Workers must lead transition to green economy, unions say at climate talks

As global climate negotiators meet in Lima, Peru, for the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP 20) — a prelude to world climate talks in Paris next year — international union representatives say labor needs a stronger voice in planning the transition away from fossil fuels.

If that changeover is left to corporations and market forces alone, workers will be exposed and already-vulnerable communities will suffer most, union leaders told Al Jazeera.

“Labor should not just be at the table,” Bruce Hamilton, vice president of the U.S.-based Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), said from Lima. “Labor should be planning the transition.”

Trade unions send delegations to every COP, but they do not participate in negotiations. That makes it difficult to ensure workers are not left out of the energy industry’s “huge transformation,” Anabella Rosemberg, a sustainable development adviser for the International Trade Union, said from Lima.

“We need stronger social protections so that people who might be in sectors that are under stress can be accommodated to the clean sector,” Rosemberg said, adding that historically workers have paid a heavy price during major economic transformations.

Workers in industries that contribute to climate change — oil and gas extraction, pipeline construction or long-distance transport, for example — must be given an opportunity to transition into the clean economy, Rosemberg said.

“The reality is that today … we are not seeing a critical mass of investment to create decent work opportunities in renewables or energy efficiency,” she said. “That’s why we need the climate policy drafted here in Lima to set a target so that investments are going in the right direction to supply workers in the transition to a green economy.”

Despite trade unions’ exclusion from negotiations, the World Bank and World Food Program have called on climate negotiators to address both poverty and climate during COP 20. The two organizations have said they will work with delegates to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable are incorporated into climate policy.

To that end, ATU members have called for increased public transportation worldwideThat, says Hamilton, is one of the best ways to fight climate change because it reduces carbon emissions while creating jobs. Retrofitting old buildings, which are among the biggest sources of carbon pollution, would represent another big step.

A just transition to a clean economy will also better protect the world’s poorest communities — those most vulnerable to climate change — Hamilton said.

There are numerous recent examples of the urgency of this challenge. Just this week a massive typhoon, made stronger by warmer temperatures, slammed into the Philippines. Though the country has contributed little to climate change, it is paying a heavy cost.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, small island nations have warned that they will likely be underwater by the end of the century due to rising sea levels unless big polluters like the United States and China enact significant carbon cuts.

“All parties, particularly the big emitters, must have their proposed targets for the Paris Agreement on the table in the first half of next year,” Minister Tony de Brum from the Marshall Islands, who attended the conference in Lima, told Al Jazeera, referring to next year’s climate conference in France.

The Marshall Islands saw two climate emergencies earlier this year: a severe drought in its northern atolls devastated the agricultural sector while the largest-ever king tides surged through the streets of its capital, Majuro.  The country has solarized all of its outer atolls, and has already invested heavily in new green technology to wean the rest of the country off fossil fuels.

“Lying two meters above sea level, we have more to lose than anyone from an agreement that falls short,” de Brum said.

Scientists tend to agree that human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels cause climate change. They argue that carbon emissions must be cut significantly in the next 10 years to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

Weeks ahead of COP 20 the U.S. and China, which are responsible for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, announced significant carbon cuts. The White House committed to cutting emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025 based on 2005 levels. And President Xi Jinping said China’s carbon emissions would peak in 2030. By that same year, China will increase its renewable energy output by 20 percent.

“The fact that the Chinese and U.S. joint statement occurred just before the COP encouraged the discussion to be a little more energetic and people seem a bit more driven,” Kyle Ash, a Greenpeace policy analyst who attended COP 20, told Al Jazeera. “But those targets are not enough, and there must be a review process that explicitly allows people to assess the targets, and they must be open to changing them.”

COP 20 negotiators hope to develop a draft of the global climate treaty that will be signed in Paris next year. And that — the proposed transition to a new economy based on clean energy — gives the world a rare opportunity to reorganize society in a more just and sustainable way, Rosemberg said.

“For us it’s clear that Lima is an important part of the mobilization, but we need to feel more ambitious about what kind of society we want to have,” she said. “We need more solidarity to create a more just and fair economy where we protect the environment and we also share wealth in a more equitable manner.”