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Amid Rolling Blackouts, Energy Workers Fight For Clean Public Power In South Africa

By Casey Williams - In These Times, March 31, 2022

Can South Africa transition from a reliance on coal to clean power while maintaining jobs? The energy workers fighting for a just transition think so.

The lights went out around Johannesburg on a Monday morning in November 2021, not to flicker back on until early that Friday in some areas. It marked the last rolling blackout of a year troubled by more outages than any in recent memory. The fate of Eskom, the beleaguered power utility behind the crisis, is now at the center of South Africa’s struggle for a just energy transition — a break from fossil fuels without leaving behind frontline communities or energy workers.

As a public company, Eskom has a constitutional mandate to guarantee electricity as a basic right. But the utility struggles to meet that mandate with its aging equipment, staggering debt, corruption and rules that require it to break even, which drive exorbitant rate hikes. Moreover, the electricity running through Eskom’s wires comes almost entirely from coal, smothering the country’s eastern coal belt in deadly pollution and adding planet-warming emissions to the atmosphere — and putting the utility at odds with South Africa’s decarbonization commitments and global calls for renewable energy. South Africa, the 26th-largest country by population, ranks 14th in carbon output worldwide and is responsible for 1% of global emissions, because of this reliance on coal.

Few believe Eskom will survive in its current state, and what comes next is the subject of a high-stakes debate — and is about more than the climate. The state-owned company employs 45,000 workers and supports 82,000 coal jobs in a country where more than a third of the population is out of work. Eskom is a union shop, as are South Africa’s biggest coal mines.

The government’s plan, already underway, is to invite private companies into the energy sector on the dubious grounds that clean energy is bound to win in a competitive market. The powerful miners and metalworkers unions oppose privatization, which they worry will hobble their organizations, if not eliminate the jobs they’re entrusted to protect. 

The unions have reason to worry. European multinationals have installed most of South Africa’s wind and solar capacity so far, importing technicians and hardware. The local jobs that come with them are often low-paid and temporary, vanishing once plants get up and running. Workers with permanent jobs, meanwhile, have struggled with for-profit energy companies over the right to strike.

While some union leaders and workers have responded to the threat of privatization by defending coal mines and the union jobs they offer, unions also say they support decarbonization efforts. There are currents within the labor movement organizing for a just transition to turn Eskom into a unionized, public and clean power utility, run by and for the South African people.

This tug-of-war holds lessons for workers everywhere: The South African labor movement has largely succeeded in making the public debate about ownership and power— about who owns energy resources and who decides how they’re used — rather than simply about renewables versus coal. Still, the temptation for labor to double down on coal jobs remains strong as the South African economy flags and unemployment spikes, emblematic of how hard it can be to fight for long-term goals if jobs are under threat.

Workers Say They Breathe Polluted Air at “Green” Insulation Facility

By Mindy Isser - In These Times - March 3, 2022

As the acceptance of climate change becomes increasingly commonplace, more and more companies will be created or adapted to ​“fight” or ​“solve” it — or, at the very least, minimize its effects. Kingspan Group, which began as an engineering and contracting business in 1965 in Ireland, has since grown into a global company with more than 15,000 employees focused on green insulation and other sustainable building materials. Its mission is to ​“accelerate a zero emissions future with the wellbeing of people and planet at its heart.” 

But workers at the Kingspan Light + Air factory in Santa Ana, Calif. don’t feel that the company has their wellbeing at its heart — and they say they have documented the indoor air pollution in their workplace to prove it. Differences between Kingspan’s mission and its true impact don’t stop there, workers charge: One of its products was used in the flammable cladding system on Grenfell Tower, a 24-floor public housing tower in London that went up in flames in June 2017, killing 72 people. Kingspan has been the target of protests in the United Kingdom and Ireland for its role in the disaster. Both Kingspan workers and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire have called on the company to put public safety over profits.

