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Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED)

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy Bulletin 124

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, September 22, 2022

Towards a Public Pathway Approach to a Just Energy Transition for the Global South

Leaders from trade unions, three Global Union Federations, and allied organizations representing 27 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia Pacific will gather in Nairobi, Kenya, in mid-October to launch a new trade union initiative to promote a “public pathway” approach to a just energy transition in the Global South. The goal of the gathering is to lay the foundations for a South-led trade union platform that will focus on how to strengthen the trade union response to the kind of “green structural adjustment” proposals that are today being pushed by the rich countries, the IMF, and the World Bank.

The 3-day, 70-person, meeting in Nairobi comes at a time when there is growing support for a public pathway approach to energy transition and climate protection that can address the failures of the current ineffective and regressive profit-focused policies. This growing support is reflected in the Trade Union Program for a Public Low-Carbon Energy Future (TUP) that was announced at COP26 in Glasgow last November. 

Towards a Public Pathway Approach to Energy Transition

By various - Alternative Information Development Center, August 15, 2022

On Wednesday, July 27th, 2022, representatives of unions and social movements met in Johannesburg to discuss the country’s energy crisis. The representatives agreed to form a united front to resist privatisation of the power sector and to propose alternative ways to address both the immediate crisis and the longer-term challenges posed by the decarbonisation of South Africa’s energy system. What follows is a work-in-progress statement that captures the discussion and conclusions reached at the end of the meeting:

Statement of the United Front to Address Loadshedding:

We acknowledge the multiple economic and social problems associated with load-shedding (particularly for the working class and poor communities in both rural and urban areas). We agree with President Ramaphosa when he says government must take bold measures to address load-shedding as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. We agree that load-shedding is a national crisis that requires decisive action on the part of the government.

However, we believe that the proposals aimed at addressing load-shedding that have been put forward by government ministries, the private sector, consultancies and think tanks are unrealistic and are extremely unlikely to succeed. These proposals reflect the interests of the Independent Power Producer (IPPs) and their desire to secure subsidies as a means of securing guaranteed returns on investments and to grow their businesses at the expense of Eskom. Their needs also reflect the privatisation designs of the World Bank, the IMF, and the European Commission.

Equally important, the actions proposed by the government will impede South Africa’s transition to a low-carbon energy system and expose the country to a state of energy dependency. South Africa has no wind industry and its solar industry is negligible. There is currently no means to produce lithium-ion batteries. South Africa will surrender energy decision-making to multinational companies that produce these technologies.

We believe that it is foolish to entertain the idea that the private sector and market liberalisation can provide a workable alternative to load-shedding. The solution to load shedding and the achievement of a just energy transition in the coming decades depends on a well-resourced national public utility.

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.

Australia’s Recent Power Market Crisis and the Struggle for Public Ownership

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, July 8, 2022

This past June 15th, Australia’s Electricity Market Operator (AEMO) announced the suspension of wholesale electricity spot markets in all regions covered by the country’s National Electricity Market (NEM). The NEM typically provides 80% of Australia’s electricity, mainly in developed coastal areas around the eastern third of the country.

The market suspension came in response to soaring wholesale electricity prices and serious shortages in supply — a combination of factors that, according to AEMO, made it “impossible to continue operating the spot market while ensuring a secure and reliable supply of electricity for consumers” in line with national regulatory requirements.

Key unions in Australia have recognized for years that the NEM does not serve the interests of unions, working people, or the public in general. According to Michael Wright, acting national secretary of the country’s Electrical Trades Union (ETU):

The ETU has been sounding the alarm about the NEM for years. This vindicates our long-held concerns that the market is broken and beyond repair.

The experiment in synthetic markets, trying to deliver essential public services through profit-motivated, tax-avoiding multinational energy corporations, has failed shockingly.

Similarly, Colin Long, Just Transitions Organizer for Australia’s Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), points out that such markets only function when they ensure profits for private owners and investors. As Long states in a background document he has written on the current crisis:

The NEM [like other market-based systems] is designed to deliver electricity in a way that is profitable to generators, mostly privately-owned, not in a way that maximises public or social benefit to Australians.

As Long further explains:

Privatisation was supposed to lead to lower prices for consumers. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Reinstating public ownership would eliminate rentier behaviour by transmission and distribution companies and the need to concede to the profit demands of big overseas investors. It would enable us to plan the energy system transformation, with a clear schedule for closure of fossil fuel generators to give certainty to workers, their communities and electricity grid managers. It would enable us to schedule fossil fuel generation replacement by renewables in a way that guaranteed supply, efficiency and reduced cost – and ensures we meet decarbonisation targets. It would enable us to ensure that workers are guaranteed a just transition to new opportunities and new industries.

