “Offshore Academy” to support education and training in renewable energy and related industries. Esbjerg’s port is an international, multimodal transport centre, employing around 10,000 people across 200 companies and plays a key role in transition efforts. The municipality is the fifth largest municipality in Denmark with a total population of around 116,000.
Denmark has set out to become a leader in proactively managing the transition for workers by leveraging new opportunities. For example, Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen leads the International Energy Agency’s new global commission on people-centred clean energy transitions. Danish climate, energy, and business ministries all include international engagement and leadership among their priorities. One key effort in this regard is Denmark’s Green Future Fund (est. 2020), which focuses on the development and dissemination of technologies, the conversion of energy systems to renewable energy, storage and efficient use of energy, and the global export of green technology, especially wind energy. The fund has a total capital commitment of C$4.7 billion (DKK 25 billion). Denmark’s approach to decarbonisation is both inward and outward facing—focusing on enhancing the innovation and productivity of domestic industries and sharing expertise abroad, reinforcing its comparative and competitive advantage.
Progress to date
Denmark’s phase out of oil and gas comes alongside ambitious climate objectives. In announcing the phase out, the Danish government has expressed the importance of this being a just transition for workers and communities, most notably in Esbjerg, where oil and gas employment is concentrated. However, in contrast to other countries with such initiatives, the use of the term “just transition” is far less prevalent in public sector reporting and there is no formal just transition process to monitor and report back on implementation. Denmark has a Council on Climate Change—an independent body of experts—that provides suggestions for cost-effective climate policy solutions. But its reports do not specifically address aspects of justice in the transition (see for example, Klimaraadet 2022).
However, Denmark’s robust social systems are helping to strengthen the distributional elements of justice in terms of how costs and benefits are experienced between groups and the nature of compensation mechanisms (Bennett et al. 2019). The idea of just transition is also not new in the Danish context. There are long-standing relationships between government, industry, and unions to proactively manage transitions. Public trust and dialogue strengthen the recognitional and procedural elements of justice in terms of how stakeholders are acknowledged and whether the right processes are in place to plan and manage transitions. There is also a sensitivity to socio-economic disparities and inequalities in policy design. Denmark’s climate change commitments are expected to lead to increased prices on electricity, heating, and transportation because of new taxes and investments. While these are expected to be offset by energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy in the medium and longer terms, the government has established programs to subsidize high energy costs for the country’s poorest households.
Is Denmark achieving its objectives? Employment and investments in renewable energy have grown significantly over two decades and there is little reason to expect this momentum to change. The new Viking Link power cable connection to the U.K. and an extension of the power grid between Holstebro and the Danish-German border further strengthens the wind power economy. Early signals also suggest that Russia’s war in Ukraine is bolstering the European Union’s commitments to renewable energies. The limited pushback to Denmark’s approach to date—based on a broad parliamentary and societal consensus—also reflects a high level of acceptance and buy-in.
Lessons for Canada
Overall, Denmark’s approach has focused on investing in renewable energy and collaborating with industry and unions to spur a new green energy economy. Oil production in the state was already declining and represented a small portion of Danish economic production and about one per cent of the workforce. (This is similar to Canada which also has about one per cent of its workforce in the oil and gas sector.) This context, along with Denmark’s centralised and unitary government structure, created the environment for establishing solid commitments and pan-parliamentary consensus, which in turn provided the market and industry with clear signals to invest in renewable energy. Public sector energy investments and supports are spurring the renewable economy, while Denmark’s growing global leadership is solidifying its expertise in the global low-carbon transition.
A critical component in planning and managing the global low-carbon transition is determining what new opportunities workers and communities can transition toward. For Denmark, the answer has been clear: renewable energies, specifically wind power. In this sense, a few key lessons stand out for Canada:
- Implement regulatory certainty and consistency: Denmark’s multi-party climate commitments make its decarbonisation objectives clear in the short, medium, and longer term. Denmark’s regulatory framework supports this process. This helps to create a strong investment climate for the green economy.
- Build on competitive strengths: Canadian jurisdictions could learn from Denmark by developing a clear vision of comparative strengths and capabilities, investing in those strengths, and communicating those to the world. Global connections and knowledge-sharing are a key part of Denmark’s just transition strategy.
- Engagement and dialogue: The Danish case highlights the importance of dialogue with key stakeholders and rights holders. Denmark has a long tradition of engagement between union, industry, and government to manage transitions. This made it easier to establish consensus for the oil and gas phase out among different groups as there are established relationships to manage the transition process.
Denmark’s Minister of the Environment and Climate, Per Bolund, has remarked that “the use of fossil fuels must be a parenthesis in history” (United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe 2021). Denmark’s energy transition is well underway. As a relatively small nation, Denmark is showing outsized leadership to meet that goal. In the Danish case there is a clear picture of what the energy sector is transitioning to. Wind energy investments are a proven winner, and employment in this sector involves many compatible skills to that of oil and gas workers. But beyond this, the robustness of the Danish social welfare state reduces the riskiness and exposure of workers (direct and indirect) to the energy transition. Social and employment supports help reduce injustices in the transition and lessen inequalities.
All opinions, errors, and omissions are the sole responsibility of the author.
Bennett, Nathan J. et al. 2019. “Just Transformations to Sustainability.” Sustainability 11(14): 3881. doi:10.3390/su11143881
Energistyrelsen. 2022. “Danish Energy Agency.” The Danish Government. https://ens.dk/en
Klima, Energi-og Forsyningsministeriet. 2022a. “North Seas Energy Cooperation.” The Danish Government. https://kefm.dk/globale-samarbejder/nordsoesamarbejdet
———. 2022b. “Regeringens Klimapartnerskaber.” The Danish Government. https://kefm.dk/klima-og-vejr/regeringens-klimapartnerskaber-og-groent-erhvervsforum
Klimaraadet. 2022. “Statusrapport 2022: Danmarks Nationale Klimamål Og Internationale Forpligtelser.” February 25. https://klimaraadet.dk/sites/default/files/downloads/statusrapport_2022_webpdf_final.pdf
Mathiesen, Ken. 2021. “Olieindustrien Glæder Sig over Aftale Om CO2-Lagring i Nordsøen: Grønt Lys Til Nyt Eventyr Med Flere Tusinde Job.” Jydske Vestkysten. December 15. https://jv.dk/artikel/olieindustrien-glæder-sig-over-aftale-om-co2-lagring-i-nordsøen-grønt-lys-til-nyt-eventyr-med-flere-tusinde-job
Nicolas, Elena Sanchez. 2020. “Denmark to Stop North Sea Oil Drilling in 2050.” EU Observer. December 7. https://euobserver.com/nordic/150287
Nordsøen. 2020. “Aftale Mellem Regeringen (Socialdemokratiet), Venstre, Dansk Folkeparti, Radikale Venstre, Socialistisk Folkeparti Og Det Konservative Folkeparti Om Fremtiden for Olie- Og Gasindvinding i Nordsøen Af 3. December 2020.” https://kefm.dk/Media/0/3/Nordsøaftale.pdf
Sperling, Karl et al. 2021. “Denmark without Oil and Gas Production: Opportunities and Challenges.” Aalborg University: 1-35. https://vbn.aau.dk/en/publications/denmark-without-oil-and-gas-production-opportunities-and-challeng
Statistical Review of World Energy. 2021. “Full Report – Statistical Review of World Energy 2021.” British Petroleum. https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2021-full-report.pdf
United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe. 2021. “Denmark, Sweden and Greenland in a new global alliance to seek an end to oil and gas production.” November 12. https://unric.org/en/denmark-sweden-and-greenland-in-a-new-global-alliance-to-seek-an-end-to-oil-and-gas-production/ Vad Mathiesen, Brian et al. 2015. “Aalborg Universitet IDA’s Energy Vision 2050 A Smart Energy System Strategy for 100% Renewable Denmark.” Aalborg University: 1-159. https://vbn.aau.dk/en/publications/idas-energy-vision-2050-a-smart-energy-system-strategy-for-100-re
1 In June 2021, the EU adopted a European Climate Law, establishing the aim of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the EU by 2050. The law sets an intermediate target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.