Since the 1990s, union organizers say there have been multiple attempts from the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) union to organize employees at Kingspan, but none were successful. The company says its North America branch employs ​“1,600 staff across 16 manufacturing and distribution facilities throughout the United States and Canada.” Workers at the Santa Ana plant are tasked with welding, spray painting and assembling fiberglass to produce energy-efficient skylights. During the pandemic, when workers say Covid-19 swept through the facility, employees reached back out to SMART — not just because they wanted to form a union, but because they grew concerned about what they say is poor air quality in the facility. 

While SMART provided support for their campaign for clean air, the workers took control: In the summer of 2021, the Santa Ana workers came into work armed with monitors to measure indoor air pollution. Their goal was to measure airborne particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller (PM 2.5). Such fine particulate matter constitutes a form of air pollution that is associated with health problems like respiratory and cardiovascular issues, along with increased mortality. The workers found that the average PM 2.5 concentration inside the facility was nearly seven times higher than outdoors. (To put that in perspective, wildfires usually result in a two- to four-fold increase in PM 2.5.) The majority of monitors found PM 2.5 levels that would rank between ​“unhealthy” and ​“very unhealthy” if measured outdoors, according to Environmental Protection Agency standards, the workers reported. 

Because this is the air workers were breathing in for 40 hours per week, in October 2021, they went public with both their campaign to form a union and their fight for a safe workplace — a campaign that continues to this day. 

Statement on UN IPCC Climate Report

By staff - Climate Justice Alliance, March 1, 2022

Climate Justice Alliance Calls on White House, Congress, UN to Center Frontline Wisdom/Solutions & Reject False Techno Fixes Accelerating Climate Change

We must keep fossil fuels in the ground; If we take anything away from Part 2 of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment, that should be it. Like so many times before, once again we find ourselves calling on the White House and Congress, and all world leaders to act boldly and courageously to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions at their source.

As Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) Co-Executive Director, Ozawa Bineshi Albert pointed out after participating in the most recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), “we must act with an urgency that is not happening now and we need community leaders experiencing harm to lead with solutions.”

Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of the working group that issued the report explains, “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet… Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.

However, we cannot rely on unproven fossil fuel industry backed, techno-fixes and market schemes that are really just band-aid approaches to solving the climate crisis: practices that do not guarantee a reduction or elimination of emissions at their source, such as geoengineering approaches like carbon capture and storage, solar radiation management, carbon removal and the like. We must safeguard Earth and all her creatures for generations to come. That means stopping the harm that continues to pollute her for future generations. We must center frontline solutions that are grounded in a Just Transition as we move away from the dig, burn, and dump economy to local, community-controlled renewable and regenerative models that reduce emissions while building community wealth and justice at every turn. 

Together with 1,140 organizations and as a part of the Build Back Fossil Free Coalition in a letter issued last week, we called on President Biden to use his Executive powers to immediately 1) ban all new oil and gas contracts on federal areas, 2) stop approving fossil fuel projects, and 3) declare a climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act that will unlock special powers to fast track renewable projects that will benefit us all.

Additionally, as this report rightly points out, the United States must pay its fair share as the major culprit of climate change and heed the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples as we craft real solutions and reject false ones that will only serve to accelerate climate chaos in Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and other low-income and vulnerable communities. We must invest in mitigation and adaptation resources for all frontline communities, in the Global South, and all other nations immediately. 

At the same time that the United Nations was preparing to craft this damning report on the fossil fuel industry, the largest delegation of badged participants at the COP26 were fossil fuel lobbyists. Only a few from vulnerable and most impacted communities were allowed in. This is unacceptable – the UN must end rules that restrict and keep out those most impacted by climate change from fully participating in future climate change conferences. Finally, we call on the UN to end its long practice of bowing to pressure from fossil corporations and member nations aligned with them, and reject false solutions that enable polluters to continue business as usual while doing nothing to stop emissions at their source.

This most recent IPCC Assessment focuses on impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation. An upcoming section in April will focus on ways to reduce emissions, and the final part will present lessons to member states during the next Climate Change Conference (COP27) to be held in Egypt. If the nations of the world truly want to solve the climate crisis they will heed the calls of those most impacted and look to them to lead rather than those who created the crisis in the first place; here in the United States that looks like addressing this issue as the emergency that it already is.