Readers who would like a copy of Long’s background document can contact him at clong@vthc.org.au.

Both ETU and VTHC are part of the TUED network, and have played key roles in advancing the project.

Labour movement agendas in conflict over decarbonisation pathways

By Les Levidow - Greener Jobs Alliance, June 7, 2022

The Just Transition concept has sought to avoid socially unjust means and consequences of a low-carbon transition. Alternatives could provide the basis for a common agenda of the labour movement. Yet trade unions have had divergent perspectives on decarbonisation pathways, especially as regards the potential role of technological solutions. 

Such conflict has focused on Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS). This is favourably called ‘carbon abatement’ or pejoratively called a ‘technofix’. As one reason for US trade-unions supporting CCS and thus the fossil fuel industry, often they have achieved relatively greater job security and wages there; such gains may seem jeopardised by substituting renewable energy.

UK CCS agendas focus on the prospect to decarbonise natural gas into hydrogen. This agenda unites the UK ‘energy unions’ with their members’ employers, as a cross-class alliance for a CCS fix. From a critical perspective, this seeks to accumulate capital by perpetuating natural gas, while undermining or delaying its renewable competitors.

Trade-union divergences have arisen in many ways. For a Just Transition, ITUC has advocated phasing out ‘unabated coal’, implying that coal with CCS could continue indefinitely. In the name of climate justice, the TUC has advocated CCS as a means to continue fossil fuels within a ‘balanced energy’ policy. By contrast, according to the PCS, CCS ‘is not yet a proven technology at scale’, and we don’t have the luxury to wait; it counterposes a strategy of energy democracy.

Such political divergences within the labour movement have arisen around Just Transition proposals at TUC conferences, likewise around agendas for a Green New Deal. In 2019 these were promoted within the US Democratic Party and UK Labour Party. Both underwent internal conflicts over decarbonisation pathways, expressing conflicts within the labour movement. 

Green New Deal agendas in tension: what decarbonisation, for what societal future?

By Les Levidow - London Green Left Blog, May 21, 2022

Green New Deal (GND) agendas have gained significant support as means to reconcile environmental sustainability and a net-zero economy with socio-economic equity. Their transformative vision has attracted proposals such as more public goods, workers’ cooperatives and caring activities. Such proposals stimulate people’s imaginations around pilot schemes prefiguring alternatives to a profit-driven, inequitable high-carbon economy.

Green Parties have elaborated a Green New Deal as an ideal wish-list of such measures, variously called truly green, greener or green-socialist. Green Parties initially have done so with little regard to significant allies, which hopefully would be attracted. 

By contrast, multi-stakeholder alliances became a difficult matter in 2019, when GND agendas were promoted within major political parties such as the US Democratic Party and UK Labour Party. They have undergone internal conflicts over decarbonisation pathways, partly expressing conflicts within the labour movement.

Fossil fuel industries have sought system continuity through decarbonisation technofixes, with political support from their sector’s trade unions, thus associating workers’ secure livelihoods with fossil energy. This agenda complements capitalist frameworks of Green Keynesianism and Green Growth, seeking to reconcile perpetual economic growth with environmental sustainability. This false promise helps to soften or defer societal conflicts over an economically disruptive transition.

By contrast, some public-sector trade unions and environmentalist allies have sought a socio-economic transformation. This would go beyond the fossil fuel industry and GDP-driven growth, towards an economy of sufficiency. Such alliances have been coordinated internationally by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.

Those divergent agendas have conflicted over decarbonisation technofixes. Their false promises have provided an investment imperative for dubious low-carbon remedies, or an alibi to await their feasibility before abandoning fossil fuels, or both at once. This dominant agenda imagines the nation as a unitary economic space needing technoscientific advance for a global competitive advantage.

South Africa's Coal Miners’ Union Calls for a Public Pathway Approach to Energy Transition

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, April 5, 2022

At its recent 17th National Congress, South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) adopted a bold position in favor of keeping the country’s electrical power utility Eskom fully public.

Attended by roughly 750 delegates, the three-day congress — held in Boksburg, South Africa, from March 30th to April 1st, 2022 — adopted a report titled “Just Transition and the Energy Sector.” The report declares:

As a union with a long history of internationalism, NUM is today part of a global trade union-led effort to secure a Just Transition to a low carbon future. Once championed by unions, the term just transition has been hijacked by capital and its original meaning has been distorted. It is now being used to advance a global “green structural adjustment” agenda, one that is using the climate emergency as cover to advance privatisation and to dismantle public companies and assets.

In recent years, NUM has worked alongside the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), TUED, AIDC and the Transnational Institute to repel government-led efforts to break up and privatize the national utility Eskom.

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.

Challenges and perspectives of a just transition in Europe

Unions and Climate Change: Toward Global Public Goods

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