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Employment Aspects of the Transition from Fossil Fuels in Australia

By Jim Stanford - Centre for Future Work, December 16, 2020

Climate change poses a fundamental threat to the well-being and security of people everywhere. And Australia is on the front lines of the challenge. We have already experienced some of the fastest and most intense consequences of climate change, in many forms: extreme heat, droughts, floods, extreme weather and catastrophic bushfires (as in 2019-20). Climate change is no longer an abstract or hypothetical worry. It is a clear and present danger, and we are already paying for it: with more frequent disasters, soaring insurance premiums, and measurable health costs.

The problem of climate change is global; emissions and pollution do not respect national borders. But to address the global threat, every country must play its part. And Australia has a special responsibility to act, and quickly, for several reasons:

  • We are suffering huge costs because of climate change.
    We are a rich country, that can afford to invest in stabilising the climate.
  • We are one of the worst greenhouse gas (GHG) polluters in the world.
  • In fact, as shown in Figure 1, Australia has the highest GHG emissions per capita of any of the 36 industrial countries in the

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Our emissions – around 22 tonnes of CO2 equivalent for every Australian – are almost twice as high as the OECD average. We emit 4 times per person more than the average Swede.

Worse yet, Australia has been very slow in addressing climate change with effective and consistent policies. Climate policy has become a political wedge issue, subject to reversals and changes in direction depending on the fleeting political imperatives of the day. After a temporary decline (largely sparked by a short-lived national carbon tax, which was then abolished in 2014), Australia’s total emissions have increased again in recent years (see Figure 2). Under existing policies, emissions are projected to stay at or above current levels over the coming decade.

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A Roadmap to an Equitable Low-Carbon Future: Four Pillars for a Just Transition

By J. Mijin Cha, JD, PhD - Climate Equity Network, April 2019

The signs that the climate crisis is already happening are clear. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report detailed the evidence from more than 6,000 studies that found that over the past decade, a series of record-breaking storms, forest fires, droughts, coral bleaching, heat waves, and floods have taken place around the world in response to the 1.0 °C of global warming that has taken place since the pre-industrial era. These events, and the losses associated with them, are expected to become substantially worse with 1.5 °C of warming currently targeted by global climate agreements, and far worse if these agreements are not effective. Without major cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, this warming threshold could be reached in as little as 11 years, and almost certainly within 20 years. Even if such cuts were to begin immediately, reaching this threshold would not be prevented, only delayed.

Any chance of staving off even worst impacts from climate change depends on significant reductions in GHG emissions and a move from a fossil fuel- based economy to a low-carbon economic future. While this transition is fundamentally necessary, the challenges it poses are great. Every aspect of our economy and our society is dependent upon fossil fuel use – from the reliance on electricity provided by fossil fuel power plants to the tax revenue local communities receive from fossil fuel extraction and facilities to the jobs held by those working in an industry that may keep their incomes high but often puts their communities at risk. The imprint of fossil fuels is so deeply embedded within our way of life that ceasing its use will require a fundamental shift in how we procure and use energy.

The good news is that this shift is possible—and California is already on a path to a low-carbon future. In addition to several ambitious climate targets, in September 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order pledging the state to achieve carbon neutrality no later than 2045. As the world’s fifth largest economy, the commitment California made to reduce greenhouse gases can provide a pathway to a low-carbon future that could lay the groundwork for others to follow. But to get there, we need to aim even higher than California’s already ambitious goals.

Transitioning away from fossil fuels must be done more quickly and also in a manner that protects workers and communities economically dependent on the fossil fuel industry. Transitioning is also an opportunity to include those who have historically been excluded from the jobs and economic benefits of the extractive economy and expand the populations who have access to future jobs and economic opportunities. As we move to a low-carbon future, environmental justice communities should be prioritized for job creation and renewable energy generation. Without protecting displaced workers and expanding opportunities to other workers, transitioning to a low-carbon future will replicate the mistakes and inequalities of the extractive past and present.

Read the report (PDF).

Towards a just transition: coal, cars and the world of work

By Béla Galgóczi - European Trade Union Institute, 2019

The role of trade unions and social dialogue is key in demonstrating the major differences between coal-based energy generation and the automobile industry. This book presents two faces of a just transition towards a net-zero carbon economy by drawing lessons from these two carbon-intensive sectors. The authors regard just transition not as an abstract concept, but as a real practice in real workplaces. While decarbonisation itself is a common objective, particular transitions take place in work environments that are themselves determined by the state of the capital-labour relationship, with inherent conflicts of interest, during the transition process.

