A Just Transition to a clean, renewable energy economy is urgent – and possible
Climate scientists are saying that global warming, as evidenced by melting polar ice caps, is worse than predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and that global emissions must peak by 2015 if climate chaos, and resulting human social chaos is to be avoided. Government policy needs to be driven by this science, not by political and economic expediency, no matter how challenging the transition to a clean energy economy might be.
As local and global concern about climate change grows, there are demands for the Hunter Valley to move from its non-sustainable ‘Carbon Valley’ present to a sustainable ‘Post-Carbon Society’
future. A ‘Post-Carbon Society’ would have reduced per capita resource usage in wealthy countries, renewable energy sources, emphasis on strong local economies rather on a global free-market, and dramatically improved environmental conditions and social equity (Heinberg, 2004).
Yet as the global warming threat grows, many Australian political leaders remain under the spell of the coal industry and its 'greenhouse mafia'. Indeed, despite the obvious risks some are still advocating new coal-fired power stations and a massive increase in coal exports.
Tackling climate change means our dependency on coal as an export earner and as a domestic fuel must be phased out over the next decades, rather than ramped up. This will mean a huge change in the national economy, and for coal-affected regions such as the Hunter and Latrobe Valleys. The challenges associated with this change are significant, but not insurmountable. Indeed, a transition to clean, renewable energy promises to revitalise Australian manufacturing and create thousands of new jobs in many rural, regional and urban communities, including coal communities.
Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) emphasise that workers affected by change have to be consulted and fully engaged in environmental, employment and economic policy development and restructuring from unsustainable to sustainable industries so their needs and experiences are fully taken into account, and their cooperation is secured (UNEP, WHO and ILO, 2007).
Community response: a just transition to green job creation
Coal communities, like the Hunter and Latrobe Valley, have for too long been sacrificed and taken for granted by corporations and governments as out-of-sight, out-of mind ‘cash cows’. Their local
environments have been degraded by mines and dirty power stations, and local communities have been chronically disadvantaged. The incidence of linked ecosystem and human health distress is being well-documented (Connor et al, 2004).
Environmental organisations and labour unions refer to the process of economic restructuring from non-sustainable industries to a sustainable economy as a 'just transition'. A just transition links ecological sustainability with issues of work, equity and social justice. A just transition process recognises the needs of both current and future generations for safe, secure and satisfying jobs.
A just transition policy recognises that people and ecology are both important. It recognises that ‘business-as-usual’ and high risk technological fixes to unsustainable economic activity are not
credible. A just transition is needed to ensure that the costs of change do not fall on vulnerable workers and communities, or that failure to change falls on future generations.
The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) was a pioneer in the theory and organising around the just transition concept and noted that a "Just transition will ensure that the costs of environmental change will be shared fairly. Failure to create a just transition means that the cost of moves to sustainability will devolve wholly onto workers in targeted industries and their communities." (CLC, 2000, p.4)
The CLC noted that Green Job creation – well-paid, secure, healthy and satisfying jobs that protect rather than harm the environment – is the flip side of a just transition (CLC, 2000).
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU, 2007) has also noted that a just transition is needed to deal with the challenges of climate change, and this requires new partnerships of the labour movement and other sectors, including government, industry, local communities and training providers to retrain and re-skill workers' into jobs in the renewable energy industry.
The ACTU policy recognises the tremendous potential of renewable energy to create additional jobs in development, installation and operation phases: "Increasing the share of renewable energy in the total energy mix is possible without damaging existing industry and with continuing growth in high quality jobs, as the EU experience demonstrates." (ACTU, 2007, p.6)
Green industrial restructuring
A just transition to a renewable energy economy in coal communities, like the Hunter and Latrobe Valley, is possible. Research shows that currently-available energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies (solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass) with gas as a transitional fuel can meet energy needs in Australia, and in the developing countries of our region (Teske et al 2007, 2008; Mallon et al 2007).
A shift to renewable energy systems would create more resilient and empowered local communities. Big centralised energy infrastructure, like coal-fired power stations, require massive investment in a single piece of infrastructure. The energy system is driven by supply rather than demand and the whims of governments and corporations dominate rather than the aspirations of affected communities. Renewables, on the other hand, are decentralised technologies located at multiple sites where solar, wind and geothermal resources are available – often in regions where
investment and economic revitalisation is urgently needed and where local needs rather than global profit-seeking can rule.
