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Sean Sweeney

Leaping Backwards: Why is Energy Poverty Rising in Africa?

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, July 18, 2022

How can the world end energy poverty in the Global South and simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change? In 2021, 860 million people had no access to electricity. [1] Today, a third of all humanity lacks access to reliable power. Roughly 2.6 billion people heat their homes with polluting fuels and technologies, and using traditional stoves fueled by charcoal, coal, crop waste, dung, kerosene, and wood.2 The majority of families in the Global South are today able to turn on an electric light—and therefore have “access to electricity” for at least some hours in the day—but for many that is as far as it goes. For other basic needs, dirty and perhaps life-threatening energy continues to be the norm.

The urgency of providing energy to the great numbers of people in the Global South who lack it runs headlong into the necessity to divert climate disaster by reducing worldwide carbon emissions. It is this challenge that sits at he center of current debates on “sustainable development.” For some years, the standard answer from the climate policy world has been the following: the Global South is well positioned to “leapfrog” the phase of centralized energy and jump feet first into the transition to modern renewables, in the same way as mobile phones have proliferated in the developing world without first having to install traditional land-line infrastructure.3 Whereas large nuclear, coaland gas-fired power stations and hydroelectric dams take years to build, by comparison wind, solar, and battery technologies are small, easy to install, and, the argument goes, increasingly affordable. Rural communities without electricity can set up stand-alone “micro- grids,” so there is no need for traditional transmission and distribution grids which are expensive and inefficient. The Global South—which refers broadly to Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, and the developing countries in Asia—is blessed with so much sun and wind, there is no reason why energy poverty cannot be consigned to history relatively quickly.4

That is the good news. The bad news is that it is not happening, and there are few signs that it will.

Lesson from COP26: Protecting the climate requires anti-capitalist struggle

By W. T. Whitney Jr. - People's World, November 17, 2021

Dealing with climate change, the United Nations held its “Conference of the Parties”—COP26—in Glasgow Nov. 1-13. Unfortunately, nothing happened likely to slow down progression toward a catastrophic outcome. The nations failed to reach even a non-binding agreement on reducing fossil fuel emissions that disturb the climate. In the wake of the conference, the theme “system change not climate change” gains new relevance.

With smooth words obscuring a grim reality, a New York Times reporter described “a major agreement…calling on governments to return next year with stronger plans to curb their planet-warming emissions.” But then comes the admission: COP26 left “unresolved the crucial question of how much and how quickly each nation should cut its carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases over the next decade.”

The conference’s hesitant approach originates from past difficulties in reaching collective and binding agreements. In recognition of such, the 2015 COP meeting ruled that henceforth nations need only submit goals for voluntarily reducing emissions.

The delegates at COP26 decided to renew a previous agreement, still unfulfilled, to provide poor nations with an inadequate $100 billion annually to assist them in “transition…recovery…and adaptation.” Rich nations were urged to double their funding by 2025. COP26 did not address phasing out coal production.

Prior to the gathering, publicity centered on “Keep 1.5 (degrees C) alive.” The slogan expressed determination not to allow dangerous levels of atmospheric warming to exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as promised by the 2015 COP meeting. A conservative estimate foresees a 50% probability that, at the current rates of emissions, greenhouse house gases will spike to that level in just 15 years.

Climate scientists associated with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) periodically issue Assessment Reports. Part I of the current version, reporting on the “physical science basis of climate change,” predicts that “Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century.” Consensus exists that temperature elevations of the order of 3°C will lead to exponentially accelerating planetary changes that will be irreversible.

The dim prospect of nations and the international community mobilizing effectively has unsettled all quarters of society. References to short-sightedness, disregard for the truth, opportunism, and immorality are standard. What’s in order for the protection of humanity is a gigantic rising-up of the concerned and afflicted, but it’s not on the horizon.

In Celebration: Jack Mundey and the Green Bans

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 .

Defend and Transform: Mobilizing Workers for Climate Justice

By Jeremy Anderson - Global Labour Column, September 8, 2021

Mobilizing the global labour movement for climate justice and just transition is one of the defining challenges of our times. However, for workers in many sectors, it is unclear how climate issues will affect them specifically, and how they should respond. To date, much of the debate around just transition has focused on workers in industries that are facing job losses. These struggles are important. But in order to build a transformational vision that can mobilize workers in all sectors from the ground up, we need to understand a wider array of industry perspectives.

In this essay, I will discuss three issues. First, I will make the case for why climate justice and just transition are fundamental issues for the labour movement. Second, I will review debates around just transition, and particularly the contrast between worker focused and structural transformation approaches. I will argue that we need to build a bridge between the two perspectives, particularly in scenarios where it is important to engage workers about the future of their specific industries. Third, I will analyse three different scenarios from the transport sector that illustrate the various challenges that workers face: public transport as an example of industry expansion, aviation as an example of industry contraction, and shipping as an example of industry adaption.

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.

COP26: What Do Unions Want?

At TUED Global Forum, Scottish TUC Calls for Public Energy in preparation for COP26 in Glasgow: STUC General Secretary Roz Foyer delivers call for “A People’s Transition to Net Zero”

By Staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, August 16, 2021

On August 11, TUED convened its latest Global Forum, to take up the question: "COP26: What Do Unions Want?"

The Forum saw contributions from COP26 host national center, 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).

Nearly 150 participants joined the call, from 69 unions in 40 countries around the world.

