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Energy transition or energy expansion?

By Sean Sweeney, John Treat, and Daniel Chavez - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and Trans National Institute, October 22, 2021

From politicians to corporate executives, media commentators to environmental campaigners, narratives evoking the “unstoppable” progress of a global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy have grown increasingly commonplace.

However, in reality, the global shifts in energy production, energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions we urgently need are not happening:

  • In 2019, over 80% of global primary energy demand came from fossil fuels, with global greenhouse gas emissions at record levels.
  • In 2020, wind and solar accounted for just 10% of global electricity generated.
  • Despite stories of its decline, coal-fired power generation continues to rise globally. In 2020, global efforts to decommission coal power plants were offset by the new coal plants commissioned in China alone, resulting in an overall increase in the global coal fleet of 12.5 GW.

Recently, some have argued that the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent contraction in economic activity signal a turning point. Indeed, global energy demand fell by nearly 4% in 2020, while global energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 5.8% — the sharpest annual decline since the second world war.

Despite these short-term shifts, the pandemic has failed to result in any significant long-term changes for the energy sector or associated emissions:

  • Global energy-related CO2 emissions are projected to grow by 4.8% in 2021, the second highest annual rise on record.
  • Demand for all fossil fuels is set to rise in 2021.6 A 4.6% increase in global energy demand is forecast for 2021, leaving demand 0.5% higher than 2019 levels.
  • By the end of 2020 electricity demand had already returned to a level higher than in December 2019, with global emissions from electricity higher than in 2015.
  • By the end of 2020, global coal demand was 3.5% higher than in the same period in 2019. A 4.5% rise in coal demand is forecast for 2021, with coal demand increasing 60% more than all renewables growth combined and undoing 80% of the 2020 decline.
  • Oil demand is forecast to rebound by 6% in 2021, the steepest rise since 1976. By 2026, global oil consumption is projected to reach 104.1 million barrels per day (mb/d), an increase of 4.4 mb/d from 2019 levels.

As such, an energy transition with the depth and speed necessary for meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement shows no sign of materializing. Indeed, most of the world’s major economies are not on track to reach their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on emissions reductions.

These facts point to a clear conclusion: the dominant, neoliberal climate policy paradigm, which deploys a “sticks and carrots” approach that attempts to disincentivize fossil fuels through carbon pricing, while promoting low-carbon investment through subsidies and preferential contractual arrangements has been completely ineffective. This policy paradigm positions governments as guardians and guarantors of the profitability of private actors, thus preventing them from addressing social or environmental challenges head-on.

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Illinois sets U.S. standard for equity and labour standards in new Climate and Equitable Jobs Act

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, October 6, 2021

The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act  (SB2408) is a 900-page bill signed into law by the Governor of Illinois in September 2021. It is summarized by Natural Resources Defence in a blog titled “Illinois Passes Nation-Leading, Equitable Climate Bill”, by David Roberts in his new blog, Volts, and by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition press release

Why does David Roberts call it “ one of the most environmentally ambitious, worker-friendly, justice-focused energy bills of any state in the country”? Some highlights: the CEJA requires Illinois to achieve a 100% zero-emissions power sector by 2045 (including their coal power plant), while encouraging electrification of transportation and buildings, and reforms to the utility rate structure. It increases the existing Solar for All funding (by 5 times) to help low-income families to switch to solar energy, creates a Green Bank to finance clean energy projects. For workers, the Act requires that all utility-scale renewable energy projects must use project-labor agreements, and all non-residential clean-energy projects must pay prevailing wages. Diversity hiring reports will be required to prove that projects have recruited qualified BIPOC candidates and apprentices. The Act also provides funds for 13 Clean Jobs Workforce Network Hubs across the state, to deliver workforce-development programs to low-income and underserved populations. According to David Roberts, “The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the Illinois Department of Employment Security will work together to develop a “displaced worker bill of rights,” with $40 million a year to go toward transition assistance for areas dependent on fossil fuel production or generation.”

