In recent weeks, the reports from environmental and business groups about how Canada could fashion a climate-friendly economic recovery have been pouring in.
They’re bursting with ideas about how to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs, through everything from building retrofits to transportation electrification to transition of the fossil-fuel industry to more sustainable products.
But looking closely at what is in the reports – and what is not in them – is revealing of one of the challenges facing Justin Trudeau’s government as it contemplates whether to try to seize this moment of crisis to accelerate the shift to a cleaner economy. And it may help explain why Mr. Trudeau and his ministers have been slow to commit publicly to moving ambitiously in that regard, despite climate change being at the core of the mandate they received from voters last year.
What’s evident is that as much as a climate focus may be massively important in and of itself, it does not easily align with some of the other long-term public policy objectives that could also be necessary targets of stimulus funds.
The longer that COVID-19 drags on, the more obvious it is that its economic effects will be unusual and uneven. There is mounting concern, in particular, about women returning to the work force much more slowly than men and being disproportionately set back in the long run. And there are calls from economists who have Ottawa’s ear to prioritize child care and other social investments that could help make the recovery more equitable instead.
Green-recovery advocates are generally sympathetic to those demands. So it’s telling that, try as they might, they haven’t had an easy time incorporating them into their recommendations.
Last week, for instance, the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery – a joint effort of several environmental think tanks, involving some of the country’s top environment-policy thinkers – released its preliminary report. Right up front, it states among its guiding principles that proposals are meant to be “equitable and feasible,” with “attention to youth, women, Indigenous peoples and vulnerable groups.”
The report succeeds in laying out how some of those demographics could strongly benefit from green stimulus. That’s especially the case with Indigenous populations, for whom it proposes federal investments such as a sustainable infrastructure fund and backing for Indigenous-led clean-energy programs. But the only time women are mentioned again is apropos skills training to “ensure there are sufficient skilled workers, particularly among women and Indigenous, to meet demand for energy efficient and climate resilient retrofit and building projects.”
Another report released this month, by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, lands in a similar place. The only one of its 25 recommendations for investments in decarbonization that explicitly addresses how women would fit into the sustainable new economy is “skills training programs to support the just transition of workers into renewable energy.”
That section is primarily about helping people who currently work in the fossil-fuel industry, but suggests there should also be programs to help workers move from other (less male-dominated) sectors, perhaps in some cases “offered exclusively to women.”
Those programs could help women gain a somewhat bigger share of green-recovery jobs than they otherwise would. But there is no getting around that much of the potential stimulus spending that would offer the best bang for the buck in reducing emissions, such as retrofits and electric vehicle charging infrastructure, would create jobs in sectors such as construction that are likely to remain disproportionately male.
Potential growth in areas such as clean-technology development and scale-up could be more gender-neutral, but wouldn’t in itself do much to counterbalance the unequal economic effects of the crisis that we’re currently seeing.
None of this is to blame the authors of the recent reports for failing to find more ways to address those effects through climate-oriented stimulus.
Flip it around, ask people calling for big investment in child care and other social supports whether they see ways to simultaneously help with clean-economy transition, and they struggle to come up with them as well.
Possibly there are still some creative ways to find convergence. That could include policies to make it easier to work from home (though there are very mixed views on how that actually serves women in the work force). And any direct job growth from green stimulus could lead to spin-off growth in other sectors that employ more women.
The reality, though, is that two very worthy goals – reducing the country’s carbon footprint while preparing it to compete in a low-emissions world, and ensuring that women have an equal opportunity to succeed economically – don’t easily intersect.
The question facing Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals, among so many others at the moment, is whether they can afford to invest in both ambitiously enough to have a real impact in shaping the recovery.
For a Prime Minister who has tried to build a political identity around both feminism and climate concern, the reasonable approach would seem to be a two-track recovery plan. His government could invest many billions of dollars to ensure Canada is a leader rather than a laggard in addressing climate change, and many billions more building up child care and other social supports that could allow women to emerge from this crisis with a greater opportunity to succeed than they had going in, rather than being badly set back.
With the government already facing a deficit of more than $300-billion because of short-term emergency measures, it’s not quite that simple. There will still be calls for relatively short-term help for beleaguered industries and their workers, and already there is some disagreement within government about how much fiscal capacity it has in the days ahead.
It’s hard to see how Mr. Trudeau could treat addressing climate change and averting a “she-cession” as an either-or proposition.
But the less Ottawa is willing or able to continue spending freely, the more two of its biggest policy imperatives could come into competition with each other for the funds that will help shape the postpandemic economy.
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