Saturday 20 July 2019

Delivering a 'just transition' to a low carbon economy in Ireland

The Labour Party member on Ireland's 'Joint Climate Action Committee', Seán Sherlock TD, says we need to form a special task force to plan the biggest, fastest transition the world has ever faced

The recent announcement by the Government to reduce single-use plastics within government departments is welcome, however, it seems a meagre response to the enormity of the challenge facing us right now.

The Minister has repeatedly stated that he wants Ireland to lead on climate change yet this government has done little to nothing since it took office to change Ireland's reputation as a laggard when it comes to climate action.

If the Minister wants to 'set an example' perhaps he and his government colleagues should get to the business of legislating, and legislating for a 'just transition'.

If the Minister wants to set a real example, he should stop ignoring the opposition and our legislation. He has an opportunity to garner opposition support for the enormity of the challenge ahead.

When we know that change is ahead, preparation is better than resistance. We are beginning to embark on a rapid transition to a low carbon future, but we have only a decade or two to replace fossil fuels with renewables. That means big changes to infrastructure and it means that many people will soon be doing different jobs.

A 'just transition' is the idea of involving workers in the conversation about the changes ahead and working together to design and build the pathways to a better future. As the shift to clean energy and sustainable modes of production takes place, we have to make sure that investors give the wellbeing of workers a high priority. Ending our dependence on fossil fuels and moving to a low carbon future is an opportunity, but it can only happen if workers and communities are involved in the transition.

International and Irish trade unions are driving forward the just transition. SIPTU's catch phrase is that 'there are no jobs on a dead planet'.

We are faced with a narrow window of opportunity if we are to be successful in containing global warming to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Unprecedented changes are needed within the next 12 years;net CO2 emissions have to go down by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 as we transition to net zero emissions globally by around 2050.

The consequences of not reducing emissions are dire for us in Ireland as well as for people all over the world. Climate change threatens the fabric of our daily lives and can reverse all the progress that has been made in reducing global poverty in recent decades.

Irish people overwhelmingly support the need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions rapidly. But there is a great deal of fear about the uncertainties of the changes that we are facing. And fear is one of the biggest obstacles to change.

Just transition is about allying those fears by involving those most directly affected. In Ireland, energy, transport and agriculture all need to undergo rapid transformative change. Hauliers, peat production workers, builders, mechanics and farmers will all be impacted. The sooner we start to plan for their wellbeing in this transition, the less social and economic disruption we will face.

The whole point of planning for a just transition is that it is not just about climate change, it is about people having decent, sustainable livelihoods.

In terms of energy transition, there are good and bad examples from all over the world. Mary Robinson, in a keynote speech in Dublin in November, told the story of a community in Port Augusta, Northern Australia, where a coal fired power station was to be closed down.

In the five years leading up to the plant's closure, workers, unions, citizens and local businesses came together to research how to achieve a just transition. They have developed a thermal solar plant which will create 1,800 jobs and save five million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

This is a story of how preparation and partnership can work to deliver positive outcomes for all.

We have to ensure that a similarly positive story can be told in future about the workers of Ireland's peat industry, who have since the 1960s been harvesting the midlands' peat bogs, fuelling the peat fired electricity stations, producing peat briquettes and making milled peat for horticulture. The economics and ethics of harvesting peat no longer stack up: not only does draining peat bogs release millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, but the fuel itself is more climate-polluting than coal.

No one is disputing the need for an urgent end to the peat industry, but the rights and dignity of the workers and communities must be respected. This is the prime example of where a just transition is needed.

In Ireland, the just transition not only applies to workers in fossil fuel industries like peat, coal or oil. Ireland's agricultural sector accounts for 8% of total employment and more than 30% of national greenhouse gas emissions. Halving these emissions will involve drastic changes in what we produce and how we produce it, away from intensive production of dairy, 80% of which produces powdered milk for export.

Diversification in agriculture is key. The good news is that moving away from intensive livestock farming systems can also generate opportunities in terms of rural employment, as diversified farms tend to generate more employment per hectare than highly specialized ones. We must act collectively to allay the fears of farmers and assist the sector in a transition to modes of production which are not destroying the planet.

The just transition cannot be left to the free market. Following the free market means we keep increasing agricultural emissions rather than reducing them, so it follows that the free market will not build a just transition to a sustainable future.

The free market will also not take care of the workers and their communities who will be left behind when unplanned employment hits. We must manage the transition by direct intervention in the market to deliver opportunities rather than destitution.

Just transition is not about enhanced unemployment although robust social protection is important, including decent healthcare, access to education and pensions. Opportunities have to be created in the same areas where jobs are lost. Reskilling and upskilling is needed. If we don't act on climate change quickly, we will have much bigger worries than what it costs to retrain workers.

As a relatively wealthy nation, we have to be involved in ensuring a just transition in developing countries, too. Only a global justice movement can rise to the challenge of emissions reduction and economic transformation.

To begin the process here, we need a social dialogue between workers and their unions, employers, communities, government, NGOS and civil society groups. We have to figure out together where investment is most needed and how it can be most effectively targeted.

In October, ICTU called for a 'just transition forum'. We must respond urgently to this call by establishing a just transition task force in which we plan the detail of delivering security and opportunity for workers as we embark together on the biggest and fastest transition that the world has ever faced.