Labour unions push for a ‘just transition’ at COP21

Labour unions push for a ‘just transition' at COP21

Less than 80 days away from the much-anticipated 21st Conference of the Parties on climate change (COP21), in Paris, some 200 trade union delegates from about 30 industrialised and developing countries came together in the French capital last week to carve out a common position that will be defended during the two-week conference.

Organised by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the two-day event also showcased interventions by organisations outside of the labour movement, such as Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The aim is to build a broad coalition that will have a strong impact on the negotiations to reach an agreement that will prevent the atmosphere from heating up by more than 2°C.

“It is the most significant challenge of the next 30 years,” Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, said during the opening session of a meeting which intended to prove that “climate change is a trade union issue”.

Although only about a third of countries worldwide have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) so far, initial assessments seem to indicate that the planned carbon emission reductions will not be enough to remain within tolerable limits, according to Merlyn Van Voore of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“We are still far away from where we should be,” she told Equal Times.

French Foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who will preside over the COP21, stunned the audience by indicating that current country pledges on CO2 emissions will lead the atmosphere to warm by 3°C.

He stressed, however, that a mechanism of periodical review every five years, to be negotiated in Paris, could help cool down the “curve” of global warming and bring it back to 2°C before it’s too late. But this will depend, according to Fabius, on the legally binding nature of the instruments put in place to regulate climate change, the investments in green technologies and the mobilisation of civil society, including trade unions.

To this end, he asked union delegates to clearly identify the sectors that are most vulnerable to climate change, to help prepare workers for the industrial transition ahead, to hold employers to account on their CO2 reduction promises, and to mobilise people around the fact that rising temperatures is a critical issue.

While some delegates praised Fabius’ intervention, others were more sceptical. Pascal Pavageau, confederal secretary of the French national trade union centre Force Ouvrière, said that the French government did not show “the ambition of having a strong social dimension” for the COP21, and that there was “real concern”.

Trade unions, under the umbrella of the ITUC, have focused their efforts on climate change around the concept of a ‘just transition’ – the shift towards “a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy that maximises the benefits of climate action while minimising hardships for workers and their communities”.

But the COP21 negotiating draft makes no reference to this notion.

Fabius even admitted that the current text, prepared by the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), was “not very satisfying” in this regard.

Unions have therefore asked Fabius to take workers into consideration by including a commitment to just transition measures, to push for a “robust mechanism of periodical review” and to “provide clarity on the way developed countries will fulfil their commitment to mobilise US$100 billion by 2020 to secure sufficient resources for adaptation.”


The spectre of Copenhagen

Civil society forces experienced a heavy setback after the failure to reach a strong agreement at the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen, and the spectre of another missed opportunity in Paris weighed heavily on last week’s discussions.

“We wanted a FAB (Fair, Ambitious, Binding) deal in Copenhagen,” Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, told delegates. “Instead, we got a deal that is FLAB (Full of Loopholes And Bullshit).”

“You’d have to be a crazy gambler to bet one single cent on us getting the deal [in Paris] that our children and their children and future generations need,” Naidoo added in an interview with Equal Times.

Many trade unionists in Paris shared Naidoo’s position, and believe that the efforts to prevent global warming will require more than words on paper at the COP21.

“Will the COP fix climate? No,” Sharan Burrow told delegates. “It’s what we do beyond the COP. No one expects Paris to be the end of the road.”

Naidoo also stressed that “the crisis of climate change can be turned into an opportunity,” and that the alliance between labour and environmental movements was an illustration of this.

“We used to talk about a red/green conflict, now we talk about a red/green alliance,” he said.

The need to reduce fossil fuel consumption to curb climate change has indeed led to some tensions between workers in these industries and environmental activists. In the United States, the second biggest polluter in the world after China, the reliance on oil, coal and, more recently, shale gas, has put unions in a tough position. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) opposed the Kyoto Protocol back in 1997, and is still very cautious about binding regulations that could affect its members in the extraction industry, especially in the absence of a reliable alternative.

Brad Markell, executive director of the Industrial Union Council at the AFL-CIO, tells Equal Times: “I think that for most workers in the United States, for most workers around the world I would say, climate change is not number one, two or three on the list of things that they are concerned about, or would vote for in an election. Especially in our energy sector, which tends to be populated by construction workers, they had a tremendous amount of job losses ever since the crisis. They never recovered. And they would take any job they can get, whether it’s a fossil fuel job or putting up windmills. They are happy either way.”

Reflecting on his own country, Canada, Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, argued that: “oil sands cannot go on forever”.

In an impassioned speech, he implored union delegates to “build alliances” and to be “part of the movement”. “We have been on the side for too long. It’s time to change and challenge ourselves, or we will be marginalised”.

Van Voore of UNEP indicated that the renewable industry currently employs 7.7 million people worldwide: a 1.2 million increase since 2014, which makes it a “promising sector”.

Studies have also indicated that the number of jobs that could be created by ‘greening’ the economy could far exceed the number of jobs lost, by allocating resources to environmentally-friendly transport, ecological buildings and new ways of consumption.

This economic shift could be, as one delegate put it, “as important as the Industrial Revolution” but that the main issue remains the financing for such projects.

Delegates in Paris put forth several suggestions, including taxing the rich and financial transactions, mobilising union pension funds or breaking with austerity measures and “neo-liberalism”, which limit public investments.

Trade unions will join other social movements to make these demands heard on the weekend before the start of COP21, with large rallies being planned in several cities across the world.