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Renewable Energy companies seen as barriers to a successful public energy transition

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 8, 2021

Recent issues of New Labor Forum include articles promoting the concept of energy democracy, and bringing an international perspective. In “Sustaining the Unsustainable: Why Renewable Energy Companies Are Not Climate Warriors” (New Labor Forum, August), author Sean Sweeney argues that renewable energy companies “are party to a “race to the bottom” capitalist dynamic that exploits workers – citing the example of alleged forced Uyghur labour in China-based solar companies, and the offshoring of manufacturing for the Scottish wind industry. He also argues that “large wind and solar interests’ “me first” behavior is propping up a policy architecture that is sucking in large amounts of public money to make their private operations profitable. They are sustaining a model of energy transition that has already shown itself to be incapable of meeting climate targets. In so doing, these companies have not just gone over to the political dark side, they helped design it.”

The theme of the Spring New Labor Forum was A Public Energy Response to the Climate Emergency , and includes these three articles: “Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility”; “Ireland’s Energy System: The Historical Case for Hope in Climate Action”; and Mexico’s Wall of Resistance: Why AMLO’s Fight for Energy Sovereignty Needs Our Support .

The author of Sustaining the Unsustainable is Sean Sweeney, who is Director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York, and is also the coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED). In August, TUED convened a Global Forum, “COP26: What Do Unions Want?” – with participation from 69 unions, including the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA), the UK’s Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and Public Services International (PSI). Presentations are summarized in TUED Bulletin 111, (Aug. 18), and are available on YouTube here .

Sustaining the Unsustainable: Why Renewable Energy Companies Are Not Climate Warriors

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, August 27, 2021

In the fight to address climate change, renewable energy companies are often assumed to be Jedi Knights. Valiantly struggling to save the planet, wind and solar interests are thought to be locked in mortal combat with large fossil fuel corporations that continue to mine, drill, and blast through the earth’s fragile ecosystems, dragging us all into a grim and sweaty dystopia.

In the United States and elsewhere, solar panels glitter on rooftops and in fields; turbines tower majestically over rural landscapes. The fact that, globally, the renewables sector continues to break records in terms of annual deployment levels is, for many, a source of considerable comfort. Acting like informational Xanax to ease widespread climate anxiety, news headlines reassure us that the costs of wind and solar power continue to fall, and therefore wind and solar is (or soon will be) “competitive” with energy from coal and gas. The transition to clean energy is, therefore, unstoppable.

By Any Means Necessary

Of course, wind and solar companies are not charities. They are, in a phrase, profit driven. They want to attract investment capital; they seek to build market share, and they all want to pay out dividends to shareholders. In this respect, renewable energy (and “clean tech”) companies are not fundamentally different from fossil fuel companies.

. . . [W]ind and solar companies are not charities. . . . In this respect, [they] are not fundamentally different from fossil fuel companies.

But so what? North-based environmental groups frequently point out that we have just a handful of years to start to make major reductions in emissions. Therefore, this is not a time, they insist, to split hairs or to make the perfect the enemy of the good. If electricity generation is the leading single source of CO2 pollution, then surely the more electrons generated by renewable sources of energy will mean fewer electrons being generated by fossil fuels. What more needs to be said?

But there are several reasons why, in their current role, renewable energy companies could be more part of the problem than they are part of the solution—which, if true, means a lot more has to be said. As we will see, they are beginning to squander their “social license” by being party to a “race to the bottom” dynamic that risks turning workers and many ordinary people against action on climate change. Equally serious, large wind and solar interests’ “me first” behavior is propping up a policy architecture that is sucking in large amounts of public money to make their private operations profitable.

They are sustaining a model of energy transition that has already shown itself to be incapable of meeting climate targets.[1] In so doing, these companies have not just gone over to the political dark side, they helped design it.

A Just Transition Now or Climate Disaster is Inevitable

Scottish Trades Union Congress calls for a national energy company, and “Climate Skills Scotland”

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, July 19, 2021

Green Jobs in Scotland is a recent report commissioned by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), written by economists at Transition Economics. In a highly-readable format, it sets out how Scotland can maximise green job creation, along with fair work with effective worker voice. It takes a sectoral approach, examining the changes needed, the labour market implications and job creation opportunities of those changes, and makes recommendations specific to the sector, for each of 1. Energy 2. Buildings 3. Transport 4. Manufacturing/Heavy Industry 5. Waste 6. Agriculture And Land-Use. As an example, the chapter on Energy is extensive and detailed, and includes recommendations to invest £2.5 billion – £4.5 billion (to 2035) in ports and manufacturing to supply large scale offshore renewables and decommissioning, 2. to establish a Scottish National Energy Company to build 35GW of renewables by 2050, as well as run energy networks and coordinate upgrades; and 3. Encourage local content hiring, with a target to phase in 90% lifetime local content for the National Energy Company. (Note that an auction is currently underway for rights to North Sea offshore development, as described by the BBC here).

