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Labour movement agendas in conflict over decarbonisation pathways

Jun 7, 2022

Les Levidow

The Just Transition concept has sought to avoid socially unjust means and  consequences of a low-carbon transition.  Alternatives could provide the basis for a common agenda of the labour movement.  Yet trade unions have had divergent perspectives on decarbonisation pathways, especially as regards the potential role of technological solutions. 

Such conflict has focused on Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS).  This is favourably called ‘carbon abatement’ or pejoratively called a ‘technofix’.  As one reason for US trade-unions supporting CCS and thus the fossil fuel industry, often they have achieved relatively greater job security and wages there; such gains may seem jeopardised by substituting renewable energy.  

UK CCS agendas focus on the prospect to decarbonise natural gas into hydrogen. This agenda unites the UK ‘energy unions’ with their members’ employers, as a cross-class alliance for a CCS fix.   From a critical perspective, this seeks to accumulate capital by perpetuating natural gas, while undermining or delaying its renewable competitors.  

Trade-union divergences have arisen in many ways. For a Just Transition,  ITUC has advocated phasing out ‘unabated coal’, implying that coal with CCS could continue indefinitely.  In the name of climate justice, the TUC has advocated CCS as a means to continue fossil fuels within a ‘balanced energy’ policy.  By contrast,  according to the PCS,  CCS ‘is not yet a proven technology at scale’, and we don’t have the luxury to wait; it counterposes a strategy of energy democracy.  

Such political divergences within the labour movement have arisen around Just Transition proposals at TUC conferences, likewise around agendas for a Green New Deal.  In 2019  these were promoted within the US Democratic Party and UK Labour Party. Both underwent internal conflicts over decarbonisation pathways, expressing conflicts within the labour movement. 

As the bigger picture, fossil fuel industries have sought system continuity through decarbonisation technofixes, with political support from their sector’s trade unions, thus associating workers’ secure livelihoods with fossil energy.  This agenda complements capitalist frameworks of Green Keynesianism and Green Growth, seeking to reconcile perpetual economic growth with environmental sustainability.  This false promise helps to soften or defer societal conflicts over an economically disruptive transition.  In practice, the promise has provided an investment imperative for dubious low-carbon remedies, or an alibi to await their feasibility before abandoning fossil fuels, or both at once.   

By contrast,  some public-sector trade unions and environmentalist allies have sought a socio-economic transformation.  This would go beyond the fossil fuel industry and GDP-driven growth, towards an economy of sufficiency.  Such alliances have been coordinated internationally by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. 

 Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS), Credit: Cathy Wilcox

Such tensions will arise around any decarbonisation process, regardless of whether it is called a Just Transition or Green New Deal.  To go beyond false promises will depend on political struggles to disrupt the hegemonic cross-class alliance, to create different alliances and to gain state support for their agendas.  

Labour movement groups have been leading GND local alliances along those lines, sometimes for decarbonisation retrofits of houses (as in Leeds and Scotland).  Such alliances test strategies to confront dominant industry agendas, while also developing eco-localisation alternatives.  These seek means to localise production-consumption circuits, increase public goods, enhance socio-economic equity, and minimise resource burdens. 

Read the full article: 

Green New Deals: what shapes Green and Deal? Capitalism Nature Socialism (CNS).

Author’s bio-note: 

Les Levidow is a Senior Research Fellow at the Open University.  He is a member of the University and College Union (UCU).  Contentious fixes and practical alternatives will be analysed in his forthcoming book, Beyond Climate Fixes: From Public Controversy to System Change.

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