2 The alliance, which was presented at COP26, also includes Sweden and Greenland from the Nordic countries, as well as France, Ireland, Quebec, and Wales.
3 On the estimate of daily production averaging 83,000 barrels of crude oil and 21,000 barrels of oil equivalent in 2020 (Energistyrelsen 2022).
4 Note that these figures are from Oil & Gas Denmark, the branch organisation for the Danish upstream gas and oil sector and have been contested by NGOs who believe that the employment figures are in fact smaller (Sperling et al. 2021).
5 The North Sea Cooperation is a cooperation on offshore wind and electricity networks in the North Sea between Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Denmark with the participation of the European Commission.
6 This is based on an assessment of the implementation of the IDA Energy Vision 2050. This contribution is the net-effect compared to the fossil reference (Vad Mathiesen et al. 2015)
7 Assuming an import share of 50 per cent (see Vad Mathiesen et al. 2015 for reference scenario).
8 See for example, analysis from the trade union Dansk Metal which anticipates an estimated 3,000 new jobs related to CCUS in the Esbjerg area in the near future (Mathiesen 2021).
Scotland has a significant oil and gas sector in the North Sea. It is a major employer, contributing around five per cent of total Scottish GDP (2019), and accounts for around 90 per cent of the country’s total primary energy (2015) (Scottish Government 2022c). It also has some of the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction commitments among advanced economies. The Scottish government’s planning for a just transition started in 2019, and it is now ramping up a national strategy for economic transformation, with specific plans for high-emitting industries. The energy sector is the first to be tackled. Swift progress on these plans will be critical for Scotland to meet its ambitious climate commitments and build a just transition.
In 2019, the United Kingdom (U.K.) became the first major economy to establish and pass a legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050. Scotland—a devolved regional government under the U.K.’s Westminster government—has made even more ambitious commitments: a 75 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (relative to base year 1990), and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Just transition principles are baked into these targets. Scotland’s climate change plan calls for a rapid transformation across all sectors of the economy and society while “ensuring the journey is fair and creates a better future for everyone—regardless of where they live, what they do, and who they are” (Scottish Government 2022b). However, there is no planned phase out of oil and gas, but rather a commitment to continued exploration and production with the hope that investments in sustainable energy and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technologies reduce sectoral emissions.
Major industrial transitions are not a new phenomenon in Scotland. Poorly managed transitions in the coal sector in the 1980s led to entrenched inequalities in those regions decades on. The North Sea oil sector has experienced intermittent declines since the 1990s and jobs connected to the oil and gas industry have fallen nearly 40 per cent over the last five years alone (Oil and Gas U.K. 2021), further entrenching those inequalities. In 2017, the Just Transitions Partnership (JTP)—a coalition of unions and environmental NGOs—formed to advocate for a long-term, independent, focused commission with statutory authority to track and monitor the government’s Climate Bill and ensure its alignment with just transition principles. In response, the Scottish Government established a Just Transition Commission in 2019 for a two-year term to provide “practical, affordable, actionable” recommendations to Scottish ministers on how to achieve those principles. It also mandated that climate action targets align with just transition principles.
Over their two-year term, the Just Transition Commission engaged the public and key stakeholders in meetings, town hall events, and site visits across Scotland. These were overarching conversations related to the whole of the economy and society. The Commission’s final report to the Scottish government was submitted in 2021 with four main recommendations:
- Pursue an orderly, managed transition to net zero that creates benefits and opportunities for people across Scotland.
- Equip people with the skills and education they need to benefit from Scotland’s transition to net zero.
- Empower and invigorate communities and strengthen local economies.
- Share the benefits of climate action widely and ensure costs are distributed on the basis of ability to pay (Just Transition Commission 2021).
The Scottish government accepted the recommendations of the Commission in full and will create a national Just Transition Planning Framework to set out how it will transition to a net zero economy. The framework will include detailed plans for specific industries. A junior ministerial post—Minister for Just Transition, Employment, and Fair Work—has been created to coordinate these actions. A new, permanent, statutory Just Transition Commission will advise, monitor, and evaluate progress on key targets1.
Policy response and transitions management
Developing a transition plan for the energy sector was the first priority. Like many jurisdictions, Canada included, Scotland’s target of reaching a net zero economy by 2045 exists alongside a commitment to “maximise oil and gas recovery” for the foreseeable future. Government financial support for oil and gas exploration and production is conditional on sustainable energy transition investments. It supports sequestration (CCUS technologies), alternative energy (hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells), decommissioning oil and gas capacity, and helping workers transition to new jobs.
A U.K.-wide Oil and Gas Industry Leadership Group (ILG) convenes private and public sector leaders to coordinate on these matters. The U.K.’s oil and gas industry group has created their own greenhouse gas reductions roadmap to 2035 with key actions in areas such as skills development, technology, and innovation and emissions reductions (Oil and Gas U.K. 2022). Scotland’s Just Transition Commission has noted that while these efforts are valuable, it is important that they are consistent with statutory emissions reductions targets (Just Transition Commission 2020). Devolved and reserved responsibilities make accountability challenging. For example, licensing for offshore oil and gas is a reserved matter for the UK government while onshore licensing and extraction was devolved to Scotland in 20162. There are also concerns that the industry-led plan does not adequately address workers.
While these initiatives continue to ramp up, the sector is already transitioning. Declines in the price of crude oil from 2015-2020 have spurred employment losses; these have in turn been compounded by economic contraction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when gas prices recovered in 2022 employment has not recovered to previous levels. There are some ongoing initiatives to address these shifts. The U.K. Government’s Oil and Gas Workforce Plan (2016) supports displaced workers through online jobs platforms that help them find work in other sectors that require similar skillsets3. Scotland’s recent (2020) climate change commitments include a C$165 million (£100 million) Green Jobs Fund, to support investment in low-carbon businesses, and a Green Workforce Academy—a hub for job seekers in green industries.
There are also high hopes that sustainable energy investments will support the labour transition. A recent report from Robert Gordon University estimates around 200,000 people will be needed in 2030 to develop the offshore wind, hydrogen, and CCUS industries, alongside existing oil and gas activities. However, investments in skills development and retraining have been limited to date and the focus on online services may have limited reach as not all employees are comfortable using them.
Regional development is also critical to Scotland’s just transition response. Employment declines have disproportionately hit certain regions, such as Aberdeenshire in the northeast, where employment is highly concentrated in the offshore oil and gas sector. Post-Brexit, the U.K. and Scotland have needed to reinvent their regional development approaches. To date, Scotland has established a C$827 million (£500 million) regional development fund to support the energy transition in the northeast and Moray regions. This includes investment guarantees and loans to small- to-mid-sized firms.
All Scottish regions now have city region and regional growth deals—agreements between the Scottish and U.K. Governments and local governments to support long-term economic growth. Some of these agreements also support just transition objectives. For example, under the Aberdeen City Region Deal (now in its fifth year), the Oil and Gas Technology Centre has been rebranded as a Net Zero Technology Centre and is shifting its focus to develop tools that can speed up the North Sea oil industry’s transition to net zero (Invest Aberdeen 2022). However, as city and regional deals have been developed separately from the Just Transition Planning Framework process, they do not all necessarily correspond to just transition objectives.