The case studies presented in this book highlight the major differences between these two sectors in the nature and magnitude of the challenge, how transition practices are applied and what role the actors play.

Read the report (Link).

The Ruhr or Appalachia: Deciding the Future of Australia’s Coal Power Workers and Communities

By Peter Sheldon, Raja Junankar, and Anthony De Rosa Pontello - CFMMEU Mining and Energy, December 3, 2018

Australia’s coal-fired power stations will all close in the next two or three decades. We know this because the companies that operate the 23 power stations currently operating nation-wide have told us so.

Despite the empty rhetoric of some, it is unlikely that the economic case for investing in new coal-fired power stations in Australia will stack up. Those who currently own and operate coal power stations have no plans to build new ones.

The bad news is that the transition in how we produce power will bring great change to the workers and communities we have relied on to provide Australian homes and industry with reliable energy over many decades.

The good news is that we have the lead time to make smart decisions about what that change looks like—or at least, we now have the lead time after being caught unprepared by earlier closures, including Hazelwood in 2017.We have the choice to manage this structural economic change so that individuals, families and regions aren’t abandoned to unemployment, low-value jobs, poverty and associated health and social decline. Even better, we have the evidence about what works to deliver just transitions for coal power workers and communities, with skills, jobs, opportunities and hope for the future.

Communities grow around power stations and the mines that supply them. They are unique communities bonded in many cases by history, geography, difficult and dangerous working conditions and good unionised jobs. They are also uniquely vulnerable in their heavy dependence on the coal power industry.

This analysis of transitions in resource economies internationally and here in Australia provides valuable insights into the ingredients of success and the wide scope of outcomes.The Appalachian region in the United States is a heart-breaking story of industry transition characterised by short-term, reactive and fragmented responses to closures of coal mines, resulting in entrenched, intergenerational poverty and social dysfunction.

Compare this with the transition away from a heavy reliance on coal mining in Germany’s Ruhr region, where forward planning, investment in industry diversification, staggering of mine closures and a comprehensive package of just transition measures delivered a major reshaping of the regional economy with no forced job losses.

Central to these vastly different outcomes is the presence of a national, coordinated response. To this end, a major recommendation of this report is the establishment of a national, independent statutory authority to plan, coordinate and manage the transition.

In the energy debate to date, the impact of the transition on workers and communities has been almost completely ignored. This is an omission we can’t afford. After all, the costs of investing in a Just Transition need to be balanced against the costs of doing nothing and abandoning whole communities to a bleak future.

While global trends suggest that Australian export coal for steelmaking and energy production will be in demand for decades to come, coal-fired power generation in Australia is winding down. On the information available, there are no excuses for not taking action to protect the best interests of those affected.</p.

I thank Peter Sheldon and the team at UNSW Sydney’s Industrial Relations Research Centre for this important piece of work. I call on all power industry stakeholders to engage with its findings and consider how we can work together to deliver a Just Transition for coal power workers and communities.

Read the report (PDF).

A Guide for Trade Unions: Involving Trade Unions in Climate Action to Build a Just Transition

By staff - European Trade Union Confederation, September 2018

A guide to a ‘just transition’ to a low carbon economy is published by the European Trade Union Confederation on May 15.

The 48 page document ‘Involving trade unions in climate action to build a just transition’ contains

  • Recommendations for economic diversification and industrial policy, skills, social protection and governance for a socially just transition
  • Information on how trade unions can and have been engaged in shaping national climate action
  • Examples of innovative projects that can inspire a more just transition

Key recommendations include

  • Promote economic diversification in regions and industries most affected by the transition
  • Negotiate agreements at sectoral and company level to map the future evolution of skills needs and the creation of sectoral skills councils
  • Establish dialogue with all relevant stakeholders and regional authorities to identify and manage the social impacts of climate policies
  • Promote the establishment of adequate social protection systems
  • Unions and workers should assess the risks linked to ‘stranded assets’

The guide shows that up to half of trade unions have NOT been consulted on sectoral decarbonisation strategies, but over 75% were consulted on long-term decarbonisation strategies for 2050.

Read the report (PDF).

A just transition for all: Can the past inform the future?

By various - International Labour Office, 2015

2015 is a decisive year for global agreements on Sustainable Development and climate change. The ILO calls for a just transition for all towards a greener and more socially sustainable economy. This Journal is focussing on drawing lessons from a few transition experiences in order to analyse how successfully (or not) these processes were managed in the past and how future transitions might be handled in a just manner. Challenges such as policy coherence, consultations and participation by all relevant stakeholders are addressed and lessons learned on these issues are highlighted in the Journal.

Read the report (Link).

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