Participation by trade unions in international climate negotiations has
grown from very little (around 13 people at Kyoto in 1997) to over 300 people
in Copenhagen for COP15 (the fifteenth Conference of the Parties to the UN
Framework Convention on Climate Change) – still very small relative to
environmental and business NGOs.
Even with over 300 delegates from unions present, it’s hard to make a
difference among some 25,000 NGOs – covering the spectrum from big business to
international green groups and even Girl Guide Associations. There’s an
argument that the COP process has grown too unwieldy to achieve the necessary
rate of progress in making and implementing decisions on climate change. UN
forums are themselves unwieldy, with over 190 nations present, and a reliance
on consensus to make decisions. Throw in thousands of interest groups and NGOs
using every trick in the book to affect the process, and progress is very, very
Trade unions argue that making the change to a low carbon society and
economy is going to require huge transformations in which working people will
be both the main mechanism for change and among the most affected by the
change. If addressing climate change is seen simply as the application of
technologies and of economic tools (e.g. taxes and emissions charges) it will
fail, because it won’t mobilise workers and communities to embrace and
implement the massive changes required.
The trade unions present in Copenhagen vary widely in their understanding
of the issues and the membership they represent. Heavy industry unions want to
see their industries cleaned up, not shut down or relocated to countries
without emissions reduction targets. White collar unions see more upside in new
technologies and skills, but also see that there will be major social upheaval
with rising energy and transport costs.
The CFMEU is keen to see progress on carbon capture and storage (CCS), as
the necessary suite of technologies to clean up not only coal use, but also
gas-fired power generation, iron and steel, cement making, and other heavy
industries such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals, pulp and paper and food
processing. All create large amounts of carbon dioxide. We are very concerned
that big business and institutional investors are not willing to invest in CCS
(or most renewables for that matter) unless governments guarantee their
profits. When things get very risky, business and investors expect the public
sector to shoulder the burden.
All unions agree on the need for a new climate treaty to include a ‘Just
Transition’ – basing the restructuring that will occur on recognition of the
fact that it is fundamentally a social process, in which the costs and benefits
of change need to be shared and borne equitably. It may seem a simple and fair
idea, but it has rarely happened in the past – the cost of most restructuring
has been borne disproportionately by particular workforces and communities.
For heavy industry unions, Just Transition is about transforming our
industries into low emission industries, not shutting them down.
Just Transition has been proposed in the negotiating texts in Copenhagen.
But it is by no means certain that most developed or developing nations will
support it. Equity and social justice seem to be regarded as a distraction by
many nations and NGOs.
At Copenhagen everything is up for grabs, including our common future.