Other initiatives that could be used to meet just transition objectives include expanding the U.K.’s “levelling up” agenda to Scotland—an approach that aims to boost investment in lagging regions and reduce territorial inequalities. Finally, the Scottish government plans to create “green freeports.” These are large, zoned areas with rail, sea, or airport links where operators and businesses benefit from tax and other incentives. To qualify, they need to support the “just transition to net zero emissions by 2045 and the creation of high-quality employment opportunities with good salaries and conditions” (Scottish Government 2022a). It represents an attempt to bake just transition concepts into business investment zones and to develop competitive clusters of manufacturing excellence in green technologies.
Progress to date
Scotland is only now implementing a Just Transition Framework and it is too soon to assess its impact. The new national framework approach, with ministerial accountability and an independent commission to advise and evaluate progress, appears to be a robust structure for such a complex and encompassing challenge. Already, there has been nation-wide engagements to facilitate dialogue, and stakeholders and rights holders were identified by the first Just Transition Commission. The Scottish government has also committed to this engagement and defines the just transition as both an outcome—a fairer, greener future for all—and a process that must be undertaken in partnership (Scottish Government 2021). It will be important that the new framework expands and strengthens the engagement of the first Just Transition Commission as it develops new sectoral just transition plans.
The U.K. has made considerable progress in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Action Tracker rates the U.K.’s overall progress as “almost sufficient”—with commitments that are consistent with keeping the average global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius (Climate Action Tracker 2021). Scotland has decarbonised faster than the U.K. average, and the speed and scale of electricity sector decarbonisation has been the main reason for its progress (U.K. Climate Change Committee 2021). The Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 and the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 set annual emissions targets to ensure Scotland is on track to reach its net zero greenhouse gas emissions goal; there are independent annual reports from the U.K.’s Climate Change Committee tracking its progress. And, while Scotland is making progress, the committee’s latest (2021) assessment finds that Scotland is not doing enough on adaptation, which plays an important role in just transition processes (U.K. Climate Change Committee 2022).
There are also contradictions in Scotland’s approach to transitioning the oil and gas sector, even though this is critical in meeting net zero targets. As previously mentioned, there is no timeline to end oil and gas exploration and production, creating significant uncertainty on the timing of the sector’s phase-out, which does not support a just transition approach. External factors, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cancellation of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, could continue to put upward pressure on global oil and gas prices making new investments in the sector more attractive.
It is also unclear how local community plans will be developed and whether they will align with broader sectoral reforms. Community-driven just transition plans that identify local assets and opportunities, and establish coalitions for action have yet to be developed. However, there is a framework that Scotland could use for this process. Regional Economic Partnerships are collaborations between local government, the private sector, education and skills providers, enterprise and skills agencies, NGOs, and civil society. The government has supported several to date and this format could be used to support regional just transition planning. The new permanent Just Transition Commission will likely play a role in monitoring distributional elements of justice—looking at how different groups benefit or experience impacts from the transition—to hold government to account.
While initiatives are ongoing, the Just Transition Partnership that spurred the creation of Scotland’s first Just Transition Commission has expressed skepticism that the government’s approach is sufficient. In fact, they have described the lack of regional investment or local jobs in the renewables industry as “unjust” (Mercier 2020, 125). Their 2021 Manifesto called on the government to provide immediate support, through a Green Public Works program, to workers facing redundancy. This program would ensure that any government support to the private sector would include requirements for emissions reductions and job creation and establish clear targets for decarbonisation, investment, and job creation. It remains to be seen how these demands will be met (Just Transition Partnership 2020).
National trade unions and the Just Transition Partnership have both called for greater state intervention. The Partnership would like to see “state-led economic planning, and public ownership of energy and state investment in industrial policy such as manufacturing” (Mercier 2020, 125). The North Sea oil fields are geographically and equally divided between the U.K. and Norway, offering a study in contrasts of how to manage oil assets for a just transition4. On the U.K. side, Scotland’s North Sea state revenues stood at C$33.74 million (£22 million) in 2021, while Norway’s revenues were C$14.74 billion (£9 billion) for roughly the same production (McKay 2021). Norway’s oil industry is state-owned while the U.K.’s is privatised. Norway’s world-renowned sovereign wealth fund today stands at around C$1.69 trillion. The U.K. has no such Sovereign Wealth Fund, which could have been used to support a just transition5. The union and Partnership members view this as a missed opportunity and a setback to transition management. They advocate for much stronger public sector involvement, and even ownership in sustainable energy, to accelerate a just transition and ensure new high-quality jobs (Just Transition Partnership 2020, Prospect 2022). For example, the Scottish Trades Union Congress has argued that the recent private sector offshore wind development (17 ScotWind projects) would have delivered thousands more jobs had it been set up as a national Scottish energy company (Williams 2022).
Lessons for Canada
Scotland’s calls for a rapid transformation across all sectors of the economy and society are ambitious. While outcomes largely remain to be seen, Scotland’s just transitions planning framework offers three lessons for Canadian governments:
- Define the scope and parameters of “just transition.” Just transition is a contested concept. The word means different things to different communities, stakeholders, and rights holders. The first Just Transition Commission’s national engagement efforts unpacked what “just transition” meant to different groups in order to reflect a wide range of views back to the Scottish government on the main priorities for action. This brings clarity to what is often an amorphous concept and can help establish common priorities.
- Concrete commitments relating to job retention, quality, and pay can help reduce the risks to transitioning workers. Key stakeholders are often looking for clear commitments from the public sector and industry to mediate the risk and potential harm associated with transition. For example, the Scottish government has indicated that public funding for climate action will be conditional on fair work terms, and is looking to apply real living wage criteria to non-departmental public bodies alongside fair work standards as a condition of public sector heat and energy efficiency contracts (Scottish Government 2021). A major concern of many energy workers is that the jobs that they may transition to will be of a lower quality and pay. Fair work and living pay standards are one way of addressing this.
- Frameworks and accountability are necessary. Scotland set up a process to deliver on its just transition commitments. The national Just Transition Planning Framework will set out the objectives; sectoral plans will provide the details; the Minister for Just Transition will provide accountability; and the Just Transition Commission will advise, monitor, and evaluate. How “justice” is interpreted and applied in these contexts will be important, as will co-ordination between sectoral plans and regional development. How these groups ultimately work together is still developing, and their coordination will be critical for its success.
As a devolved government within the U.K., just transition initiatives in Scotland must be coordinated between levels of government. Scotland’s sectoral plans set a strong signal to the U.K. government on their priorities for investment. As sectoral plans roll out, the robustness and inclusivity of the government’s framework will be put to the test. This will continue to be an important country to watch.
All opinions, errors, and omissions are the sole responsibility of the author.
