Faced with climate change in Senegal, how can unions support efforts towards energy transition?

Faced with climate change in Senegal, how can unions support efforts towards energy transition?

Union leaders believe that trade union centres will be able to make stronger contributions to the NDCs if affiliated workers are present at all levels of the national economy potentially impacted by climate change. Senegalese fishermen stand on their boat in the port of Saint-Louis, Senegal, in April 2017.

(Anton Ivanov)

In the coastal city of Bargny, located some 30 kilometres south of the capital city of Dakar, a new government-sponsored coal-fired power plant stands in stark contrast to Senegal’s stated climate ambitions, including plans to increase its share of clean and renewable energies to 30 per cent by 2025. Commissioned a year ago, the Bargny power station was financed by a consortium of investors including the African Development Bank (AfDB) for 118 billion CFA francs (around €180 million).

The choice of coal has sparked controversy and the Bargny station has been a source of misunderstanding and conflict within the local community. Already threatened by rising sea levels that continue to demolish coastal dwellings and displace populations, the region now finds itself confronted with the negative impacts of this new infrastructure. Local associations, such as the Association of Women Fish Processors, the No to the Coal-Fired Power Station Association, members of the municipal council, and the Collective for the Defence of the Environment, supported by foreign partners such as the Catholic Committee Against Hunger and For Development (CCFD-Terre Solidaire), have criticised “forced land grabs” by the state to pave the way for this public-private project, displacements of entire families, the disruption of the activities of women fish processors (in an area where fishing is the primary economic activity), and above all the waste and pollution emitted by the plant and their impact on health and the environment.

When it comes to securing its energy needs, Senegal faces a difficult choice between taking advantage of its rich fossil fuel resources and demonstrating its commitment to the climate.

The exploitation of its oil deposits, one of the largest in West Africa, is expected to take off again starting in 2023 with a project of cooperation between local companies and British Petroleum (BP) currently in the works, while 450 billion m3 of certified gas promises a significant source of future revenue for the country. The ability of the Senegalese authorities to anticipate and prevent the risks inherent in the extraction of these offshore hydrocarbons, specifically threats to the marine ecosystem, is already being questioned.

At the same time, Senegal remains committed to transitioning toward renewable energies and is constantly striving to increase the share of clean energy in domestic and industrial consumption by promoting private initiatives alongside public action. In addition to the brand new Taïba Ndiaye wind farm located roughly 100 kilometres from Dakar, which now provides 15 per cent of Senegal’s electricity (supplying nearly two million people out of a population of 15 million), four new solar power plants have been operational in rural areas since 2016. These initiatives make Senegal a leader in the field of renewable energy in West Africa.

Senegal must also respect the international commitments it has made within the framework of the 2015 Paris Agreement, particularly those relating to the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

The country has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 9 per cent through its own means, though this could be increased to as much as 17 to 27 per cent with the expected help of the international community.

One of the planned measures is to better monitor emissions from existing infrastructure. “The quantities of greenhouse gases likely to be emitted by heavy infrastructure will have to be measured and evaluated. Emission standards aim to minimise pollution. This applies to all industrial projects in Senegal before they are approved by the relevant governmental departments,” explains Cheikh Ndiaye Sylla, director of environment at the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

For its first Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) planned for 2023, Senegal has singled out sectors such as industry and construction for the reduction of greenhouse gases. The transport sector has also been targeted for reductions. In 2021, the country will launch its Regional Express Train (TER) and a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system (linking 14 suburbs with the capital of Dakar), which are expected to reduce pollution generated by motor vehicles. While the energy supply for these transport systems has raised questions, a Strategic Environmental and Social Assessment (SESA) carried out by the AfDB states: “The emissions thus avoided are likely, in a future phase, to be combined with traction energy supply from an emission-free renewable energy source.”

Trade unions want a say in Senegal’s NDCs

“Senegal is current considering the commitments it will make in its NDCs, which remains the basis for the country’s commitment to global mitigation and adaptation efforts,” says Babacar Sylla, in charge of environmental and climate issues for the National Confederation of Senegalese Workers (CNTS), the country’s largest trade union centre. However, he adds, “unfortunately the most ambitious measures contained in this reference document are conditional options, and thus subject to financing.”

Sylla is one of many actors frustrated by these ‘conditional options’ (which each country lists in its NDCs), which they consider to be a roadblock to voluntary action on the part of the public authorities. For example, the Senegalese government has made the substitution of 40 per cent of its coal production by natural gas conditional on obtaining international financing. This is what it proposes for the Bargny coal-fired power station.

But, as Sylla explains, “we believe it is imperative that coal and gas power stations be shut down and that massive investments be made in renewable energies.” There are about ten coal-fired power stations in Senegal, half of which are located in the Dakar region. All of them belong to Senelec, Senegal’s national electricity company.

But in order to influence the content of the NDCs, trade unions need the attention and sympathetic ear of the public authorities, which has not always been easy to come by. “The government listens to us intermittently on climate change issues. We believe that the Ministries of Environment and Labour should move toward formalising the contribution of workers to inclusive and relevant NDCs. But for the moment, despite all our reminders to the authorities, the process of involving the trade union centres has not run smoothly,” says Elimane Diouf, secretary-general of the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions (CSA). “The CSA has referred the matter to the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and we have even placed a priority on setting up dialogue, because we believe that this ministry is a pivotal department for all concerns related to climate change and energy transition.” The Senegalese trade union centres want the commissions that have been set up to be integrated as full members in order to better prepare Senegal’s NDCs.

