Education International
Education International

Unions have solutions to climate crisis

published 14 December 2009 updated 14 December 2009

Amidst a mounting sense of urgency about the need to save our warming planet, trade unionists from all continents gathered in Copenhagen to coordinate their efforts to push world leaders towards an ambitious climate agreement that incorporates provisions for a just transition to a sustainable world with more green, decent jobs.

Over three days during the crucial final week of the COP 15 negotiations, the centre of labour movement activities will be the World of Work Pavilion at the headquarters of the Danish trade union federation, LO. Participants were united in their feeling that the WOW Pavilion was aptly named.

“Wow! To see so many colleagues from all around the world here is really very moving,” said Anabella Rosemberg, sustainable development officer for the International Trade Union Confederation.

The ITUC, LO and other affiliates have organised a broad range of events to facilitate lively dialogue on trade unions’ responses to the climate crisis and its impact on workers. EI and other global union federations cooperated to produce a publication entitled Green growth for jobs and social justice, which is being distributed at the WOW Pavilion.

At the opening event, Rosemberg briefed trade union representatives on labour’s key demands, which are articulated in the ITUC’s global position statement entitled Trade unions and climate change: Equity, justice and solidarity in the fight against climate change.

It asserts that now, in the face of the global economic crisis, is the time to tackle climate change. It offers an opportunity to restore hope and rebuild economies on a sustainable basis while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But this transition to a low-carbon world must be a just process; “Economic transformation cannot be left to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market.” Developed countries, which created 80% of the emissions now in the atmosphere, must help pay for measures to bridge the “adaptation gap” because “the poor cannot be left to plunge into even greater misery.”

Philip Pearson of the Trade Union Congress in the UK warned that so far government pledges on emissions reduction are clearly inadequate. Current pledges are only 13-19% below 1990 levels by 2020, but scientists say emissions must be 25-40% lower.

“It’s obviously not enough,” Pearson said. “We are still far outside the UN target range. Let’s not pretend that 25-40% will solve global warning. There’s only a 50-50 chance that that would work to control temperature rise. We are still in an area of high risk. Everyone here has to urge their governments to do more … to do the right thing.” Inside the UNFCCC process, the trade unions have been recognised by the United Nations as a key constituency. However, compared to the vast numbers of people represented by the labour movement, access to the table remains very limited. “We represent 170 million workers. We’re larger than many countries, yet we’re struggling to get a few more badges” to grant access to the COP 15 meetings, noted James Howard, Director of economic and social policy for the ITUC.

Nonetheless, the trade unions have had success in ensuring that the key concepts of just transition and decent work form part of the COP negotiating text, under the heading of “Shared Vision.”

“For the first time ever, governments are discussing just transition. Forcing them to talk about workers’ issues is already a victory. Not a single government took the floor to say they opposed just transition,” Rosemberg said.

The global reach of the labour movement means that union voices are heard everywhere, she added. “We are not just inside the negotiations, we are outside too. In all the struggles of the world, the unions are there. And we have solutions.”