Climate Action Tracker. 2021. “United Kingdom | Climate Action Tracker.” November 16. https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/uk/
Invest Aberdeen. 2022. “Aberdeen City Regional Deal.” https://investaberdeen.co.uk/abz-deal
Just Transition Commission. 2020. “Just Transition Commission: Interim Report.” February 27. https://www.gov.scot/publications/transition-commission-interim-report/
———. 2021. “Just Transition Commission: A National Mission for a Fairer, Greener Scotland .” March 23. https://www.gov.scot/publications/transition-commission-national-mission-fairer-greener-scotland/documents/
Just Transition Partnership. 2020. “Just Transition Partnership 2021 Manifesto.” Friends of the Earth Scotland. September 25. https://foe.scot/resource/just-transition-partnership-manifesto/
McKay, Ron. 2021. “What Actually Happened to Scotland’s Trillions in North Sea Oil Boom?.” The Herald Scotland. November 14. https://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/19716393.actually-happened-scotlands-trillions-north-sea-oil-boom/
Mercier, Sinéad. 2020. “Four Case Studies on Just Transition: Lessons for Ireland.” National Economic and Social Council Research Series Paper 15: 1-165. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3694643
Oil and Gas U.K. 2021. “Workforce Insight Report 2021.” https://oeuk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/woocommerce_uploads/2021/08/OGUK_Workforce-Employment-Insight-2021-z07os0.pdf
———. 2022. “Roadmap 2035: A blueprint for net-zero.” https://roadmap2035.co.uk/roadmap-2035/
Prospect. 2022. “Scottish Govt Response to Just Transition Commission Lacks a Clear Strategy for Job Creation.” September 7. https://prospect.org.uk/news/scottish-govt-response-to-just-transition-commission-lacks-a-clear-strategy-for-job-creation/
Scottish Government. 2021. “Just Transition – A Fairer, Greener Scotland: Scottish Government Response.” September 7. https://www.gov.scot/publications/transition-fairer-greener-scotland/
———. 2022a. “Cities and Regions: Green Freeports.” https://www.gov.scot/policies/cities-regions/green-ports/
———. 2022b. “Climate Change.” https://www.gov.scot/policies/climate-change/
———. 2022c. “Oil and Gas.” https://www.gov.scot/policies/oil-and-gas/
U.K. Climate Change Committee. 2021. “Progress in Reducing Emissions 2021 Report to Parliament.” December 7. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/progress-reducing-emissions-in-scotland-2021-report-to-parliament/
———. 2022. “Is Scotland Climate Ready?-Recommendations.” March 15. https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/is-scotland-climate-ready-2022-report-to-scottish-parliament/ Williams, Martin. 2022. “Unions Call for Nicola Sturgeon Intervention to Ensure Scotland Properly Profits from ScotWind.” The Herald Scotland. January 25. https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/homenews/19873646.unions-call-nicola-sturgeon-intervention-ensure-scotland-properly-profits-scotwind/
1 Among devolved U.K. governments, the Welsh Government has also created a new cabinet position, Minister for Climate Change, with responsibilities for decarbonising transport, the housing sector, and energy generation in 2021.
2 Licensing of offshore oil and gas extraction is a reserved matter for the U.K. government as is the legislative competence for health and safety. The 2016 Scotland Act devolves the regime for licensing onshore exploration and extraction of oil and gas to Scotland (exploration).
3 The “Talent Retention Solution” U.K. web-based platform, puts skilled individuals looking for work and companies searching for new employees in direct contact with each other. A “Skills Connect” web-based tool supports the oil and gas sector experiencing skills shortages.
4 Norway has committed to reduce net emissions by 55 per cent by 2030, but the current government aims to continue oil and gas developments.
5 Arguably Norway is not doing this as their current government uses revenue from the fund for general purpose revenue; the country also aims to continue oil and gas developments.
In April 2018, the Government of New Zealand announced that no further offshore oil and gas exploration permits would be granted. This decision has the greatest impact on the Taranaki region in the west of New Zealand’s North Island. From the outset, the government has communicated a desire for a just transition–that is, a way to manage the process to support workers, maintain employment, and diversify and strengthen the economy to create a sustainable future for the whole region. This is a proactive approach in the sense that there is ample lead time to anticipate and plan for the transition. Key stakeholders at the regional and local levels have identified a roadmap to a low-emissions future. With support from the national government, they are working to implement transition action plans to determine how Taranaki can make a just transition to a low-carbon economy.
The Government of New Zealand’s decision to stop issuing new permits for offshore oil and gas affects around a third of the country’s total active exploration permits1. The oil and gas transition in New Zealand is phased: Existing offshore oil and gas exploration permits that have already been approved may operate until 2030 and existing producing fields can operate until 2050 (Government of New Zealand 2018b). There is no wholesale shift in the industry, and therefore time to plan for the transition ahead.
The phase out of new gas developments has the greatest impact in the Taranaki region where the majority of New Zealand’s offshore oil and gas investments are concentrated. Often called the “Texas of New Zealand,” Taranaki is a mountainous coastal region with a population of around 126,000 people. While the oil and gas sector directly employs only 750 people in the region (just over one per cent of total employment), the sector contributes an estimated 30 per cent of regional gross domestic product, which is why the region has the highest GDP per capita in the country (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment 2020; Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment 2020)2. As global demand for oil and gas declines in the low-carbon transition, the Taranaki region—its workers, communities, and economy—will be increasingly exposed to market volatility.
The decision to phase out oil and gas permits is part of the government’s broader climate commitments. In line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, New Zealand has committed to reducing net emissions by 50 per cent below gross 2005 levels by 20303. Three sectoral shifts are important to realising these goals:
- electrifying end-uses (vehicles, buildings, industry) that currently burn fossil fuels across the economy;
- changing the structure and methods of agriculture production; and
- reforestation (New Zealand Productivity Commission 2018).
The Cabinet has adopted a whole-of-government approach to climate change programs and just transition concepts are being incorporated into domestic legislation and policy (New Zealand Ministry for the Environment 2022a). For example, under the Climate Change Response Act (first published in 2002; updated in 2019), the government must take “into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities” (Government of New Zealand 2019).
Independent Commissions such as the Productivity Commission and the He Pou a Rangi Climate Change Commission have provided recommendations to government on implementing and monitoring a just transition (Climate Change Commission 2022; New Zealand Productivity Commission 2018). New Zealand is also one of eight countries worldwide to have established a just transition commission or unit (Heffron 2021). In short, there is broad support for a just transition approach—the question is how to achieve it.
Policy response and transitions management
Having announced the oil and gas exploration phase out, the Government of New Zealand established a Just Transitions Unit (JTU) within the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment in 2018 to support the transition process in the Taranaki region. The JTU has evolved over time, and presently has two teams—one focused on just transition partnerships for regional planning and another on understanding and modelling economy-wide transitions (e.g. transitions to a low-emissions economy and the future of work). The JTU forms a centre of expertise in government for managing transitions and forming partnerships.
The government also established a C$2.47 billion Provincial Growth Fund to support economic diversification and transition (Government of New Zealand 2018a) after announcing the phase out of oil and gas exploration. The Just Transitions Partnerships team helps coordinate with other government ministries to identify funding opportunities and fill in gaps where there are no other alternatives. They work on a case-by-case basis as needed to coordinate across the public service.
Leading practices on just transition emphasize the importance of public engagement and social dialogue (Krawchenko 2020). The JTU approach was broadly consistent with this approach—facilitating a wide-ranging dialogue on how the region could manage the just transition to a low-carbon economy. The resulting Taranaki Roadmap 2050 was produced by Venture Taranaki, the local economic development agency, and was co-created with communities, iwi (Māori nation/peoples), local and central government, businesses, educators, unions, and workers. It was developed with input from 29 workshops on 12 transition topics, surveys and community outreach, a creative challenge, and youth engagement. Public consultation on the draft report included visits to more than 40 locations with over 1,000 people. Twenty volunteers led the process, and the final report was released in 2019. This process was more than engagement—it sought social consensus to galvanise action on implementation.
The Roadmap identifies 12 Transition Pathways to diversify and strengthen the local/regional economy. Some pathways relate to sectors (e.g. tourism); some are enablers (e.g. the regulatory environment); and some are both (e.g. energy, infrastructure, and transport). The development of the Māori economy is one of the most significant and impactful pathways. There is an Action Plan for each Transition Pathway. The Roadmap and Action Plans were developed by volunteers and funded by the national government and the private sector.
The Taranaki region’s just transition process is not without its detractors, however. While new offshore oil and gas exploration permits have been shelved, there remains an active on-shore industry. The Climate Action Tracker rates New Zealand’s actions so far as “highly insufficient”–on track for a greater than 4 Celsius world (Climate Action Tracker 2022). New Zealand continues to grant onshore oil and gas permits which make up two-thirds of their oil industry (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment 2022).
