From the TUC

Bonn blog #2: UK performance at UN climate talks and the future of just transition

06 Jun 2015, by in Environment

I’ve been at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference in Bonn this week, where 195 countries are negotiating the international climate treaty that will be debated at COP21 climate talks in Paris in December. This blog describes my initial thoughts on the process, as someone who is new to the climate change policy world.

When I told friends I would be coming to Bonn to attend UN climate change talks, responses generally went like this: “why on earth would the TUC be involved in that? Shouldn’t you be more pre-occupied with [insert as necessary – options include forthcoming anti-trade union laws, the dramatic scale of impending public spending cuts and the austerity agenda, zero-hours contracts and insecure work, productivity, workplace discrimination, fighting migrant worker exploitation, challenging corporate governance, campaigning on the living wage?]”.

Many readers of this blog will fully understand why trade unions must have seats at the climate change negotiating tables, so this post is perhaps more for those who, like me when I started working in the trade union movement just 6 months ago, wonder what trade union roles are or should be in this area and why fighting climate change is a key priority for the TUC.

In crude terms, once ratified, the 2015 Climate Treaty will establish a framework for action among all 195 UN member states (or Parties with a capital P) that will have dramatic consequences for the future of the entire planet. Mitigation and adaptation strategies employed to keep global warming under 2°C will (and are) affect(ing) the entire way our countries operate: energy supply, transport networks, agricultural practices, industrial practices, waste management, and household behaviours must all look dramatically different by the second half of the century if humanity and the ecosystem is to safely evolve.

There are clearly huge implications for national and international labour markets, as has been well documented by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for many years, among countless others including the TUC. Whilst at the aggregate level many countries including the UK have now managed to decouple the link between economic and population growth and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, action to combat climate change and meet our ambitious emissions abatement targets will have serious implications for energy intensive industries (the focus of our current TUC study) and many others in the world of work. This is why the ‘just transition’ concept has been developed over the years. It’s a process that ensures workers are treated decently during the low-carbon transition:

A recap on the five key principles of just transition

  1. Consultation/union voice: tripartite consultations between workers (trade unions), employers (businesses, voluntary organisations) and government on the shift to the low-carbon economy
  2. Green and decent jobs: investing in the technology and infrastructure in order to meet sustainability challenges for a low-carbon, resource-efficient future while creating quality, skilled jobs
  3. Green skills: investment in education and training to equip those in education and in the workplace with adaptation skills relevant to the transition
  4. Respect for labour and human rights: democratic decision-making to ensure fair representation of workers’ and communities’ interests. Strengthening information, consultation and participation rights.
  5. Social protection: strong and sufficient social protection systems for individuals and communities in the transition

UK performance at the UN multilateral assessment

It is therefore welcome that the UK government delegation rightly championed the ‘green growth agenda’ at its UN multilateral assessment yesterday (slides available here, video here and biennial report here). Yesterday the UK, along with the governments of  many other nations presented their Intended National Determined Commitments on greenhouse gas emissions abatement (INDCs) and were assessed via written and oral questioning by fellow Parties. In a sense this process reflects a real win for climate change accountability and transparency, as governments had to present their respective action plans to tackle climate change to the UN and its many observers and face public questioning from fellow Parties on their commitments. However given representatives from what the UN terms as ‘civil society’ such as those of us working for NGOs, businesses and trade unions were not permitted, the process was hardly as democratically legitimate as it could have been. More on this later.

Compared to other Parties such as Australia (criticised by other Parties as it reported its decision to scrap its previously ambitious mitigation strategy in favour of one that is dependent on other national states’ actions) and Russia (strongly criticised for its distinct lack of transparency and completeness), the UK performed very well at the multilateral assessment. However what it didn’t include in its presentation raised some concerns.

Reflecting first on the encouraging elements: unlike many of our European counterparts, the UK is working towards meeting its own Climate Change Act of 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 as well as the “at least 40%” reduction set out by the 2030 EU INDC. Furthermore, the UK delegation shared that the Climate Change Act requires the UK government to cancel leftover emissions from the Emissions Trading Scheme, and wiped over 500 MtCO2e from 2008-12 (equivalent to the entire emissions for South Africa, according to my transcription of the UK’s presentation) from the system after the first Kyoto Protocol commitment phase (or CP1). In some detail the Party outlined the important role the Committee on Climate Change – the independent evidence-based government afvisory body on this issue – plays in setting national policy and this was widely met with approval (including, for what it’s worth, mine).

In parallel just this week ONS released data  on the green growth agenda, showing that the green economy generated £26.3bn value added to the economy in 2012 (the most recent year for which data are available) which is the equivalent of 375,000 jobs. That the UK’s official statistcs agency is designating its own resources to assess this is testament to the government’s commitment to environmental and economic sustainability. It is certainly welcome that skilled and semi-skilled roles in waste management, renewable energy, and so on, are being created apace.

The government did not however acknowledge the state of play for existing jobs in other industries with a large stake in climate change – not least energy intensive industries such as those in the UK’s so-called Northern Powerhouse. Saudi Arabia pressed the UK and all other delegations on what thought had been given to the social and economic consequences of domestic climate change policy. Our motivations are of course very different to those of Saudi Arabia, which has a long record of blocking progress in climate action at the UN to protect its oil interests. But reflection on just transition – a pivotal socioeconomic process required in order to prevent widespread devastation such as that seen after rapid mine closures in the 1980s, to name one example – was a notable omission from the presentation, and those of all other Parties. It is not mentioned once in the UK’s First Biennial Report to the UN, either.

A blind spot?

Given just transition narrative feels so absent here, I will leave the UN conference tomorrow with some fundamental questions relating to just transition in my mind – even if COP21 decides to keep references to the just transition in the international climate treaty and trade unions and the ILO continue to campaign on it. I might have a stab at answering them in a future blog post but in the meantime I’d welcome readers’ thoughts.

What is democratic about the transition consultation process, when civil society is prevented from speaking at UN assessments of the very policies governments are enacting in order to fight climate change? Where is the space to not only discuss but implement and report on progress in transitioning workforces from high- to low-carbon industries as part of climate change action? Is it not reasonable to propose an official reporting body on this issue at the UN level?

What will the UK government (and EU) do to assure us it will protect manufacturing industries during the necessary and inevitable transition towards a low-carbon economy? Can it be inferred from the pervading anti- trade union sentiment displayed by proposed anti- trade union law that as manufacturing continues to take a hit, workers will not be heard? On that note, what does rhetoric on ‘hardworking families’ even mean, are hardworking families somehow different from unionised workers, and how can a constructive understanding of workers’ challenges during the transition be properly developed if trade unions are shut out?

Some conclusions

The inclusion of the just transition in the UN climate treaty is vital to ensure nations are under an obligation not only to deliver what is essential for the environment, but also what is just for workers. Organisations such as the TUC count it as its main objective in its contribution towards the global fight against climate change. But the fight for the just transition cannot and will not stop in Paris this December – how we go from recognition in the treaty to its full and accountable implementation will be defining for trade unions, seeking to work in alliance with NGOs, progressive businesses and others  to fight climate change and ensure workers’ justice is delivered.