Some UK trade unions have been accused of adopting a “divisive” approach that risked slowing down the transition to a low-carbon economy after they agreed on a lobbying strategy to ensure workers in the fossil fuel industries have a decent future.
The concerns were raised after the Trade Union Congress (TUC) voted on a motion setting how unions will work to ensure that workers in fossil-fuel-intensive sectors have access to decent and sustainable jobs when mines and plants are forced to close — a concept often shorthanded to the term “just transition”.
The motion states that the TUC “should develop a political and lobbying strategy” for a just transition to a low-carbon economy “led by the voices and experiences of energy unions and their members”.
The text adds that that the views of energy workers whose jobs are affected by the decarbonisation of the economy “should be paramount and central to development of all TUC policies on energy, industrial strategy and climate change”.
It also calls on the government to ensure “a balanced energy mix”, which would include “investment in renewables, new nuclear and lower-carbon gas” — a term often denounced by experts because although gas generates significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil, it remains a fossil fuel.
The motion was presented by the GMB at the TUC Congress in Manchester earlier this month and was supported by Prospect, UNISON and Unite. GMB did not respond to DeSmog UK’s repeated requests for interview.
Opponents to the text have hit back arguing that an effective transition to a low-carbon economy needs to take into account the whole of society and that many workers who are not directly working in the energy sector will still be impacted by the shift.
The debate comes at a time when the trade union movement has ramped up discussions over what a just transition should look like and how it can become a reality for communities across the country.
Managing this transition is by no means simple and the ill-prepared closure of the coal mines in the 1980s are a stark reminder of the potentially devastating consequences of failing to effectively handle the shift.
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This week, the Labour Party echoed the TUC’s motion and announced in its Green Transformation that it will “work closely with energy unions to support energy workers and communities” through the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Meanwhile, a leaked draft declaration obtained by Climate Home News and due to be adopted by heads of state at the UN climate talks in Poland in December, calls for a programme to monitor national progress on protecting workers and communities that rely on traditional industries.
Although there is overwhelming consensus in the UK trade union movement on the urgency to kickstart a transition away from an economy relying on fossil fuels by securing resources for workers to re-train and re-skill, not everyone agrees on the best strategy to bring about this change.
Sam Mason, policy officer at the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), told DeSmog UK that the PCS opposed the TUC motion she described as “divisive” because it excluded other trade and public sector unions from the debate.
“Who gets to decide who is considered an energy worker and who should be involved in these discussions? Is an energy worker only someone who is working on a North Sea oil rig?
“PCS represents workers who monitor and help develop policy around energy — why shouldn’t they be involved in the discussion?,” she asked.
Mason recognised the frustration of some unions over the lack of engagement with workers over what a just transition might mean for them but added that other carbon-intensive sectors such as agriculture and transport had to be included in the discussions.
“Obviously some workers will be more affected than others but the idea that energy sector workers are paramount in leading the TUC’s strategy on the issue is absolutely wrong.
“All workers have a vested interest in a successful transition to a zero-carbon future and we should be building a much broader strategy,” she said.
In a statement, the Campaign Against Climate Change said making the voices of energy workers alone “paramount and central” in determining the TUC’s policies risked “undermining strong climate action”.
The group, which includes a trade union branch, added that jobs in solar, wind and energy efficiency were “crucial to our economy” but that “these sectors have been badly affected by government cuts” and that the TUC “must be a voice for them too and call for urgent investment in climate jobs”.
The comments were echoed by chief executive of the environmental think tank E3G, Nick Mabey.
Speaking to DeSmog UK, Mabey said the wording of the TUC motion was “flawed” because it used a “static view” of who will be affected by the shift to a low-carbon economy and failed to include the host of new green jobs, which often lack union representation.
Very important debate inside TUC on just transition and which voices get primacy in setting Union policy on climate change. Flawed GMB motion forgets that workers in climate impacted industries – which are the majority – need rapid action to limit climate risk & help them adapt. https://t.co/76uA83vFur
— Nick Mabey (@Mabeytweet) September 11, 2018
However, Mabey welcomed the fact unions are engaging with the issue, adding that what a low-carbon transition looks like and how it is achieved are important conversations to be having.
Putting the most affected at the centre
Hitting back at the criticism, Sue Ferns, deputy general secretary at Prospect denied that the policy was exclusive but argued that it was putting the people most affected by the upcoming shift at the centre of the debate.
She told DeSmog UK that the challenge was to make a just transition to a low-carbon economy a reality for people in the workplace.
“The question is how workers are going to experience this shift,” she said. “It’s not just about the number of jobs but it’s also about the quality of jobs and the opportunities for people for to re-train and relocate,” she added.
Ferns recognised the need for a broad industrial strategy to tackle these challenges and said trade unions needed to work with the government and public and private stakeholders.
A spokeswoman from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not confirm whether the department was in talks with the unions on the issue. Instead, she said BEIS was working with a range of stakeholders “to ensure we maximise the economic opportunities for clean growth for people and businesses across the country”.
How fast can a just transition happen?
Despite the UK trade union movement’s unanimous agreement on ensuring all workers are assured decent and sustainable jobs as part of a green economy, how fast this transition should happen is up for debate.
Ferns, from Prospect, told DeSmog UK there had to be “a balance between taking quick [climate] action and the consequences that action may have on workers”.
“This is not about delaying action but having a proper process in place and thinking about the people, communities and livelihood being affected,” she said, adding: “That’s why we need to start the transition now if we want to have a proper and fair process for change.”
But climate change think-tank Third Generation Environmentalism E3G’s Mabey warned against using social arguments to downplay the urgency of decarbonising the economy.
“This should not be about slowing down the transition in order to be just. There needs to be a transition and society needs to ensure that it is just,” he said.
Politics of gas
In the UK, where coal generation is phasing out at a rapid pace, the debate about the future of the energy mix tends to focus on gas.
The TUC motion identified “lower-carbon gas” as a key part of a balanced energy mix needed to achieve the shift to a zero-carbon future.
Prospect’s Ferns said that although the union fully recognised the need to decarbonise the economy, new technologies were being developed all the time and suggested hydrogen energy not generated by fossil fuels as a way forward.
But campaigners were quick to point out that gas remains a polluting fossil fuel with scientists warning that half of the world’s gas reserves have to be left in the ground to prevent dangerous warming of more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
“This is a move to try and rebrand and preserve the gas industry. It’s a trying to slow down the transition [to a net zero economy] to protect workers,” said Mason from PCS. “There is no such thing as ‘low-carbon gas’ and we need to fully decarbonise.
“No one will disagree that we are currently heavily dependent on gas but we need to find alternatives now to start dealing with that — otherwise we are more or less kicking this into the long grass,” she said.
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