How will this broad regional dialogue on a just transition translate into implementation? This is yet to be seen as the implementation process is in its early stages. However, each Action Plan identifies a coordination network, the requisite resources, and specific projects for implementation. It includes corresponding budgetary requests to the central government for resources as it is supporting the Taranaki Roadmap through the Provincial Growth Fund. There is also an understanding that private sector funding will be leveraged.
The Roadmap also identifies employee-oriented supports as being important, one of the most common elements of just transition policies in advanced economies (T. A. Krawchenko and Gordon 2021). While the overall just transition response to the oil and gas phase out in Taranaki has focused on economic diversification and regional development, there are specific supports for workers such as active labour market policies, particularly skills retraining programs. Some supports are funded through demand-led government services such as the tertiary education system, as well as active labour market programs, funded through the Ministry of Social Development. However, there have not yet been any substantial employment losses in the Taranaki region in the sector, so how this aspect of the transition will be managed and supported remains to be seen. The government, Business New Zealand (the national business association), and the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) are jointly designing a Social Unemployment Insurance scheme that would support workers to retain about 80 per cent of their income for a period after they lose their jobs (Government of New Zealand 2022a). This is a possible pathway for support in the future. The approach is to strengthen and diversify the economy so that displaced workers will find good employment and be able to maintain quality of life after the transition.
Trade unions have been actively involved in just transition planning—both in the region and nationally. For example, in the “People and Talent” pathway Action Plan, labour unions “have secured a focus on the support and empowerment of workers during transition, including job clustering, analysis of retraining opportunities and skills audits of the workforce” (International Trade Union Confederation 2021). The labour union E Tū is negotiating roles and responsibilities between government, employers, and employees for such supports and they are establishing multi-employer redeployment schemes (International Trade Union Confederation 2021).
Investments in energy development are also a central part of Taranaki’s future transformation and linked to a just transition. New developments in this sector have the potential to provide employment to former oil and gas workers and generate new employment opportunities for the region. Taranaki’s Energy Action Plan envisions a mix of renewable sources (Venture Taranaki 2019). At present, the Patea Hydro development is the largest renewable energy project in the Taranaki region, but there is limited potential for hydro expansion. Wind technology is commercially viable in New Zealand and two onshore wind farms are in development, but there are no offshore wind farms in New Zealand. There is limited use of small scale solar and grid-scale solar with some potential to scale these up alongside potential for wave, bioenergy, and geothermal energy. Unlike Denmark, which has focused solely on developing a wind industry, there is no single or clear direction for clean energy investments for Taranaki, rather, a range of technologies are being considered. Given this energy landscape, it is challenging to understand the employment and skills training needs of the future.
To help develop and scale renewable energy investments, a centre for future energy development, Ara Ake, was established in 2020. The impetus for its creation stems from Taranaki’s regional development strategy (Tapuae Roa Strategy 2017) and the Taranaki Roadmap 2050. With NZ$27 million (C$23 million) in funding from the national government, the centre is leading research and the development of clean energy technologies such as wind and wave power, and geothermal and hydrogen-based energy, which will then be co-funded with the private sector and central government. It also forms a centre of expertise on diversifying land use to grow more crops, such as quinoa, and support reforestation. These actions align with national climate commitments and help the region to envision the economy of the future.
Progress to date
Taranaki is still in the early stages of phasing out offshore oil and gas. Yet the Action Plans lay out several principles for monitoring progress that align with the broader academic literature on just transition. It defines justice in distributional, recognitional, and procedural terms. Distributional justice is concerned with how different groups benefit or experience impacts from the transition; recognitional justice identifies stakeholders and rights holders who may be implicated; and procedural justice is concerned with elements of governance—who is included and how (Stevis and Felli 2014). The Taranaki Roadmap process has been careful to include recognitional and procedural elements of justice from the onset, and these will continue to be important for implementation. Distributional elements of justice can be challenging to capture and have a longer time frame. The Taranaki Roadmap’s robust monitoring and evaluation approach should help to understand and track distributional justice outcomes.
In addition, metrics and evaluation are baked into the Taranaki Roadmap process. They form the 12th Transition Pathway Action Plan and as such, have been a part of the same engagement and design processes. This is novel in the sense that the indicators of success have been designed upfront and from a variety of perspectives. Māori worldviews of well-being and success are integrated into the Taranaki 2050 metrics framework. Outcomes are assessed in annual public-facing updates and reviewed every two years, with a detailed review every five years.
What has been achieved to date? Having been adopted in 2019, implementation of the Roadmap is in the early stages. A 2021 progress report showed that 85 actions are complete or underway, 38 are partly underway, and 43 actions remain (Tapuae Roa 2021). For example, on the energy front, a wind-to-hydrogen and green ammonia project has been developed as well as hydrogen production and refuelling stations at existing truck stops. On training and innovation, an iwi Trust (Te Kāhui Maru Trust) is creating an environmental workforce development training program, and the local technology institute is establishing new flexible courses to support workers in transition and programs on Māori enterprise. A wide range of actions related to diversifying and decarbonising the economy and preparing workers are underway. Of those that have been completed to date, the majority relate to tourism and infrastructure and transport. Longer term, there is a framework in place to measure and report on outcomes through specific metrics, well-being indicators, and alternate metrics such as self-reported job satisfaction.
It is also unclear whether local and regional organizations are resourced well enough to implement the ambitious Action Plans. As the process moves on from consensus building, it increasingly needs to address costs and trade-offs, and will need public and private sector funding to accelerate actions. New Zealand is in the process of developing a National Emissions Reduction Plan and National Adaptation Plan which will include an Equitable Transitions Strategy (Government of New Zealand 2022b; New Zealand Ministry for the Environment 2022b). This process will expand the just transition approach across the national economy.
Lessons for Canada
New Zealand is a unitary state (i.e. a centralized government) and often referred to as the world’s quickest legislators, with its single legislative body and elections every three years. Although the scale of the energy transition in New Zealand is, to date, relatively small, and it differs in many ways from Canada, there are leading practices relevant for our own oil and gas economies.
- Proactive planning. Global transitions in the fossil fuel sector have often been reactive—with initiatives being put in place once an industry is already in decline. New Zealand’s phase out of oil and gas activities has been proactive and has a long lead time. There is also a dedicated government unit to support the process and co-ordinate across government, an approach that leads to the development of robust strategies.
- Regional development. A key question in any region is what it will transition toward as global demand for fossil fuels declines. The place-based approach in Taranaki, grounded in understanding the local/regional economy, identifies assets and opportunities, and supports coalition-building for implementation.
- Inclusive by design. Justice is about how rights holders and stakeholders are included and impacted by transitions. The Taranaki Roadmap’s seven “Pou” (pillars) framework engages communities, iwi (Māori tribes), local and central government, businesses, educators, unions and workers. Like Canada, New Zealand’s First Peoples—the Māori—are key rights holders for a just transition. Both the national government and labour unions recognise this. Active involvement of iwi and hapū (clan) is the first principle for a just transition in the various labour unions (New Zealand Council of Trade Unions 2017). While engagement with local iwi and the Māori economy were both key priorities in Taranaki’s transition, the process was not perfect—in particular, some of the early engagement needed deeper cultural competency. This is a learning that the New Zealand Government has taken on and is working to address (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment 2021). As iwi, hapū, and Māori organisations are regularly asked to contribute and engage, they need to be adequately resourced to take on this work. Many Māori-owned businesses are in transition-vulnerable sectors and more research is needed on Māori land, land use change, and social and cultural impacts (Whetu 2020).
