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REPORT: What happened at COP26 and what it means for workers

26 December, 2021COP26 met from 1-13 November 2021, and negotiated the Glasgow Climate Pact. What is in it, and what does it mean for workers?


From Global Worker No. 2 November 2021

Theme: COP 26, Just transition

Text: Walton Pantland

What is COP26?

COP26 is the 26th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Parties are the 197 countries who are signatories to the UNFCCC. They are working together on a global, multilateral agreement to tackling climate change.

The first meeting of the UNFCCC, the Rio Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, while the first COP – the governing body of the UNFCCC – was held in Berlin in 1995. COP3, in Kyoto, led to the first global climate treaty to try to limit warming, the Kyoto Protocol. The Glasgow Climate Pact is the latest iteration of that treaty.

There have been many criticisms of the UNFCCC process. A major issue is that every Party recognizes that something must be done – and wants everyone else to take action, while finding exceptions for themselves. This results in systematic under-reporting of carbon emissions, greenwashing, and exempting whole areas, such as the military. 

Most governments are still hoping for market-led, private sector solutions, which has resulted in too much focus on the potential of theoretical technologies, and not enough action from governments.

Why was COP26 important?

COP26 was billed as our last, best chance to limit global warming to tolerable levels. COP21 – held in Paris in 2015 – was a milestone, as it resulted in the Paris Agreement, a global commitment to limit warming to significantly less that 2 degrees. COP26 was important because it finalized the rules governing the Paris agreement – the “Paris rulebook” - and because countries had to define their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to cut emissions.

Was COP26 a failure? 

Many environmental activists, including Greta Thunberg, have called COP26 a failure. The Glasgow Climate Pact lacks ambition, and the Parties’ NDCs are not sufficient to limit global warming. But this is not the whole story, and unions are cautiously optimistic: compared to where we were a year ago, when Trump was still in the White House, significant progress has been made. The window of opportunity to prevent disastrous climate change remains open, momentum is building, and there are commitments to fund a transition. 

Crucially, the negotiations are not over: there will be further pressure on countries to redefine NDCs at COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh next year, and every year subsequently. Civil society, including trade unions, will need to use the next year to push governments as far as possible.

Outside of COP26 commitments, there is growing momentum globally, including from the private sector and from local government, towards net zero. Technology has advanced and become more affordable, meaning the pace of transition is growing rapidly.

What are the likely consequences of COP26 for unions?

COP26 leaves us in a significantly different policy environment to the one we were in after COP25. This is what unions can expect to confront: 

The end of coal

The role played by coal in the energy mix was one of the mostly hotly debated topics at COP26. Coal-fired power stations are significant contributors to global warming, and yet many countries are dependent on coal for their energy needs. The original language of the agreement, to “phase out” coal, was softened after pressure from China and India to “phase down”. Nonetheless, the intention is clear: the Parties agree that is no long term future for coal, and there will be growing pressure globally to shut coal mines. For unions, fighting to keep coal mines and coal-fired power stations open is fighting against the tide of history. Unions in the UKSpain and elsewhere have managed to secure retraining and redeployment. We need to fight to make this the norm.

A commitment to Just Transition

A prominent trade union slogan at this COP was “nothing about us, without us.” Unions successfully promoted the principle of Just Transition at every level. An important outcome of this COP was a strengthening of the commitment to Just Transition, which has now been included in the Paris rulebook. The Just Transition Declaration announced by rich countries sets an important precedent that transition to sustainability must happen through consultation with those most affected.

Trade unions can use Just Transition language in the COP agreements to demand social dialogue at national level now. Global unions can also demand social dialogue with multinational companies about transition plans.

Government is back

Since the late 1970s, much of the world turned away from state-led development to deregulation, privatization, deindustrialization and market-led development. This was strongly resisted by unions, and resulted in growing inequality and led to crises like the 2008 financial crash. Covid-19 forced even those governments that were totally ideologically committed to austerity into unprecedented state spending, as it quickly became apparent that there was no market solution to the pandemic. 