LNS and 45 Environmental Groups Call on the Green Building Community to Stop Partnering with Kingspan

By Sydney Ghazarian - Labor Network for Sustainability - March 2022

Labor Network for Sustainability is proud to be among 45 climate and environmental justice groups calling on the green building community to stop partnering with Kingspan, an international building materials company that’s so-called ‘green’ manufacturing processes are polluting the indoor air and local watershed (learn more here).

We call on those who deal with Kingspan to reconsider rewarding it for behavior that weakens the credibility of the green building community, and that goes against the values of safe and sustainable buildings and communities.Read the full statement and list of signatory organizations here.

This effort is part of Clean up Kingspan, an inspirational campaign led by Kingspan factory workers in Santa Ana, CA who are holding the global manufacturing company accountable for health, safety, and pollution issues in their community and demanding a fair process to decide whether to unionize. In collaboration with UC Irvine pollution scientist Dr. Shahir Masri, these workers measured unhealthy levels of PM2.5 pollution inside their workplace.They also blew the whistle on Kingspan for misrepresenting its daily operations and water pollution clean-up efforts to the CalEPA.

What this campaign makes clear is that the struggle we face isn’t ‘jobs vs. the environment;’ it’s corporate greed vs. everyone else. LNS is proud to stand with workers, community activists, faith leaders, & environmentalists in this campaign for true economic and environmental justice. It’s time for the green building community to stand with us too.

Join us in calling on the green building community to stop partnering with Kingspan: https://cleanupkingspan.org/take-action/

COP26 Corporate Sponsors: A Barrier To A Just Transition

By Earth Strike UK - Earth Strike, February 18, 2022

In November last year, representatives and leaders of most of the world’s governments met in Glasgow to discuss how to respond to the climate crisis, and hopefully make a deal that would save us from the worst effects of climate change. They failed. While the conference did end with an agreement, it was not sufficient to keep global temperature rises below 1.5°C.

COP26 was supported by a wide variety of major multinational corporations, whose involvement, if not directly responsible for the failure of the conference, at least gives an insight into the deeply flawed approach of those in power that did ultimately result in COP26 (and every other climate conference before it) ending so disastrously.

Twenty three corporations are listed as supporting the conference in some capacity, either as Principal Partners, Partners, or Providers. These corporate sponsors provided financial support as well as services in kind. While it’s difficult to know how much each of these corporations paid, we know that their contributions did not go unrewarded.

In exchange, they received a variety of perks in the form of publicity, networking and marketing opportunities. This is most apparent for the eleven Principal Partners, whose logos feature on the COP26 website, appearing at the bottom of almost every page. This is all in addition to the marketing and promotional material they created for themselves.

The Principal Partners were given exhibition space inside the ‘green zone’, the part of the conference that was accessible to the public, as well as the opportunity to hold events as part of the official green zone program.

The business case for being a COP sponsor is clear, and has little to do with effecting genuine, meaningful change. Sponsorship of COP26 was an opportunity for corporations to present themselves as environmentally conscious (softening their image and maybe gaining an edge with environmentally minded consumers), while also allowing them to guide climate and environmental policy in a way that is profitable to them.

Despite their involvement in COP26, and their apparent desire to address the climate crisis, these corporations continue to produce enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. A recent investigation by the Ferret, an independent non-profit media cooperative in Scotland, found that the eleven Principal Partners alone were responsible for 350 million tonnes of C02 emissions in 2020, more than the total produced within the UK that year — although the companies claim that some of these emissions may have been counted more than once.

The sponsors claim to have bold plans for decarbonisation. They also point towards reductions in CO2 emissions they have already made, however these reductions are not always what they seem.

Take the case of Scottish Power. It proudly claims that all the energy it generates comes from wind power, however it achieved this by selling its fossil fuel investments to Drax, which runs the highly polluting biomass power station in Yorkshire, for £702 million in 2018. In effect, not only did Scottish Power fail to reduce the total amount of carbon emissions being produced, but profited from its continuation.