The Taranaki region’s just transition planning process embraces many of the leading practices in the literature. It is consensus-seeking, grounded in the regional economy, inclusive, and future-oriented. The question remains, however, will it be enough? Will the initiatives deliver a diversified economy and good jobs, and will they effectively decarbonise the economy? Is the pace of the transition fast enough if global demand for oil and gas declines faster than expected? Delivering on the Taranaki Framework depends to a large extent on the network of regional organizations—local and regional governments, unions, businesses, educational institutions, non-profit organisations, and civil society more broadly. The national government is providing important supports, but local networks and people are leading actions and implementation and will collectively determine the region’s future. To date, the government’s commitments to phasing out oil and gas only pertain to the offshore oil and gas industry; onshore oil and gas production represents around two thirds of the industry. Concrete plans are needed to address onshore oil and gas phase outs in order to meet climate commitments and support a just transition.
The author gratefully acknowledges Isabella Crawford and Nick Montague, Just Transitions Partnerships, and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, for providing content and review. All opinions, errors, and omissions are the sole responsibility of the author.
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1 71 per cent or 22 out of a total of 31 oil and gas permits.
2 In total, around 4,700 people are directly employed by the oil and gas sector in New Zealand and it provides around $170 million in royalties to the government each year (Government of New Zealand 2018a).
3 This equates to a 41 per cent reduction on 2005 levels using what is known as an “emissions budget” approach.
Natasha Akiwenzie from Lac Seul First Nation and Andrew Akiwenzie from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation have been observing the impacts of climate change and colonial practices for a long time. In 2018, they closed their commercial fishing business located in Neyaashiinigmiing, Ontario, in response to a number of climate change-related setbacks and challenges, and instead started an environmental not for profit corporation, the Bagida’waad Alliance. The goals of the organization are to research and educate how climate change is affecting the waters and environment of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, to encourage the community’s youth to document the stories of the Elders, and to promote more active stewardship of the lands and waters.
This case study uses the method of Indigenous autoethnography or storytelling, which aims to address issues of social justice and encourage social change by engaging Indigenous researchers in rediscovering their own voices as “culturally liberating human-beings” (Whitinui 2013). Traditionally, in Anishinaabe communities, knowledge is transferred through the telling of stories, often around a fire or while sharing food, so the heart of this autoethnography is the story of Natasha Akiwenzie as she tells it, situated within a broader context of the impacts of climate change in the Great Lakes region. You can hear her passion in the story directly, as well as read about the context of her family’s story and how climate change affected their Anishinaabe fishery. The conclusion includes calls to climate action as well as recommendations for various groups of people from the international to the local level.
Historical and cultural context
The Saugeen Ojibway Nation consists of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation and the Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation. The two reserve communities are situated approximately 60 kilometres apart on the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula, with Saugeen located at the southwestern corner of the peninsula and Nawash about an hour away on the Georgian Bay side. When working together on matters of mutual interest, they are collectively identified as the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, with a total on-reserve population of approximately 1,500 people. The Saugeen Ojibway People have engaged in fishing activities in their traditional territory for food, ceremony, and trade from time immemorial, and have actively retained their fishing rights around Saukiing Anishinaabekiing. Moreover, the health and viability of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, their places of cultural and spiritual significance, and their economic opportunities are linked to the health of the lands and waters of their traditional territory, Saukiing Anishinaabekiing, which includes the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula and its surrounding waters.
Natasha Akiwenzie’s story: The beginning
In 2003, my husband and I started a small-scale commercial fishing business, fishing for lake whitefish and lake trout in the waters of Georgian Bay, and selling our catch at local and regional farmers’ markets. While our business grew quickly over the years, we also noticed that higher winds and severe storms were making it increasingly difficult and dangerous to get out on the water, and warming water temperatures and declining winter ice cover on the lake were negatively impacting ecology and fish populations. In 2018, we made the difficult decision to close our commercial fishing business and establish the Bagida’waad Alliance, a registered not-for-profit corporation with the goals of promoting research and education about the impacts of climate change on the waters and environment of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, encouraging our youth to document the stories of the Elders, and promoting more active stewardship of the lands and waters.
Before we get too far along, I would like to share my first experience fishing. My husband was fishing for another person but they couldn’t make it that day. I thought I could maybe help, even though I had never gone fishing before. I remember sitting at the bow of the boat and taking in all the beauty that surrounded us. The water was clear and lapping gently against the boat. We were headed to the first net and I noticed how calm and relaxed Andrew looked. We got to the first net and Andrew said I should just sit put and help get the fish out of the nets. I realized just then I had no idea what I was about to do. He started pulling the lines and eventually the net appeared. Soon after that a fish appeared. A giant fish. Andrew laughed because he said it was about six pounds. He said it was a whitefish. Then another fish came up and again it was a whitefish. Andrew had taken fish out of the net and placed them in the fish box in front of me, but the fish were still moving. I picked up the smaller one and slid it up and overboard. I realized Andrew had stopped lifting the net. He said I couldn’t release all the fish. He would tell me when we could toss it overboard. A sucker came in and that one I could toss overboard. Then an eelpout came in and it peed on me. Luckily that could go out too. A beautiful, large fish came in next. I was impressed. Andrew had me try to get it out of the net. I was trying to get the net over its massive head but all of a sudden it opened its mouth and chomped on the skin between my thumb and my index finger. Luckily, I had gloves on so it just gave me a good scrape. I learnt that it was a lake trout. After that bite, I had no issues keeping the fish in the fish box.
Over the years we continued to grow our business. In 2006, we received a business grant that allowed us to purchase a 24-foot long punt with an outboard motor and some new gill nets. The next year, we received the same funding and purchased long stainless-steel tables, commercial sinks, fish boxes, and an ice flaking machine to set up our own fish processing facility. Andrew’s grandmother’s house next door to our own had been empty for a while and we made the decision to use that space to process our fish. In 2009, we faced the challenge of having to bring it up to the provincial inspection standards for fish processing plants. That meant sloped floors, floor drains, all new electrical, plastic walls, bedrooms removed and made into storage areas, and hand washing stations. It was completed by the second week in September. We didn’t realize at the time we were one of the very few or possibly the only Indigenous owned provincially inspected fish plants in southern Ontario.
After initially selling our fish to wholesalers in Wiarton, we shifted to selling fish directly to customers from our home in Neyaashiinigmiing, and eventually in regional farmers’ markets. All of this was new to us. I remember the first market in Owen Sound and I was so nervous. Our young boys joined us. They were seven, six, and four years of age. We had put out samples of our smoked fish and our boys were busy handing out business cards. The fish was leaving the table. We were making some money, about as much as what Andrew would have made if he had sold it to the wholesaler. We kept returning to the market every Saturday and we kept coming home with less and less fish and more and more customers returning. But there were some difficult times, too. There were a few times I remember when people would walk by and ask us, “Native caught fish?” We would answer yes proudly but their response would take some of the wind out of our sails. They sometimes would respond with, “I don’t buy Native fish.” I had felt racism before but it was hard in a public setting and trying to be professional. Overall, most of the customers were wonderful and we learned to just smile and wish them a great day.
Demand for our product continued to grow. By the end of 2007 we were selling our fish at three Toronto markets: Riverdale, Dufferin Grove, and Brickworks. Andrew did most of the markets, and we were able to hire an employee to help process the fish. I stayed at home so that I could smoke the fish for the next market and care for our boys. Andrew fished on the days when he was home. It was such a busy time, but it was rewarding because we knew we were providing food to over 600 families a week. In 2008 we were invited by Slow Food Toronto to go with a group of other market vendors, chefs, and journalists to Terra Madra Salone del Gusto which is an international food festival in Turin, Italy, and we jumped on this opportunity. It was amazing to see all the food from all over the world in one location. By 2016, we were selling our product at two major Toronto markets, including the Wychwood Market and the St. Lawrence Market. Customers were attracted to the fact that we caught and sold local or native fish species from the Great Lakes, that our fish was wild-caught rather than farmed, and that we caught, processed, smoked and sold our own fish.