Overall, the report concludes that smart policies and large-scale public investment will be required, and recommends “the creation of a new public body – Climate Skills Scotland – to play a co-ordinating and pro-active role to work with existing providers ….. As many of the occupations in the energy, construction, and manufacturing industries are disproportionately male-dominated, Climate Skills Scotland and other public bodies should also work with training providers and employers to make sure climate jobs and training programmes follow recruitment best practice, and prioritise promotion and incentives to historically marginalised groups, including women, BAME people, and disabled people.”

It’s time to nationalize Shell. Private oil companies are no longer fit for purpose

By Johanna Bozuwa and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò - The Guardian, June 7, 2021

It has been a bad month for big oil. A Dutch court just ruled that Shell must cut its carbon pollution by 45% by 2030. The court’s decision has rightly been celebrated: it is a much more stringent requirement than the ineffective regulations imposed to date. Meanwhile, shareholders are waging rebellions at various oil giants – ExxonMobil shareholders won two seats on the board to pressure the oil company towards a greener strategy, and shareholders at Chevron and ConocoPhillips passed nonbinding resolutions pressuring the companies to disclose their lobbying efforts and emissions amounts.

Private oil and gas companies are finally up against the wall. Shell has promised to appeal the Dutch court decision, but oil prices went negative last year and put companies on bankruptcy notice, and last week the International Energy Agency said to stop digging. Politicians have floated the idea of oil and gas magnates becoming “carbon management companies” as a way for those companies to have a “future in a low-carbon world” while retaining control over oil, gas, and profit in a planet increasingly aware of and hostile to their emissions-generating activity.

But as far as the Dutch court’s ruling or the new bout of shareholder activism goes, neither go far enough. Nor should Shell be turned into a “carbon management company”. Like all private oil companies, Shell should not exist.

Oil and gas companies are a political structure: they possess private, authoritarian dominion over the pace and volume of oil and gas production, and thus of important determinants of global emissions. These emissions and their consequences do not respect any sort of public/private distinction, nor borders, nor the rights to clean air or clean water. For decades, private oil companies have intentionally and recklessly obscured their role in the destruction of countless local environments as well as their role in the global climate crisis.

Private oil companies have propped up an ever-failing business on a complex system of national and international government subsidies, all of which function to privatize the benefits of oil and gas production while socializing its financial, environmental, and social costs – making the public pay in tax dollars, human rights abuses, and an unlivable climate. Now that these companies fear being left behind by a changing political context, their public relations strategy is to insist to a public increasingly aware of the dire need to stop carbon emissions that there is still a place for private oil companies in a “green” world.

There is a role for the workers, their skills and knowledge, and the equipment and infrastructure of oil and gas companies. But there is no longer a role for companies or profit-seeking as an organizing principle of this aspect of human society – not if we want to continue to have human society...

Read the rest here.

Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility

By Dominic Brown - New Labor Forum, May 2021

Despite 2020’s record fall in carbon dioxide emissions—largely due to extensive and repeated “lockdowns” of cities, plus dramatic decreases in air travel and the use of motor vehicles[1]—the world is far from making the changes necessary to avert climate catastrophe. The fact that the shutdowns over periods of last year had a marginal effect in the fight against climate catastrophe at best illustrates the enormity of the task that lies ahead. According to a 2019 report from the World Meteorological Organization, “time is fast running out,”[2] while Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), observes “The pandemic and its aftermath can suppress emissions, but low economic growth is not a low emissions strategy. Only an acceleration in structural changes to the way the world produces and consumes energy can break the emissions trend for good.”[3]

In addition to ravaging health systems, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated food and housing insecurity, deepened unemployment, and put a spotlight on existing inequalities. In South Africa, growing awareness of these problems has brought renewed hope in the possibility of a response to the pandemic crisis that could aim for a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy. Like other countries, South Africa is in desperate need of an energy transition. The South African economy remains disproportionately energy intensive[4] (although it is becoming less so), per capita emissions remain high,[5] and the country is the fourteenth largest contributor to global carbon emissions.[6] This energy and emissions profile reflects the historical and continuing dominance of the country’s “minerals-energy complex” (“MEC”)[7] which is supported by cheap electricity generated mostly from low-quality coal, while higher quality coal is exported.

Beyond its detrimental ecological impacts, South Africa’s MEC is deeply intertwined with the legacy of cheap Black labor in the mines and the formation of racialized capitalism. This structure of South Africa’s economy underpins the country’s massive inequality, serious health impacts for many thousands of people in mining affected communities, and the country’s disproportionate contribution to global emissions. This is why the shift to renewable energy (RE) in South Africa must include measures to ensure a just transition that leaves no worker or community behind while working to reverse the legacy of mass unemployment and deep socioeconomic inequalities.