This unprecedented level of state intervention and funding is likely to be maintained as governments tackle climate change. Despite the huge amounts that will be invested, preventing climate disaster will still be significantly cheaper than coping with the consequences. 

There is also likely to be a multiplier effect: where states invest, the private sector tends to follow. For the first time in world history, there will be globally coordinated investments, leading to economies of scale.

Funding to decarbonize the Global South

Rich countries pledged in Paris to provide $100 billion per year to the Global South to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to help them to decarbonize their economies. So far, they have failed to honour this pledge. Despite this, significant amounts of money – grants, not loans – have started to flow to poorer countries. 

An important precedent is the $8.5 billion earmarked to decarbonize Eskom, South Africa’s coal-fired parastatal energy utility. The funding countries have committed to Just Transition, and the process will be managed with social dialogue through the tripartite structure Nedlac. South African unions have justifiable concerns about corruption, greenwashing, privatization and a number of other issues, but if the deal goes as planned, it could lead to the creation of quality, clean jobs, skills and technology transfer, and a significant reduction in emissions. Success in South Africa will also mean more funding in other countries, particularly those, like India, which are heavily dependent on coal.

Green Deals in the Global North

Rich countries will commit huge amounts of funding to building green infrastructure. The European Green Deal, for example, will provide €100 billion by 2030 to fund a green recovery from Covid. This will include new transport infrastructure, retrofitting homes and buildings, green energy generation and more. The European Commission anticipates that this will provide hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Similarly in the US, Biden’s US$1 trillion infrastructure bill will commit a large amount to green infrastructure. Other OECD countries are planning similar levels of investment.

How should unions respond?

"if you liked Covid, you'll love climate change!"

The Covid crisis was a dress rehearsal for climate change. It has taken unprecedented government action, funding and global coordination to suppress the pandemic and save lives. We will need to continue this way of working to confront climate change. 

Demand social dialogue and fight for Just Transition

We need to prepare our members for the changes that are coming. It is easy to criticize our governments for failing to take the necessary action, but those of us in the labour movement are also guilty of ignoring and wishing away the climate crisis. Jobs in fossil fuels pay well and are sites of strength for trade unions, leading us to prioritize protecting those jobs. There is now a global commitment to transition from fossil fuels. In some countries, unions have a lot of experience fighting for and winning Just Transition. We need to continue to learn from the best examples.

IndustriALL energy director and delegate to COP26, Diana Junquera Curiel, says:

“It is better to design your future than have it imposed on you.

“Rather than making our members believe that we can defend these jobs indefinitely, we must be honest with them and help them to prepare for the future. Our urgent task is to develop concrete frameworks for Just Transition that we can implement through social dialogue.”

Just Transition is included in the Paris rulebook – but for many governments, social dialogue around economic policy will not come naturally. It is up to unions to demand a seat at the table as countries refine their NDCs and plan transition. If we do this effectively, we can set a precedent in other areas of the economy, creating tripartite structures and sector-wide bargaining.

Change the narrative

Workers and their unions are justifiably suspicious of lofty claims that a glorious Just Transition will create a green utopia of good, clean union jobs. Every major change to the global economy in history has come at a cost to workers: from the development of textile machinery that replaced weavers in the early 19th century, through to the globalization of the 1990s that led to outsourcing and large-scale job losses.

Why should we believe it will be different this time?

It won’t be different if we leave it to our politicians. But it can be different if we are engaged in driving the transition. We are facing an unprecedented shift in the global economy – the end of the age of fossil fuel, and the beginning of a new age that is yet to be defined. Unlike previous changes, this is a managed process, with space for unions to influence policy.

The world’s governments will spend unprecedented amounts of money. It is up to us to ensure that this spend delivers good jobs to our members – and that we build a better world in the process.