The fact that environmental destruction can be obscured by the sale of fossil fuel assets from one corporation to another proves that the corporate sponsors cannot be viewed in isolation. They are all part of a self-sustaining and self-reinforcing network of capitalism. Even if we were to accept Scottish Power’s claim of only producing renewable energy, we should remember that it is a subsidiary of the Spanish company Iberdrola, which has built four new gas power plants in Mexico since 2019.

Likewise, Microsoft has committed to go “carbon negative” by 2030, meaning that it would pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it emits. This pledge is significantly undermined by the services it provides to the oil and gas industry. In 2019, Microsoft partnered with the oil giant ExxonMobil to provide software to improve the efficiency of its operations in the Permian Basin oil field. It is estimated that Microsoft services could allow ExxonMobil to extract 50,000 more barrels of oil per day by 2025 than it otherwise would have.

DLA Piper, a multinational legal firm and COP26 provider, likes to boast its support for corporate environmental initiatives, decarbonisation and the renewable energy industry. But it also provides direct practical support for the oil, gas and mining industries through legal representation and consultancy. DLA Piper enables oil and gas exploration, extraction and transportation by supporting licensing bids, financing, asset acquisition, arbitration, and dispute resolution within the industry.

Multinational corporations operate in a complex network of capital, tied together by ownership, commerce and consultancy. Even if at first glance a corporation doesn’t seem to be harmful, it still plays its part in keeping the process going.

Black Former Tesla Worker: Nickname for the Plant Was ‘The Slave Ship’

By Gabriel Thompson - Capital and Main, February 15, 2022

In the spring of 2017, when Fatima Islam learned she had been hired to work at Tesla’s production plant in Fremont, Calif., she had high hopes. Then a single mother of two young children, the 33-year-old was willing to face the four-hour round-trip commute from her home in Merced, and didn’t flinch when she learned she was expected to work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, inspecting Model 3’s that rolled down the line.

“I had heard so many great things about Tesla,” she said. “I thought that I would be able to grow at the company and turn it into my career, maybe be there my whole life.”

On the plant floor, Islam quickly started having second thoughts. As an African American woman, she noticed a striking lack of women or African Americans in supervisory roles. Soon after getting hired, she became pregnant, and during one grueling shift she fainted. Later, she said, one of the mechanical technicians referred to her as “the Black pregnant bitch.” Islam said that the same employee repeatedly harassed her 18-year-old co-worker, another African American woman, demanding that she sleep with him. When Islam reported the incidents, bringing along multiple witnesses, she said nothing was done. “He let it be known that he’s cool with HR,” she said of the technician. Soon after, she said, the 18-year-old was fired.

Equally shocking to Islam was the overt racism. She heard the n-word constantly on the plant floor, while Latino workers also called her a mayate, roughly the Spanish language equivalent. Supervisors, she said, did nothing in response; in fact, floor leads sometimes joined in. Racist graffiti, including the n-word and swastikas, were carved into workbenches and scrawled on bathroom stalls.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. “They make it seem like this great place,” said Islam, of the high-end electric vehicle company that positions itself as a force for social good. “But the nickname for the Tesla plant was ‘the slave ship,’” she said. “You see how comfortable they are with things like that?”

Beyond the Green New Deal: A Discussion with Monica Atkins of the Climate Justice Alliance

Net Zero versus Real Zero and the Future of the Planet

By David Klein - System Change Not Climate Change, January 13, 2022

“Net Zero” is the wrong goal. Here’s why we need to change the conversation and push for “Real Zero” instead.

A clarion call for “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions has been embraced by nearly everyone — environmentalists, politicians, corporations, and nations. More than 130 countries, including the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, have established, or are developing, net-zero emissions targets. Adding to that, at least a fifth of the world’s largest corporations, representing some $14 trillion in sales, have announced net-zero emissions targets by midcentury. Even airline companies, collectively responsible for five percent of global warming, have publicized net-zero policies. These include United Airlines, American Airlines, Jet Blue, Delta, as well as other major U.S. and international airline companies.

At first glance, the idea seems eminently reasonable: Offset greenhouse gas emissions by removing equal quantities of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, to be permanently sequestered in soils, plants, oceans, and possibly artificial carbon capture and storage systems. In that way the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is stabilized. But is net-zero really a sufficient response to the climate crisis?