The CEJA is a model not only for what it contains, but also how it was achieved. Roberts calls it “a model for how diverse stakeholders can reach consensus” and describes the years-long process in detail: “The state’s labor community was sensitive to the fact that it had largely been left out of the 2016 bill; the legislation contained no labor standards, and recent years have seen Illinois renewable energy projects importing cheaper out-of-state workforces. Labor didn’t want to get left behind in the state’s energy transition, so it organized a coalition of groups under the banner Climate Jobs Illinois and set about playing an active role in negotiations. Environmental and climate-justice groups organized as the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. All the groups introduced energy bills of their own. And then they spent years banging their heads together. A special shout-out goes to the environmental-justice community in Illinois, which used three years of relentless grassroots organizing to build an incredible political force, without which the bill couldn’t have passed and wouldn’t have been as equity-focused.” The result, according to Roberts, “As far as I know, this gives Illinois the most stringent labor and equity requirements of any state clean energy program. Similar policies tying renewable energy projects to labor standards have passed in Connecticut, New York, and Washington, but no other state’s energy policy has as comprehensive a package of labor, diversity, and equity standards.”

How Green is Blue Hydrogen?: Study Finds Hydrogen Produced with CCS Produces High Emissions

Facing Fossil Fuels’ Future: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers in Canada’s Energy and Labour Transitions

By Teika Newton and Jamie Kirkpatrick - Climate Action Network and BlueGreen Canada, September 2021

Canada has a climate plan but it does not lay out a plan for the future of oil and gas extraction that aligns with the goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C, leaving workers and communities with an uncertain future. The Canada Energy Regulator warns that the future of oil sands extraction, which makes up 62 percent of Canada’s oil output, is uncertain due to the projected drop in the future oil demand as the global pace of decarbonization increases.

Meanwhile, a study backed by the UN Environment Programme further states that global oil and gas output would have to decline by over one third by 2030 and over one half by 2040 to achieve the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C. In early 2021, the International Energy Agency, one of the world’s foremost authorities on global energy forecasting, published a landmark report, Net Zero by 2050, in which the agency declared that oil and gas output should be constrained to existing operations in order to meet the 1.5°C temperature goals articulated in the Paris Agreement. Constraining Canadian oil and gas output to existing fields approximates a similar rate of phaseout to that proposed by the UNEP-backed report.

he Canadian oil and gas industry, including upstream activities, pipelines, and services, provides approximately 405,000 jobs - 167,000 direct jobs and 238,000 jobs across supply chains. In response to oil price crises, industry’s solution to protect profits has historically been to slash jobs while maintaining output. As a result the number of jobs per barrel of output has already fallen by 20% since 2000.

While oil and gas jobs have significantly better compensation and training provisions than most sectors in the economy, these jobs are also somewhat more precarious and have higher health and safety risks. Union density is higher but is also falling at a more rapid rate than in oth-er industries.8 Finally, automation is projected to threaten between 33%-53% of Canadian oil and gas jobs by 2040.

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Our Existence is Our Resistance: Mining and Resistance on the Island of Ireland

By Lydia Sullivan - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

This analysis of geological and permitting data shows that a staggering 27% of the Republic of Ireland and 25% of Northern Ireland are now under concession for mining.

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

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A Green Shift? Mining and Resistance in Fennoscandia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Sápmi

Mirko Nikolic, Editor, et. al. - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish authorities have granted concessions for tens of thousands of hectares of land, with mining pressure increasing particularly dramatically in Sápmi – the home territory of the Indigenous Sámi Peoples. 

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

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.

Relief Programs for Displaced Oil and Gas Workers: Elements of an Equitable Transition for California’s Fossil Fuel Workers

By Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty, Caitlin Kline and Gregor Semieniuk - Political Economy Research Institute, August 2021

California’s oil and gas jobs currently offer significant compensation and benefits, providing workers in these jobs with security for themselves and their families. As California moves to meet its existing climate commitments—to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and to reach net zero emissions by 2045—the oil and gas industries will contract, and it is critical to invest in a strong, ongoing relief program to take care of displaced workers, their families and their communities.

