Spurred by the climate crisis, momentum is building rapidly to decarbonise the world economy – sooner rather than later.
For global citizens alarmed by the prospect of soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, food shortages, devastating storms and an increasingly uninhabitable world, the move towards a cleaner and less carbon-intensive economy is moving far too slowly – tortoises move faster.
Yet, when the green energy juggernaut finally starts to roll, the switchover will spell fundamental changes to the lifestyles and careers of large swathes of humanity – and a very real risk that millions of workers will fall under its wheels unless governments, employers and workers develop careful plans for what is being described as a “Just Transition”.
As far back as 1896, scientists such as the Swedish Nobel Prize winner Svante Arrhenius have been warning about the dangers of human-induced climate change from growing industrial emissions. But it was not until 1995 that world environment ministers finally met in the capital city of Germany to start negotiating mandatory reductions to global greenhouse gas emissions.
That initial meeting in Berlin was known as the First Conference of the Parties (COP 1) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, the talking will continue at COP 26 in Scotland later this year.
What emerges from the latest climate talks is still unclear. But the rumbling sounds of change are everywhere.
A just transition
Eskom confirmed in June that it is talking to banks and lending agencies to fund a major switchover to “cleaner energy” options and to close several coal-fired power plants early.
A Dutch court also delivered a landmark ruling, ordering the Shell fossil fuel corporation to cut its emissions by almost half before 2030 to align with the Paris Agreement on climate.
The ground also shook in May, when the International Energy Association (IEA) published the Net-Zero by 2050 Roadmap, setting out what needs to be done to decarbonise the global economy in just three decades.
Crucially, it recommends an immediate end to all investment in new fossil fuel supply projects, an end to the sale of all new petrol and diesel-powered cars by 2035 and the “immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies” such as solar and wind power.
Fatih Birol, the energy association’s head, told The Guardian: “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.”
The ambitious targets in the IEA Roadmap call for a massive and rapid expansion of green energy. “For solar PV, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day.”
Birol insisted that the clean energy transition should be “for and about people” and that it would also create millions of new jobs.
But there are several catches to this statement, as noted by former French labour minister Muriel Pénicaud.
“The good news is that the transition will create more jobs than it replaces – though not necessarily in the same place or for the same people,” she told the recent IEA webinar on “The voice of labour in our inclusive energy future”.
International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow (representing nearly 200 million workers in 163 countries) cautioned that a tough road lies ahead.
“It is not an easy process to exit from coal or from fossil fuels to clean energy … We need to know that communities will be supported, not abandoned as we have seen in the past. Every country and every industry must ensure that the Just Transition is just that, and to get there will require trust and transparency. People must be able to see themselves as part of a secure future.”
The message from North American union leader Brad Markell was more blunt: “Workers are fearful.”
Markell, executive director of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations representing more than 12 million active and retired workers in the United States, suggests that the move towards a green global economy will only gain traction when labour and other rights organisations are able to influence energy policy decisions.
“There has been a 40-year-long assault on workers. Today we have more precarious work than we have ever had … [but] in the fossil fuel industry, many workers know they have the best jobs they have ever had.”
When the Green New Deal was presented to Congress during the Donald Trump era three years ago, there was “a lot of resistance from labour”, he said, whereas under the new Joe Biden administration this resistance had softened as unionised workers had been given a seat at the table.
“That’s the difference: change, and acceptance of change, comes much more easily when unions have a seat.”
All the same, workers in the US fossil fuel industry are worried about losing their jobs because of the Green New Deal, notes Derek Brower, US energy editor of the Financial Times.
In areas such as the Powder River Valley, coal remains the dominant source of income for many workers. Telling such communities that they should seek new jobs in wind power ignores their history and identity as coal miners, welders or pipe-fitters.
Could offshore oil and gas workers find new, similar jobs in the offshore wind industry?
“It’s complicated – but not impossible,” suggests Dave Moxham, deputy general secretary of the Scotland Trades Union Congress, who notes that both industries share many similar work skills, ports and supply chains.
Samantha Smith, director of the International Trade Union Confederation’s Just Transition Centre, suggests that large numbers of the global workforce are already unemployed and unhappy because of the Covid-19 recession and will only be convinced about the job benefits of the green transition “once stuff starts happening on the ground and employers pitch up for discussion”.
In oil-rich nations, such as Norway, fossil fuel workers are also anxious to ensure that their families are not left without support while the primary breadwinners are trained for new work in green energy.
“They cannot be left without income or support while they are doing this training,” Anne-Beth Skrede of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions told the IEA webinar.
Other nations, like Panama, are taking a strongly proactive position. “We are not waiting for the future to happen. We are building our own future,” says Panamanian energy department secretary Jorge Rivera Staff, noting that the country is opening new schools and training academies to train women how to assemble solar panels and to reskill other workers to build electric vehicles.
Affordable clean energy for all
Back in South Africa, Eskom has signalled plans to start winding down its decades-old reliance on cheap coal-powered energy – though recent pronouncements by Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe suggest that the country is unlikely to switch directly from coal to renewable energy.
Mantashe told a recent energy webinar that “gas will be a major factor in the transition”, along with further development of nuclear power. Just because the 9 600MW Russian nuclear power plant proposal Jacob Zuma launched has collapsed, doesn’t mean nuclear expansion is off the table.
Matthew Parks, parliamentary coordinator of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, believes that gas is likely to become part of the new energy mix when several coal-fired power stations are shut down over the next decade.
The transition will also create major job opportunities in the global wind and solar power manufacturing industry. “We need to grab every opportunity to create manufacturing jobs in South Africa rather than leaving it up to countries like China or India to benefit … If South Africa was able to build nuclear bombs, there is no reason why we can’t also manufacture wind turbines and advanced solar power technology,” says Parks.
The labour federation is adamant that the transition cannot entail “any retrenchments” among the utility’s workforce of around 44 000, so it is essential to locate new green energy manufacturing projects in regions such as Mpumalanga which are currently heavily dependent on coal-based jobs.
The climate action group 350Africa.org is advocating for a transition that does not simply replace one form of energy with another. “Swapping out fossil fuels for renewable energy without aiming to transform the underlying structures to centre justice or prioritise worker and community protection is an approach that involves a technocratic and managerial transition from one source of energy,” it says.
In a position statement, 350Africa.org says it is also concerned that the current Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme has created tensions between those who prefer renewable energy even if it is privatised and those who seek a more public and socially owned renewable energy sector.
“The private sector’s profit motive also means it may often overlook poorer communities and not deliver on energy access and other social goals. These limitations led to significant resistance to the programme, particularly as it was viewed to be potentially laying the ground for widespread privatisation of the energy sector.
“It is for this reason that we are pushing forward the Green New Eskom campaign, which demands a rapid and just transition to a more socially owned, renewable-energy-powered economy, providing clean, safe and affordable energy for all, with no worker and community left behind in the transition.”
Nevertheless, it suggests that Eskom should be moving at a much faster pace from coal and learning from examples set by other state-owned utilities, such as Denmark’s Orsted energy group.
“Similar to Eskom now, back in 2006 Orsted was over 80% reliant on fossil fuels for energy. However, thanks to visionary leadership, already over 90% of their energy generation was renewable energy [by 2019]. They’re aiming for 99% [renewable] by 2025.”