The fog moving in
Although our business continued to grow, over the years we continued to observe and experience environmental changes that made fishing ever-more difficult. One of the first changes we noticed was the amount of zebra mussels we were coming across. (Zebra mussels are an invasive species in the Great Lakes that do a great deal of damage by filtering plankton out of the water, starving native fish species of a key food source.) Andrew would need to smack his net against the hull of the boat so the zebra mussel clumps would fall off the nets and drift back to the bottom of the bay.
With zebra mussels disrupting the ecosystem of the bay, another related change we experienced was the amount of algae. As algae became more prevalent, it became more and more difficult for us to clean our nets. We couldn’t leave the algae on the nets because it added extra weight and the fish could see the nets. At times the nets were so thick with algae, they became difficult to lift out of the water. By 2010, our employees would have to clean the nets for a couple of hours at the end of their shifts just so that Andrew would have clean nets the next time he was out.
Over the years we have also noticed a warming of the waters, and declining ice cover on the lake in the winters. Spring 2010 came and it was one of the first years I can really remember not seeing any ice during the winter. Andrew was able to return to fishing by around mid-March, which was great, for we had nearly run out of frozen fish.
Stronger winds were also becoming more common. More strong wind warnings were being posted on the marine forecast webpage. Then every so often a gale warning would be posted. These winds not only threatened whitefish eggs and larvae, but made it much more dangerous for fishermen to be on the water as well. The days of ten-knot winds were getting further and further apart. I had only had to do the worried walk to the shore to look for the boat a handful of times before, but that worried walk was becoming more frequent. A lot of the time I would still be trying to wake up and Andrew would already be out on the water. I could hear the wind and I could see the trees swaying. I would take a deep breath because I knew I had to just keep an eye on the time and try not to worry. I am not sure if he knew how relieved I was on the really breezy mornings when I would go next door and he would be standing in the driveway.
The foggy mornings, by contrast, always brought a stillness with them. When I saw the fog slowly blanketing the land and moving across the water I always felt relieved. When there is fog, the winds are calm.
By the fall/winter of 2014, we realized we were in trouble. Over the summer we had dealt with a lot of windy days and had to cancel a lot of markets. That fall we endured strong wind warning after strong wind warning, with an occasional gale warning. Andrew needed two days back-to-back to fish—one day to set the nets and the next day to lift. I needed enough fish to turn on the smokers three days before a market. We puttered around on shore, just hoping for the winds to give it a break for a bit. They did once every couple of weeks but not long enough to put anything away for the winter.
Through 2015-16, weather issues continued to challenge us. We had a lot more time on shore, and when we did fish there were a lot of challenges with algae or trying to sneak out early, before the wind picked up.
We were also noticing a significant change in the quantity and composition of our catch. When we first started fishing we would catch about 24-32 whitefish and four to six lake trout nearly every lift. By 2012, Andrew was still catching about the same number of fish but it was becoming more lake trout—like 22-28 lake trout to six to ten whitefish. The lake trout were also mostly small, about three pounds. We actually needed to create a new product to deal with the small fish, for we don’t believe in wasting what is given to us. We would filet the small lake trout, smoke them and then crumble them into small pieces and call them smoky bits. Our customers loved it but we were quietly concerned. By 2018, our catches were becoming more and more odd, with lake whitefish now only one to three fish per catch and lake trout up to 18-26.
Pea soup fog
We had the conversation every Saturday—why we couldn’t find the whitefish and why the winds were increasing. We would tell people about the ice coverage and how the young whitefish need it. We would tell them that with climate change, winds and storms will increase, which fishers see and feel first-hand. We would tell them about how the temperature of the bay was increasing and how that was changing the quality of the fish. People would listen, but sadly, a lot of them just worried about their alternate plan for dinner, now that whitefish was off the table.
In 2018, we looked at the fish in the freezer and realized we only had enough fish to do one more market. We needed to make some tough decisions. We decided that would be our last market and we would leave the business. We had agreed years earlier that if we ever felt the fish were in trouble, we would stop because we didn’t want to be the fisher to pull the last fish out of Georgian Bay. But we never thought we would see that day in our lifetime or our boys’ lifetime.
With these heavy decisions, I felt like I was out on the water as the fog enveloped the boat. I had to believe things were going to clear even though I was going into a future that was unknown.
We had to face the fact that the decline of the whitefish and the changing climate were beyond our control. That we couldn’t fix it alone. That was one of the most difficult days we ever had. Not only were we leaving a way of life; we were also leaving our market community, our fellow vendors, and customers we had known for a very long time. They had watched our boys grow up.
Making it to shore: Forming the Bagida’waad Alliance
In December 2017, a grant application from the federal government was forwarded to me. The fund was called the Indigenous Community-Based Climate Monitoring Program. I spoke with Andrew about the funding. We thought it would be good to apply for a weather station and a wind sock. There was a section in the application that asked us to summarize how climate change was affecting the community. I could see how it was changing the waters with the temperature increasing and lack of ice coverage in the winter but I needed to find someone who could help me with the land-based point of view.
A friend connected me to someone in Bruce County who was known for doing environmental work. I reached out to a woman named Victoria Serda, who was living in Port Elgin at the time. I really had no other goals with this call other than to complete the application and then submit it. We did submit the application—Victoria had walked me through my first federal grant.
After a number of lengthy discussions between Victoria, Andrew, and myself, we decided to form an environmental not-for-profit group. We formed a Board of Directors comprised of Indigenous fishermen, environmentalists, scientists, and youth, who are all part of my support team. The majority of the Board are Saugeen Ojibway Nation members. I became the manager. We decided to call the group Bagida’waad Alliance, which means “they set a net” in Anishinaabemowin. This came together rather quickly, but in a good way. We incorporated with the mandate to promote research and education about the impacts of climate change on the waters and environment of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, encourage our youth to document the stories of the Elders, and promote more active stewardship of the lands and waters.
Bagida’waad Alliance became an important part of my life. It has helped me deal with the transition from being part of a fishing family running our own business to someone who shares the story of climate change and its impact on lake whitefish. Bagida’waad deals with a number of really heavy topics like keeping shorelines natural, invasive species, loss of habitat, food sustainability, and of course, climate change and the decline of the lake whitefish. We do a whole range of initiatives: shoreline cleanups throughout the traditional territory of Saugeen Ojibway Nation, online environmental webinars and Anishinaabemowin language classes, an online store, net seaming workshops, hosting college students for a week, pottery workshops, a creek revitalization project, planting food sources, and a pretty cool community meal-sharing event in October 2018. A major focus of our work has been in the area of youth engagement, education, and stewardship. We use innovative technology and digital media to reach younger audiences and have interactive engagement, such as sharing drone footage, using augmented reality for education at the creek, and doing live virtual eco hikes for Elders.
I see Bagida’waad as applying a strength-based approach to all of our projects (Brough et al. 2004). Anishinaabe people have always used humour in telling difficult stories. Humour is also a key tool of decolonization and central to Indigenous education and pedagogy (Leddy 2018). I find humour helps make complicated issues a bit more fun or engaging. I remember doing a shoreline cleanup wearing an inflatable dinosaur costume. There were so many youths who wanted to know what I was doing or bring me litter just so they could see the costume up close. The adults also wanted to chat more and were happy to help clean up a bit or take a business card.
It’s an important topic—talking about litter and keeping our waterways clean. But it is equally important to show people ways they can help and to add a bit of laughter into a shoreline cleanup. It makes those cleanups a bit more memorable and a chore to look forward to.
Our social media posts as Aquaman are another way we use humour to communicate information about climate change and the state of the environment. Research has shown the importance of communicating climate science through simple, clear messages and repeating those messages often to encourage uptake and connection with the information—lessons we have tried to take to heart in our outreach.