An excerpt and fact sheet from A Program For Economic Recovery And Clean Energy Transition In California, by Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty, Caitlin Kline and Gregor Semieniuk.

Read the text (PDF).

Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future: Distinguishing Fossil Fuel Industry Spin from Zero-Emission Solutions

By Sasan Saadat and Sara Gersen - Earth Justice, August 2021

To chart a course toward a safer climate and more habitable planet, we must rapidly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases across our society. The biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is the burning of fossil fuels. Consequently, the clearest path to reducing emissions is to switch from fossil fuels to renewable, zero-emission energy in our transportation, buildings, and power generation (sectors that are collectively responsible for about 75% of United States’ greenhouse gas emissions). This transition would make significant strides in eliminating the devastating public health impacts of pollution throughout the life cycle of fossil fuels—pollution that is most severely concentrated in Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities. A just transition will also require careful policy design and meaningful engagement from frontline communities. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electrification are zero-emission solutions that eliminate both greenhouse gases and health-harming air pollution. To meet the scale and urgency of the climate crisis will require deployment of renewable resources on an unprecedented scale— ultimately achieving 100% clean power generation—and a complete transition to efficient, electric models for things like household appliances and cars.

As we electrify everything that can feasibly plug into a clean power grid, “green hydrogen” is a promising tool for transitioning to renewable energy in sectors that lack a viable route to direct electrification. Green hydrogen is hydrogen produced by using 100% renewable electricity to split water molecules.

To understand the potential role of green hydrogen, consider the challenges of cutting climate pollution from one hard-to-electrify sector: maritime shipping. Maritime travel is difficult to decarbonize because battery-powered ocean-going vessels will not be able to handle long-haul voyages across the ocean, at least for the foreseeable future. The hope for green hydrogen is that it may store energy from clean electric resources like wind and solar in a fuel that could be used to propel large, long-haul ships. This vision is at least a decade away from reality, if it overcomes the challenges to cost-effective production and efficient on-vessel storage. Still, it offers a path to displacing the highly polluting bunker fuel currently relied on to move much of the world’s goods across oceans.

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Combatting Climate Change, Reversing Inequality: A Climate Jobs Program for Texas

By Lara R. Skinner, J. Mijin Cha, Hunter Moskowitz, and Matt Phillips - ILR Worker Institute, Cornell, July 26, 2021

Texas is currently confronted by three major, intersecting crises: the COVID-19 public health pandemic and ensuing economic crisis; a growing crisis of inequality of income, wealth, race and power; and the worsening climate crisis, which continues to take its toll on Texans through hurricanes, major flood events, wildfires, debilitating heat waves and the significant economic cost of these extreme weather events. These crises both expose and deepen existing inequalities, disproportionately impacting working families, women, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, immigrants, and the most vulnerable in our society.

A well-designed recovery from the COVID-19 global health pandemic, however, can simultaneously tackle these intersecting crises. We can put people to work in high-quality, family- and community-sustaining careers, and we can build the 21st century infrastructure we need to tackle the climate crisis and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Indeed, in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, it is essential that our economic recovery focus on developing a climate-friendly economy. Moreover, there are significant jobs and economic development opportunities related to building a clean energy economy. One study shows that 25 million jobs will be created in the U.S. over the next three decades by electrifying our building and transportation sectors, manufacturing electric vehicles and other low-carbon products, installing solar, wind and other renewables, making our homes and buildings highly-efficient, massively expanding and improving public transit, and much more.

Conversely, a clean, low-carbon economy built with low-wage, low-quality jobs will only exacerbate our current crisis of inequality. The new clean energy economy can support good jobs with good benefits and a pipeline for historically disadvantaged communities to high-quality, paid on-the-job training programs that lead to career advancement. Currently, the vast majority of energy efficiency, solar and wind work is non-union, and the work can be low-wage and low-quality, even as the safety requirements of solar electrical systems, for example, necesitate well-trained, highly-skilled workers.

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