Furthermore, investment renewable energy and energy efficiency creates many more new jobs than in current fossil fuel industries per dollar invested, and they can be in many rural and regional communities.
Research by the Centre of Full Employment and Equity at University of Newcastle has identified a net gain of between 10,000 to 15,000 new jobs if the Hunter six coal-fired power stations were phased out and local energy needs were met by renewable energy (Bill, Riccardo et al, 2008).
Successful policies for regional-scale transitions to Green industry in European countries – with
their potential application in coal communities would involve:
• Clear environmental targets – the greenhouse gas emission cuts of at least 40% by 2020;
• A clear decision to end investment in the affected area or industry – a statement indicating an
end to investment in coal-fired power stations and new coal mines;
• Availability of satisfactory technological alternatives to the technology being phased out –an
appropriate mix of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies;
• Innovation and political leadership that promotes the diffusion of alternative technologies – a
commitment to research, develop and invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and local jobs manufacturing and installing them;
• A market that encourages research and development investment –carbon taxes and carbon cap
and emissions trading;
• A high degree of political integration among different government sectors – between environment,
energy, regional development, industry ministries and between local, state, national and international levels of government;
• Funding for compensation to minimise social and regional disruption caused by change –
compensation and income support to displaced workers and communities, and low-income families; • Establishment of Regional Development Funds to facilitate research and investment incentives
for the establishment of areas (Binder, Jänicke and Petschow, 2001).
A just transition for coal communities
Workers in transition between jobs need redundancy entitlements, income maintenance and opportunities for retraining tailored to individual skills, needs and local opportunities. Research shows that workers with less formal education, older or disabled workers need special targeted support.
Governments have a critical role fostering a just transition that protects local communities and environments during change in many industries – fishing, mining, manufacturing, forestry, etc. The
1999 Forestry Restructuring Program of the Victorian Government provided assistance for both displaced workers and for contractors with elements fundamental to most just transition processes, including support for innovation and partnerships for new local industries, research and development and infrastructure investments. Training and alternative employment tailored to local and individual needs and opportunities was provided. Relocation assistance and support for displaced workers, including income maintenance, redundancy entitlements and retraining allowances was provided. Compensation and equipment buy-outs for contractors were offered and assistance programs were extended to workers employed by contractors (Victorian Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, 2002).
Participants in a just transition recognise the massive challenge of building a sustainable society. They seek to build collaborations rather than conflict or ‘business-as-usual’, and in particular, to
avoid a false 'jobs vs. the environment' conflict.
A just transition process targeting global warming offers scope for transforming the traditional agenda of labour unions, bringing them into collaborations with environmental organisations, governments and other civil society organisations campaigns that link workplaces and communities into collective social action on issues of ecological sustainability and related social development (UNEP, WHO and ILO, 2007). Australian building unions’ Green Bans of the 1970s pioneered transformational union-environmental activism and social movement unionism.
Many Australian labour unions have embraced the concept of social movement
unionism that links the labour movement into broader political coalitions on issues of public concern. Social movement unionism engages unions in issues beyond the workplace, organising union members to work with other civil society organisations to support each other in what are seen as mutually beneficial goals (Brofenbrenner and Juravich, 1998; Reiss, 2005; Tattersall, 2005).
Australian unions have been involved in leading the highly successful Your Rights at Work, Defend Public Education and Medicare campaigns. Union – community collaborations for a just transition
and Green Job Creation in response to climate change are beginning to emerge around Greening the Workplace campaigns.
Green-labour alliances can inspire the broad-based community campaigns needed to make a just transition to renewable energy and new green jobs.
Geoff Evans is an environmental scientist and social ecologist, researching transitions to sustainability. He is a former Director of the Mineral Policy Institute, now working with Greenpeace on their Climate and Energy campaign
An earlier version of this article was originally publish in Insight, the magazine of the Centre for Policy Development. <http://cpd.org.au>
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Energy (R)evolution scenarios have also been developed for 10 global regions, based on the International Energy Agency's breakdown of world regions, as used in the ongoing series of World Energy Outlook reports, including China, East Asia, South Asia, Europe, North America and OECD Pacific (Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand):
<www.energyblueprint.info/regionalscenarios.0.html?PHPSESSID=a138b7a2f0d67c559a77de125d74a0f4>. A Clean Energy Scenario specifically for Australia is forthcoming.
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Victorian Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (2002) Forestry Industry Transition Program.