The Political Economy of South Africa’s Energy Crisis

Since coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s government has promised “electricity for all” as a critical component in undoing the gross disparities of apartheid. This commitment has produced a dramatic rise in grid connections, such that more than 80 percent of households were connected to the grid by 2015, up from only 30 percent in 1994. Harder to shift have been the persistent levels of poverty and inequality. South Africa’s “Gini coefficient”— a global measure of inequality—today places the country as the world’s second most unequal, after neighboring Lesotho. With current unemployment at over 40 percent, many households cannot afford electricity, even when they are connected to the grid. The introduction of a provision for free basic electricity in 2004 was a step in the right direction, but at just 50 kWh per month for poor households that is insufficient to meet even basic requirements.

Since coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s government has promised “electricity for all” as a critical component in undoing the gross disparities of Apartheid.

Making matters worse, South Africa’s stateowned power utility, Eskom—which generates over 90 percent of energy consumed in the country—is in deep crisis. Eskom’s crisis has multiple dimensions and various causes, both internal and external, including (1) the 1980s era commercialization of Eskom; (2) postapartheid commitments to provide electricity to the majority of the country previously excluded, under the full cost recovery (FCR) model where the excluded majority are unable to afford rising electricity prices; (3) underinvestment in the utility’s infrastructure, particularly in building new capacity to meet increased demand; (4) conversion of the utility in 2002 to a public corporation, forcing it to pay taxes as well as dividends for the first time since its establishment almost a century earlier; (5) Eskom’s rising debt, dominated by foreign currency borrowed against the weak rand (R); (6) expensive coal contracts with windfall profits, signed in the name of promoting Black ownership in the coal industry; and (7) dramatic increases in the price of low-quality coal, upon which Eskom depends to generate electricity.[8]

Ireland’s Energy System: The Historical Case for Hope in Climate Action

By Sinéad Mercier - New Labor Forum, May 17, 2021

For thirty years, governments have been promising climate action. They seem incapable of undertaking the necessary major shifts in their energy systems required by the 2015 Paris Agreement. They also seem incapable of delivering on climate targets in a manner that both “leaves no one behind” and “reaches the furthest behind first,” as required by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, also agreed in 2015. In Ireland, we fall continually to the bottom of the rankings in climate action, with the current Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Green Party coalition government failing to achieve a mere 16 percent target of renewable energy by 2020.[1]

There are lessons to be learned from the past. One hundred years ago, the two civil war parties—Fine Gael (then Cumann na nGaedheal) and Fianna Fáil—were united in their commitment to a state-owned energy system with an objective of universal access, public good, and public value. Irish state electricity generation started out in 1929 as being from almost 100 percent renewable sources.[2] The historical development of Ireland’s own energy system can be a model for a successful, fast paced national delivery program for a just transition and energy democracy. Ireland has previously made sweeping changes to the energy system, in a time of far greater difficulty, fewer resources, and almost intractable political fragility. The example is the establishment of the country’s—and the world’s—first state-owned national energy company, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), and its roll-out of universal access to affordable electricity through the Rural Electrification Scheme (RES).

Administering Dreams

The Ireland of the 1920s presented unlikely circumstances for ambitious national projects of any kind. After three years of guerrilla warfare against the British Crown forces, a form of independence had been achieved by 1922. The young Irish Free State government of freedom fighters and idealists was to set out on its own with little source of economic development beyond the sale of cattle to Britain and with much of its populace in extreme poverty. In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, giving independence to twenty six counties and leaving the six counties in the north east of Ireland under British rule. The signing of the Treaty caused a split in the founding Sinn Féin party between those opposing and supporting the Treaty. This sparked a bitter civil war from June 1922 to May 1923 that has marked Irish politics for a century. The pro-Treaty element formed Cumann na nGaedheal, today the centerright (Christian Democrat) party Fine Gael. A group of republicans led by Éamon de Valera broke away from Sinn Féin in 1926 and formed Fianna Fáil,[3] in protest at the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, which all members of Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) were obliged to take. The Cumann na nGaedheal party was in office from 1922 to 1932. Laissez-faire economic and commercial orthodoxies of the 1920s, inherited from the British administration, and a reinstated civil service were largely the global order of the day.

One hundred years ago, the two civil war parties . . . were united in their commitment to a state-owned energy system with an objective of universal access, public good, and public value.