A closer look at the dynamics of the climate system, including the way the carbon cycle works, reveals that “net zero” can be only a temporary, transitory step, if we are to restrain the worst consequences. Global emissions must be rapidly reduced to a level as close to zero ­— “near zero” as opposed to “net-zero” — as possible. Net-zero and near zero are not the same, even though some well-informed environmentalists conflate the two. 

Existing so-called net-zero policies are making things worse, not better. Despite a plethora of exposés (see for example here, here, and here), net-zero promises are still rife with fraud. Many net-zero pledges are just public relations ploys that enable corporations to continue emitting high volumes of greenhouse gases while “owning” undervalued carbon-absorbing forests or mangroves elsewhere in the world. And in some cases, those offsets burn down or are destroyed in other ways.

Ecosocialism and Degrowth: a Reply

By Simon Butler - Climate and Capitalism, January 6, 2022

David Schwartzman makes some very good points about the ecological benefits of ending militarism. I was also pleased to read his arguments about the strong potential for 100% renewable energy to meet global energy needs, although I cannot judge if his specific calculations about global per-capita energy are correct.

I’m not a degrowther per se. I think the fundamental problem is capital accumulation, of which capitalist growth is a product, but there are some questionable aspects to Schwartzman’s critique.

First, there is a claim about political strategy: that degrowth will appeal only to “the professional class” (I suppose this means middle class/petty bourgeois/intellectuals etc) in the North and would alienate the “global working class.”

That’s a strange formulation because it seems obvious that it’s not the “global” working class that Schwartzman and similar critics are worried about convincing, but the working class in the North who, they fear, will be repelled by a message that emphasises sharing resources with people elsewhere. The degrowth answer to this is that living standards for working people in the North can still improve even if economic growth is halted, as long as there is significant wealth redistribution.

I suspect that hostility to degrowth ideas among some ecosocialists in the North is linked to glossing over the sharp inequalities that divide “the global working class.” Any worthwhile ecosocialist strategy must address the North’s unequal access to the South’s mineral resources & soil nutrients. We in the North cannot hope to form international alliances with mass movements in the South if we neglect to do this. It’s imperialism that so destructively distorts the economies (and political cultures) of the South and the North, producing glaring inequalities and reproducing the ecological rift on a global level.

A Critique of Degrowth: An ecosocialist perspective in the context of a global Green New Deal

By David Schwartzman - Climate and Capitalism, January 5, 2022

Ecosocialist responses to “degrowth” analysis and proposals have ranged from full support to total rejection. The author of the following critical commentary is an emeritus professor of biology at Howard University, and co-author of The Earth is Not for Sale (World Scientific, 2019). We encourage respectful responses in the comments, and hope to publish other views in future.

The positive contributions of the degrowth proponents should be recognized, in particular, their rethinking of economic growth under capitalism, critiquing its measure, the GNP/GDP, as well as pointing to capitalism’s unsustainable use of natural resources, in particular fossil fuels in its production of commodities for profit generation regardless of their impact on the health of people and the environment. Further, they wisely critique eco-modernists who claim that simply substituting the right technology into the present political economy of capitalism will be sufficient to meet human and nature’s needs.

But the degrowth solutions offered are highly flawed and their brand is not likely to be welcomed by the global working class, even as it attracts sections of the professional class.[1] Degrowth proponents commonly fail to unpack the qualitative aspects of economic growth, lumping all in one basket; i.e., sustainable/addressing essential needs of humans and nature versus unsustainable, leaving the majority of humanity in poverty or worse. Degrowthers point to the relatively privileged status of workers in the global North compared to those in the global South as a big part of the problem, instead of recognizing that the transnational working class will not only benefit from growth of sectors that meet its needs in both the global North and South but must be the leading force to defeat fossil capital.[1, 2, 3]

A common claim in the degrowth discourse is that “perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.”[4] This assertion fails to deconstruct the qualitative aspects of growth, what is growing, what should degrow, under what energy regime? While of course there are obvious limits to the growth of the global physical infrastructure, why can’t knowledge and culture continue to grow for a long time into the future in a globally sustainable and just physical and political economy?

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