Marching in the people's climate march at COP20 in Lima.
Power to the people: Trade unions, energy and climate change
At the end of this year, the countries of the world will meet in Paris under the auspices of the United Nations in a make or break effort to curb global warming by reaching a binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The preparatory COP 20 conference was held last month in Lima, broadly analogous to convening a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in a brewery.
A sprawling city, shot through with gridlocked urban motorways, the Peruvian capital symbolises the shortcomings of a “development” model predicated upon an extractive export economy centred on mining and mono-crop agriculture. For its 10 million inhabitants, trying to get anywhere in a city described by the World Health Organisation as the most polluted in South America, is a logistical nightmare. Its explosive growth can largely be attributed to the exodus of people seeking employment from the impoverished regions of Peru, most of whom belong to the 75% of the workforce in the euphemistically entitled ‘informal economy.’
As the third most affected country by climate change, Peru needs a successful outcome in Paris more than most. Lima is the second biggest desert city in the world (after Cairo) and for its water, relies on Andean glaciers that have already shrunk by 30%. Perversely, successive governments have pursued a strategy that will only make matters worse by granting almost unlimited mining permits in a country that is 62% Amazon rainforest, the destruction of which in the pursuit of economic growth will result in more CO2 being released into the atmosphere. In the first nine months of 2014, mining companies spent a staggering U$7.5 billion for equipment to be used on projects in the Republic.
In Lima, the COP 20 negotiations were held in the secure surroundings of the Pentagonito (Little Pentagon) army headquarters, deployed as a clandestine torture centre during the dirty war carried out against Maoist insurgents by the Fujimori dictatorship. And after two weeks of agonising debate, the world’s governments failed to reach an in-principle agreement on limiting emissions to prevent more than a 2°C increase in global warming for ratification at the COP 21 in Paris. Worse still, there was only a passing mention of the need for decent jobs and a just transition for the world’s workers involved in the exploitation and production of fossil fuels.
For an energy union like GMB the question of just transition is paramount. We recognise the key role of the energy sector and the need to stop burning fossil fuels but have little faith in that happening while power generation is left to a rigged market where emissions reductions and a greener economy are trumped by the profit motive. That is why GMB is part of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, (TUED) a global network dedicated to bringing the energy sector under public control as an essential forerunner to combating global warming. As stated on the TUED website:
“The power of fossil fuel corporations has made it practically impossible to protect the health and safety of workers and communities, and union representation is under attack across the globe. Despite more energy being generated every year, energy poverty remains a serious global issue — 1.6 billion people, or 20% of the world’s population, do not have regular access to electricity.”
Fuel poverty is not limited to poor people in the global South either: an increasing number of UK consumers simply cannot afford the extortionately high bills they have to pay to heat and light their homes. Opinion polls have repeatedly demonstrated that the British public want the national grid and the energy utilities returned to collective ownership but none of the major political parties are prepared to countenance the notion, so wedded are they to neoliberal economic policies.
Regardless of the politicians’ intransigence, it has become increasingly clear that the transition to an equitable, sustainable energy system can only occur if there is decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public and it therefore falls to the trade unions to provide leadership in reaching that goal.
Too many ‘green’ NGOs either fail to understand the need for a just transition or believe that putting a green hue on capitalist modes of production will suffice. They subscribe to the three stated objectives of the UN convention on climate change which are to reduce emissions, to do it in an equitable manner and not hinder “development”, an non-viable and contradictory agenda.
In Lima, GMB and other TUED members spent time across town from the Pentagonito at the people’s summit where civil society participants from all over the world debated the climate crisis and produced their own declaration, which if rather idealistic, was arguably a more practical proposition than the ‘official’ position in that it fully recognised the need for urgent action and the structural nature of the problem. The people’s summit’s slogan summed it up in a sentence: “Let’s change the system – not the climate” and the task before us is to make that a reality. It is a huge challenge but one that we have to meet.