Notes from Johannesburg: Climate change and green jobs
Here in Johannesburg for an EU-South Africa bilateral meeting on climate change and green jobs, 300,000 new green jobs are promised in the Green Economy Accord. The South African union federation COSATU and business groups have backed government plans that by 2020 renewable energy, a million domestic solar water heaters, building retrofits, recycling, water and waste management promise a new green industrial future.
Yet – and this may sound very familiar – South Africa has already lost opportunities to develop local green industries, for instance, importing and not making many of its new solar water heaters. Jorge Maia of the Industrial Development Commission told the 100 delegates “we are now making some gains in solar water heaters and wind turbines,” yet these devices could help kick start a continent–wide industry.
Opening the conference, COSATU President Sdumu Dlamini said, “Just Transition underpins our approach to climate change and green jobs.” Rooting his approach in the language of liberation struggle, he said, “We will focus on linking our struggle on climate change to the global struggle with capitalism.” This implies rejecting solutions that were both purely market-based, and which involved pitting workers in one part of the world against those from another.
COSATU’s new report, A just transition to a low carbon and climate resilient economy lays out an understanding of “why we need to inform ourselves about coming and likely climate change.” For instance, the country is shifting from a “water scarce” to a “water stressed” country, with declining rainfall in crucial areas like Lesotho that supply water to cities. Meanwhile, acid mine drainage from disused mines is already poisoning freshwater supplies.
Yet 90% of South Africa’s electricity is produced by burning coal in power stations, while Sasol’s process that turns coal into fuel (inherited from the Apartheid era’s way round the then oil embargo) adds to CO2 emissions. As a result, CO2 emissions of 9 tonnes per person equal the EU, “even though the average living standard is nowhere that of a European.”
Union, government and expert speakers outlined the strategies agreed between government, industry and unions for shifting dependence on fossil fuels in power supply and mineral production from gold, coal and other mining activities. The government plans to increase the proportion of renewable energy in its energy mix from zero to 9% and the coal share would decrease from 85% to 65%.
The conference so far has identified a number of key challenges:
- Renewable energy is competing with subsidised fossil fuel energy, particularly coal, where no account is taken of carbon costs.
- Special “green finance” finance is required to cover the perceived risk of investing in renewable energy technologies.
- New skills are required to develop install and maintain this technology. But there’s less experience because these technologies are still relatively new.
- Localisation of production: can SA really put together the means to manufacture rather than import new technology like solar water heaters (SWH)?
- Local content targets will help drive local jobs, but crucially, setting ambitious volume targets for renewable energy will help support localisation and investment in training.
The government claimed to be resolved to create a robust and self-supporting SWH industry. Commercial banks, insurance companies, and benevolent donors were apparently driving various SWH initiatives in different parts of the country. Yet we were told that “it’s cheaper to import solar water heaters, or components like glass chambers from China.”
In discussions on the side, there were references to carbon capture & storage (CCS) for coal power, which could add new jobs and skills. The country’s new Medupi coal power station will be 4th largest of its kind in the world and it is claimed that it will be carbon capture ready. However, is this the case? Carbon capture ready (CCR) really means planning the space on site to build capture plant, a pipeline route and an underground or undersea carbon storage site. Did Midupe qualify as capture- ready in these terms?
Speaking for the ETUC, confederal Secretary Judith Kirton-Darling struck a shared note with delegates when she argued that Europe’s austerity measures would deliver neither growth nor a sustainable recovery. Whilst the EU’s emissions were falling now, much is due to the recession, so that any recovery would imply rising emissions. The ETUC’s vision was of an “environmental state, whose functions include sustainable infrastructure, consumption and taxation, underpinned by strong public sector leadership role.”
Judith argued that “jobs must be at the centre of policy.” All sectors shave a role to play and much to contribute. “But precarious work cannot produce sustainable green jobs.” Employment rights and union organisation were essential elements of the trade union approach to climate change.
ETUC delegates from Norway, Spain, Germany and the UK outlined our approaches to greening the workplace, seen by many unions as fundamental to building g membership support from the base to strengthen trade union campaigns for green and decent jobs. Delegates debated questions from the floor like, What do you do if companies wont work with you? Is there any penalty for carbon emissions? “We’re under siege from climate change, but we don’t have the detectors,” another observed. And, In a recession, can the green economy really create jobs?
On a personal note, it was great to be at COSATU House, learning how deep runs the shared analysis of union leadership in a changing climate, talking about the magnificent Magor Brewery green workplace, led by Unite. I handed out the TUC’s green workplaces newsletter, and made contacts with the SA NUM mining union, for possible future joint work on carbon capture and storage.