As Diouf explains, this will require establishing a “real social dialogue” between the state, employers and trade unions. Sylla of the CNTS agrees: “With the trade union struggle severely tested by climate change…we must adopt a purely inclusive approach based on social dialogue with our traditional partners, the state and the private sector.”

Including workers in energy transition

Union leaders believe that trade union centres will be able to make stronger contributions to the NDCs if affiliated workers are present at all levels of the national economy potentially impacted by climate change. This will allow them to make useful contributions to identifying ideas to be taken up by the authorities. According to Diouf of the CSA, this includes a wide range of proposals such as projects and programmes favouring the protection of coastal areas from Dakar to Saint-Louis against marine erosion, making the Great Green Wall a reality, revitalising the fossil valleys for the benefit of agriculture, market gardening, livestock breeding and fishing, for example.

“The country is trying its best to develop highly beneficial initiatives in the field of energy with solar and wind power plants, the entry into force of the law on plastics, and efforts being made in the transport sector. However, we have seen that the implementation of some of these measures is leaving many workers behind. This non-inclusive method distorts the principle of just transition that the CNTS continues to promote in its approach,” says Sylla, who is also an engineer in urban and environmental planning.

At the same time, the CNTS is working internally to implement its vision of a comprehensive approach to climate change in a country like Senegal. “We remain convinced that the best way to support our fellow workers is first to educate them on the new reality we are facing, then to make sure that they have the ability to take full advantage of the energy transition with transition plans that will take into account their individual experiences, or lack thereof, the criterion of seniority, the benefits already acquired, etc,” says Sylla.

That’s why “the CNTS has been working to anticipate developments so that its members do not miss the boat on energy transition”.

At its 2016 congress, the CSA created a department of the environment and sustainable development to address issues related to climate change. The youth and women’s movements developed several activities to “raise awareness among the population and workers in coastal areas such as Mbour, Kayar, Rufisque, Bargny and Saint-Louis,” says Diouf. Even without the Covid-19 health crisis, which led to the initiative being suspended, the challenge remains immense.

“The concept of just transition is relatively difficult to grasp, especially in companies where workers are used to only focusing on their daily livelihood, their income and their salary level. At the same time, workers in many companies have been introduced to other concepts such as corporate social responsibility and health and safety. This has enabled them to look around them to see how to develop clean production practices and establish societal relations with the people in their milieu,” explains Diouf.

By targeting coastal areas, the young people and women of the CSA are addressing two major concerns: waves of emigration, with more and more young people leaving for Europe in makeshift boats; and rising sea levels.

“With the concept of energy transition, our aim is to convince young people and workers in general that the promotion and development of so-called ‘green’ jobs is now within reach through various environmental projects and programmes. In the face of challenges that threaten our vital spaces, we try to show them that opportunities exist to get by where they are, wherever possible,” says Diouf.

Working with Italian partners, the CSA has initiated projects to train its members for work in sectors with high labour potential such as agriculture and agribusiness. This vision is being put into practice with “consultations with the managers of Industries Chimiques du Sénégal (ICS) and with the managers of the Bargny coal-fired power plant to encourage them to take better account of the health and safety of workers and local communities.” Diouf hopes that these initiatives will regain momentum once the coronavirus health crisis improves.

“Historic partnership”

The CNTS’s declared willingness to work with other actors has led to a partnership with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Dakar. According to FES programme director Ismaïla Diack, the issues related to energy transition include the defence of principles such as social justice and the need to provide concrete responses to populations affected by climate change. “The concerns of young people and their associations in this area, particularly the desire to find employment and the need to protect their immediate environment, can be better taken into account by public authorities. We are helping them to do so. For our first task, we are focusing on a major subject: coastal governance,” says Diack.

The German foundation is a stakeholder in a working group involving five Senegalese trade union centres and some 20 environmental players working in several parts of the country, a “historic partnership” as Babacar Sylla describes the collaboration. “On the climate issue, the FES, which has helped us over the years to participate in major summits and high-level trade union meetings, has found it necessary to organise action at the national level. This is a vision that we welcome. But since the CNTS will not be able to achieve this effectively alone, we wanted to diversify the actors involved by opening ourselves up to the sister centres of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).”

These trade union centres are the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Senegal (UNSAS), the National Confederation of Workers of Senegal-Forces of Change (CNTS-FC), the Democratic Union of Workers of Senegal (UDTS) and the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions (CSA). According to Sylla, it was CNTS general secretary Mody Guiro, “as president of ITUC-Africa, who put forward the idea of involving the other Senegalese trade union centres in increasing training and developing strategy.” Over the coming months, the working group plans to produce a strategic orientation document and a plan of action addressing the impacts of climate change – and to demonstrate that trade unions are working together to support the country’s efforts for a just transition.

This article has been translated from French by Brandon Johnson

This story was supported by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung as part of a series of articles on trade unions and the just transition.