However, the young state took on a number of major interventions in the economy. Most notable were the Land Commission and the creation of Ireland’s state energy company, the ESB, and its primary power source, the Ardnacrusha Hydroelectric Power Station on the Shannon River—also known as the “Shannon Scheme.”[4] To deliver Ardnacrusha’s energy to the public, in 1927 the government established its first Irish state company, the ESB, through the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1927. This was to be the first national electricity service in the world, with full responsibility for the generation, transmission, distribution, and marketing o electricity.[5] From its beginnings, the aim of the ESB was not-for-profit, universal, and affordable access to electricity; “strong on technical expertise, with set targets and with the muscle, dynamism and freedom to achieve these targets.”[6] Attempts had been made to attract foreign investors, particularly from the United States, but “most of the big corporations objected to the government’s stipulation that unprofitable rural lines might have to be built without any guaranteed government subsidy.”[7] The Irish electricity industry had been in existence for forty years, yet the vast majority of the population had been left in darkness and drudgery. As a result of these failings, the fledgling Department of Industry and Commerce concluded that confining the ESB to mere distribution of the energy from the Shannon Scheme was likely to place the whole enterprise in “immediate jeopardy.”[8] The government therefore nationalized what was a piecemeal mess of three hundred expensive, “badly run,” inefficient private and local authority undertakings.[9]

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy: Global Forum on Mexico

By staff - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, March 25, 2021

Speakers:

  • Heberto Barrios Castillo, Undersecretary, Mexican Energy Ministry- SENER
  • Martín Esparza, General Secretary, Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas- SME
  • Silvia Ramos Luna, Secretary General, Unión Nacional de Técnicos y Profesionistas Petroleros - UNTyPP
  • Fernando Lopes, trade union consultant in Brazil and former Assistant Secretary General of IndustriALL
  • Ozzi Warwick, Chief Education and Research Officer, Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU), Trinidad and Tobago

On Green Socialism and Working Class Politics

By Staff - Pittsburgh Green Left, February 8, 2021

Green Socialism is inspired partly by traditional worker-oriented socialist views, but attempts to transcend class struggle by organizing popular struggle for true democracy, ecology, and freedom.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, ecological and social crisis exist simultaneously in multiple forms within the US and across the world. Global neoliberal capitalism has captured the world’s economic and political structures, and we feel the growing pressures of poverty and climate change under the threat of a pervasive police state.

These deteriorating conditions imply that historical socialist revolutionary movements have largely failed to produce the widespread change they described in their visions. There’s an increasing feeling, particularly by the youth, that the “old ways” are insufficient to confront 21st century capitalism and win — particularly with the climate change clock running out — and that a new form of social movement and politics is necessary to directly confront capitalism and broader ecological and social issues.

I believe the new model for the 21st century must be Green Politics, or what I will call “Green Socialism” here to distinguish from other tendencies that lay claim to the more broad term “eco-socialism”. Green Politics is today largely associated with the Green Party, however anyone can practice Green Politics in or outside of the Green Party.

A simplistic description of Green Politics might be to list the 4 pillars — grassroots democracy, peace, social justice, and ecological wisdom — and the 10 Key Values of the movement, but to create a deeper discussion of what Green Politics and Green Socialism really means, a good place to start might be to address some complaints and criticisms of the Green Party and Green Socialism that you have no doubt already heard, particularly from other socialists.

Left Voice for example ran an opinion piece by author Ezra Brain making “a socialist case against” the Green Party and Howie Hawkins, the party’s 2020 presidential candidate, which echoes a number of common leftist complaints against Green Politics. 

However these complaints often ring hollow, either as grave misunderstandings of the Green platform that betray a lack of deeper research and knowledge about the subject — ironically often appropriating bourgeois neoliberal talking points against Green Politics — or as legitimate complaints that have a feel of “stones thrown from glass houses” as those same complaints often apply to other socialist and leftist organizations in the US and simply illustrate the challenge of organizing against global neoliberal capitalism in the 21st century.

A Rapid and Just Transition of Aviation: Shifting towards climate-just mobility

By staff - Stay Grounded, February 2021

Covid-19 has grounded air traffic. The aviation industry itself expects to be operating at a lower capacity over the next few years. This Paper discusses how long-term security for workers and affected communities can be guaranteed, without returning to business as before. 

With the looming climate breakdown, automation, digitalisation and likely climate induced pandemics, we need to be realistic: aviation and tourism will change – and they will do so either by design or by disaster. They will transition either with or without taking into account workers’ interests.

This Discussion Paper, published by the Stay Grounded Network and the UK Trade Union PCS in February 2021, is a result of a collective writing process by people active in the climate justice movement, workers in the aviation sector, trade unionists, indigenous communities and academics from around the world. It aims to spark debates and encourage concrete transition plans by states, workers and companies.

Read the text (PDFs: EN | DA | DE | ES | FR | PT ).

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