The fog had begun to lift. I felt a weight coming off my shoulders as I felt the solid ground beneath me.
Engaging youth in climate action and education
I know my strengths are in numbers and in timelines. Others on our support team have strengths in writing or reading legal documents or knowing plant names. I know I really enjoy finding out what people are passionate about doing and supporting whatever that might be. It is always amazing to see what a person’s passion is capable of producing.
In 2019, we started a project to engage Saugeen Ojibway Nation youth in documenting knowledge and stories from Elders in the fishing community about the changes they had observed. And in October 2019 we initiated a partnership with Dr. James Stinson, affiliated with York University’s Dahdaleh Institute of Global Health Research and Young Lives Research Lab in the Faculty of Education. The goal of the partnership has been to expand on our youth-centred approach to research and education.
In March 2020, we were jointly awarded a Partnership Engage Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for a project that would engage youth in producing short documentary films about climate change and planetary health. This project recently concluded with an online film festival showcasing seven youth-made films. Six of these films have been uploaded to the Youth Climate Report, an online database of youth-produced films associated with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). To date, more than six hundred videos produced by young people (aged eighteen to thirty years) reside on the Youth Climate Report database, showcasing visible evidence of the research, effects, and solutions to climate change. The youth-produced films added to the database each year are screened annually at the UN Climate Change COP conferences, where the films serve as a resource for UN policy-makers. One of the films created last year by Christopher Akiwenzie, who is my oldest son, specifically addressed the issue of ice coverage on the Great Lakes and the impact on populations of lake whitefish. We will be continuing this collaborative and youth-centred work with Dr. Stinson over the next three years through a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant for our project, “Planetary Health Partnership: Anishinaabe Youth Guardians and the Practice of Living Well With the World.” The project extends and builds on our ongoing collaboration with York University and will explore Indigenous guardianship and land-based experiential learning as a model of cultural revitalization, environmental stewardship, and climate action.
Victoria and I met Gwen MacGregor, an instructor at the University of Toronto, through one of the webinars we were hosting in 2019. She seemed really friendly and open-minded. Gwen asked us to meet a few weeks later in person. We visited mostly online because of COVID and kept in touch by email. She was so passionate about the environment and climate action. She mentioned that she would like to introduce us to another friend of hers who also was a professor at the University. When we met Marla Hlady, we knew that these were people we wanted to work with. It surprised me that both professors made the effort to come and meet with us in person this past summer. I know the drive to the city of Toronto and it is a long one. It showed me their commitment to do things right. Then an idea was born to create a land-based course to be offered to the students. Victoria and I thought it was a pretty cool idea.
We built a strong and trusting relationship and shared a lot of stories. So when the discussion turned to working together by offering an experience to students, it just seemed to be the next logical step. The students, I felt, would benefit immensely from the course we decided to develop together. We designed the whole course together, in full collaboration, slowly and with many open discussions, to ensure it would benefit the students and be done with the community and environment in mind. We’ve had a great time with the students this spring and really enjoy our conversations when we zoom into their classroom. I always looked forward to reconnecting the students, Gwen, and Marla, to the natural environment and sharing the beauty that surrounds me here in Neyaashiinigmiing.
With Bagida’waad and its supporters, the fog is burning off and the path forward is easier to find.
See you on the shoreline
Our planet needs our help. Our biodiversity is slowly disappearing. We need to reconnect to the world around us. We need to ensure future generations have a chance of experiencing a stable climate. We need to support each other in the positive changes we are making to ensure we leave the planet better than we found it. Bagida’waad Alliance is working on a number of projects that focus on the environment and culture. We have done a creek rehabilitation to provide shade to life forms in the water and help manage erosion issues naturally. We are doing eco-hikes to share stories of the importance of the ecosystem and how we are interconnected with nature. We do water testing using citizen science to teach others the importance of documenting changes in their local waterways. And we host online discussions about a variety of topics like native or invasive plants or fish or insects. All of these projects involve sharing Anishinaabe stories and language in appropriate ways.
If you ever want to join us on the shoreline, we will have a costume waiting for you!
Policy and initiative recommendations
General policy recommendations
- Implement free, prior, and informed consent at all levels
- Develop and implement a Climate Change Adaptation and Education Plan
- Develop programs to fund community engagement with Indigenous youth and land-based Guardians initiatives
- Develop an integrated, holistic ecosystem approach to species protection that is co-developed using Indigenous ecological knowledge
Federal policy recommendations
- Support Indigenous and youth-led climate change and planetary health education and awareness building
- Promote process of two-eyed seeing and ethical space in which Indigenous knowledge and Western science are treated as different but complementary knowledge systems to inform policy
- Support Indigenous Guardian programs in every Indigenous territory, including multi-year funding through contribution agreements
- Develop further Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and Indigenous Community Land Trusts
- Indigenize Canadian climate policy so that climate action and Indigenous sovereignty are operationalized in a mutually supportive relationship
- Support locally developed and Indigenous-led solutions for adapting Indigenous fisheries toward sustainable economic and sustenance solutions, either continuing fishing or moving into other roles such as sharing knowledge
- Implementing free, prior, and informed consent in all Ministries
- Promote Indigenous-managed areas for conservation.
- Do a comprehensive review of policies to produce a report that can limit the movement and propagation of invasive species through a variety of existing means, including seed companies, nurseries, commercial boats, transportation, etc.
- Legislate an Indigenous-led and managed Crown Corporation for Indigenous Initiatives with stand alone multi-year operational funding, including additional funds for their programs to disperse
- Implement the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Accessibility (IDEA) Good Practices for Researchers
Provincial policy recommendations
- Implement co-development and co-management of all resources
- Encourage the use of disturbed areas for new development
- Implement more protected natural spaces
- Develop and support Indigenous land-based learning courses and modules throughout the educational curriculum
- Support local food networks, including commercial kitchens for local food processing
Regional government recommendations
- Develop an invasive species plan to limit their spread and propagation
- Develop a tree fence and hedgerow policy to support farmers in keeping and/or adding trees along roadways, between fields, and near waterways
- Regulate and encourage waterfront properties to keep their shorelines natural
- Introduce fees for development applications to pay for Indigenous people’s services to review the applications
- Implement eco-passages for wildlife
Indigenous government recommendations
- Implement eco-passages for wildlife
- Create a Guardians program
- Partner with local grassroots organizations on ecological restoration projects
Local government recommendations—municipalities
- Introduce bylaws that allow for and promote the planting of edible plants, including trees, bushes, herbs, and vegetables, in parks and public spaces
- Plant non-invasive species in parks and public spaces, including plants that are useful to people
- Support local farmers’ markets to have consistent space, advertising, and staff support
- Implement eco-passages for wildlife
Local government recommendations—Band Councils
- Implement eco-passages for wildlife
Foundations, charities, not-for-profit organizations
- Ensure boards have at least two representatives from Indigenous rights holders
- Organize an Indigenous Advisory Board
- Discuss upcoming business opportunities with local Indigenous businesses to see if partnerships are possible
- Support land-based learning courses and modules throughout the educational system
Brough, Mark, Chelsea Bond, and Julian Hunt. 2004. “Strong in the City: Towards a strength-based approach in Indigenous health promotion.” Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 15:3. https://doi.org/10.1071/HE04215
Leddy, Shannon. 2018. “In a Good Way: Reflecting on Humour in Indigenous Education.” Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 16(2), 10–20. https://jcacs.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/jcacs/article/view/40348 Whitinui, Paul. 2013. “Indigenous Autoethnography: Exploring, Engaging, and Experiencing ‘Self’ as a Native Method of Inquiry.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 43:4. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0891241613508148