Just Transition not yet a priority at Copenhagen

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 difficult.

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.