The forum opened with remarks from Roz Foyer, General Secretary of the STUC. As the national trade union center for Scotland, with 40 affiliated unions as of 2020, the STUC represents over 540,000 trade unionists. Based in Glasgow, STUC will play host to trade unionists from around the world at COP26, in partnership with the UK’s TUC. (The recording of Foyer’s full contribution is available here.)

Foyer began by highlighting the STUC’s domestic campaigning priorities in Scotland in preparation for COP26, noting that these “chime in very closely with the TUED approach”:

We are first and foremost striving at the moment to build a genuine people’s recovery from the pandemic, and that people’s recovery that we are calling for is about calling for systematic changes to how our economy is organized, and really shifting the narrative around “private = good, public = bad.” And we’re also wanting to see our economy being rebuilt on a just transition. Everyone talks about a ‘just transition’ for workers, but we don’t believe that that just transition is being carried out by governments at this time. So we want to see a people’s recovery from the pandemic and a people’s transition to net zero.

The Covid crisis and the climate crisis have both brought into sharp focus the fact that the private sector and big business have proven themselves as being totally unable to meet the economic and social challenges that economies across the world now face. I think the writing was already on the wall when ordinary people through their governments were forced to bail out the banks during the financial crisis of 2010. And the latest incarnation of this are the various government rescue plans that we’ve seen across the world during covid, which, however necessary to save jobs in the short term, have really been largely focused on bailing out the bosses and the private sector.

So as we look forward to the vital need to decarbonize and achieve net zero through a Just Transition, it’s quite unthinkable that this could be achieved without massive government intervention, and without the efficiency and accountability that can only be delivered by direct, public sector delivery.

Turning to preparations for COP26, Foyer emphasized that the STUC’s approach is to use COP26 as a campaigning and leveraging opportunity, and as a means to build awareness and working class power, and make demands to government which are rooted in the real material needs of working people in Scotland. Towards that end, STUC has identified three campaign priorities which they will focus on in the months leading up to COP26.

There May Be No Choice but to Nationalize Oil and Gas—and Renewables, Too

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, August 2020

Once on the margin of the margins, calls for the nationalization of U.S. fossil fuel interests arebgrowing. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the basic argument was this: nationalization could expedite the phasing out fossil fuels in order to reach climate targets while ensuring a “just transition” for workers in coal, oil, and gas. Nationalization would also remove the toxic political influence of “Big Oil” and other large fossil fuel corporations. The legal architecture for nationalization exists—principally via “eminent domain”—and should be used.

But the case for nationalization has gotten stronger in recent months. The share values of large fossil fuel companies have tanked, so this is a good time for the federal government to buy. In April 2020, one source estimated that a 100 percent government buyout of the entire sector would cost $700 billion, and a 51 percent stake in each of the major companies would, of course, be considerably less. However, in May 2020 stock prices rose by a third or so based on expectations of a fairly rapid restoration of demand.

But fears of a fresh wave of Covid-19 outbreaks sent shares tumbling downward in June. Nationalizing oil and gas would be a radical step, but this alone would not be enough to deliver a comprehensive energy transition that can meet climate goals as well as the social objectives of the Green New Deal. Such a massive task will require full public ownership of refineries, investor-owned utilities (IOUs), and nuclear and renewable energy interests.

Progressives may feel it’s unnecessary to go that far; why not focus on the “bad guys” in fossil fuels and leave the “good guys” in wind, solar, and “clean tech” alone? But this is not an option. The neoliberal “energy for profit” model is facing a full-spectrum breakdown, and the energy revolution that’s required to reach climate targets poses a series of formidable economic and technical challenges that will require careful energy planning and be anchored in a “public goods” approach. If we want a low carbon energy system, full public ownership is absolutely essential.

(Working Paper #13) Transition in Trouble?: The Rise and Fall of "Community Energy" in Europe

By Sean Sweeney, John Treat and Irene HongPing Shen - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, March 2020

This TUED Working Paper explores the current crisis of local, community, and cooperative energy. Our focus is Europe where these types of initiatives have made the most progress but now find themselves facing an uncertain future. In this paper we will explain what happened, and why. The goals of this paper are twofold.

The first goal is to draw a clear line of demarcation between the bold claims being made in the name of local and community energy, “energy citizenship,” and similar concepts on the one hand, and the cur-rent reality on the other—a reality that largely confines local energy initiatives to the margins of energy systems. In the case of Europe, the distance between the claims and the reality is vast, and it is widening.

Local and community energy has attracted a lot of support and enthusiasm from activists, and it is not hard to understand why this is the case. Efforts to advance community energy are frequently carried out in the name of a commitment to social justice, advancing equality, and empowering ordinary people to take a more active role in the transition to a low carbon future. Additionally, the activists and organizations undertaking such initiatives nearly always identify with a “values-driven” mission and aim to rise above considerations of personal gain or private profit.

For a period, it seemed that such initiatives were emerging everywhere across Europe. The growth of renewable energy and the proliferation of citizen and community ownership seemed to be in-separable from each other. Spurred on by falling costs of wind and solar technologies, a radical transition in energy ownership—and a shift in control away from large energy companies to small producers and consumers—seemed not only possible, but perhaps even imminent.

But recent policy changes in Europe have placed community energy into a pattern of decline. The removal of subsidies, particularly the Feed-in Tariff, and other incentives has led to a dramatic slow-down in local energy initiatives and cooperatives. The number of households installing solar photovoltaic panels (solar PV) has slowed to a crawl as onshore wind projects have also declined. While offshore wind installations are increasing, the total level of investment and deployment of renew-able energy in Europe has fallen dramatically.

Read the report (PDF).

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