From the TUC

How legal challenges and green workplaces can tackle climate change

27 Nov 2015, by Guest in Environment

Canada is tapping the expertise of UK unions in a project that will put unions at the heart of efforts to green workplaces. Earlier this month, I was invited to spend a weekend in Toronto to share my UK experiences with a Canadian green workplace project.

The project aims to develop union-based strategies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the workplace. It involves over 50 Canadian unions, environmental groups and researchers, as well as British, American and Australian union and environmental groups. The project has been awarded CAN$2.5 million (£1.25 million) to get the job done. That’s a pretty envious state of affairs.

Just prior to our gathering, and for the first time in nearly 60 years, a Canadian premier had met with leaders of the Canadian Labour Congress. Justin Trudeau told unions that climate change is one of his top priorities, saying he saw them as part of the solution. It may still be the honeymoon period, but the spirits of everyone involved with the project are running high.

I also took part in an international public panel. It was heartening to see how enthusiastically the work of British environmental reps on green workplace projects was received. It brought home how ahead of the curve British unions are on greening the workplace. It’s vital that, despite facing colossal political challenges such as the Trade Union Bill and austerity, somehow we don’t let this work slip. After all, it underpins our call in Paris for a Just Transition.

The keynote speaker on the panel was Roger Cox, a Dutch attorney calling for legal intervention to save us from catastrophic climate change. His 2011 book – Revolution Justified – provided the impetus for a climate case where he represented the Urgenda Foundation and 900 Dutch citizens. In June this year, the case concluded with a court ordering the Dutch government to reduce its CO2 emissions by at least 25% by 2020 relative to 1990 levels.

The ruling is the first successful climate change case in the world. It is also the first time a court has determined the minimum target for emissions reduction for a developed country based on a universally defined and accepted socially responsible duty of care and regardless of arguments that solving the global climate problem can’t depend on the efforts of only one country.

In the case, Urgenda argued that the state would be acting unlawfully if it failed to achieve a 40%, or 25% minimum, reduction in GHG emissions. The court chose the 25% target because this scale of cut was agreed at the 1992 UN Climate Convention (UNCC) as necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. Urgenda also asked the court to compel the state to act in accordance with its obligations and duties under the European Convention on Human Rights and to order the state by a mandatory injunction to take the measures needed to achieve the necessary reduction in emissions.

In a nutshell, Urgenda argued that violating an average increase of over 2oC relative to pre-industrial average global temperatures contributed to a breach of a duty of care.

The court concluded that: the state had a duty to avert dangerous climate change given the high risks; that a reduction of 25% by 2020 is not disproportionate and is feasible; and that any reductions by the Netherlands alone can’t be said to have a minor effect globally.

So why is this Dutch case significant?                                                    

Crucially, Cox has said that: “As long as the claimant in a climate case bases its argumentation on the IPCC findings, there is little to nothing a national government can do from a legal perspective to contest these findings.”

To conclude, Cox pointed out that Nelson Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” But once it’s done, it gets easier to do it again. And now we have a precedent. We even have 13 year olds taking their state government to court for failure to protect them from climate change in North Carolina and Washington State.

Cox also sees unions and civil society as instrumental in the fight against climate change. He argued that occupational health and safety laws can be used to enforce emission reductions and recognised the contribution unions make in the workplace in the fight against climate change. And as for our Canadian comrades, something tells me that they will soon be catching up with UK unions. Let’s hope so.