Workers in the fossil fuel industry must be assured a “decent future” even as mines and plants are forced to close, according to a leaked draft UN declaration.
The draft, prepared by the Polish UN climate presidency and posted below, calls for a programme to monitor national progress on protecting workers and communities that rely on traditional industries.
The Polish government intends for heads of state to adopt the proposal at UN talks in December.
If it is accepted, countries will recognise “challenges for sectors, cities and other subnational authorities highly dependent on fossil fuels and high emitting industries, and the need for national governments to ensure a decent future for workers impacted by the transition” to a sustainable, “low greenhouse gas emission” future.
The ‘Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration’ is named after the region of Poland where this year’s climate conference will take place. On Monday, Climate Home News reported coal workers in the host city of Katowice felt threatened by the pursuit of increasingly rapid cuts to coal use.
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The future of miners is at the centre of climate politics in many countries, including Poland, Australia and the US. In Germany, a commission charged with planning the phase out of coal has been told to balance this mandate with the impact on workers.
“Creating quality jobs and simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions is very challenging,” said a spokesperson for the Polish government. When deciding how rapidly to cut carbon, they said, “it is obvious that economies with higher fossil fuel dependence will need to take into account also social impact”.
Moustapha Kamal Gueye coordinator of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) green jobs programme said: “Certain groups may use [the] just transition as a way to temper climate action, saying that ambitious and rapid carbon reduction goals may cause disruptions, therefore we need to slow down.”
But he said this was not in line with the thinking of the ILO, which supports rapid decarbonisation coupled with extensive social policies that support communities and workers affected.
“Ambitious climate action is a job creator, it is not a job killer… it is more inaction on climate change that risks causing job destruction,” said Gueye.
In a study released earlier this year, the ILO found that shifting to a clean energy system would create 24 million new jobs worldwide. But that benefit will be uneven, with 6 million jobs lost and not necessarily directly replaced.
Gueye said the impact would be worst in the Middle East and Africa. But coal regions in developed countries, such as Poland and Germany, would also be affected.
“Obviously, certain communities, countries will be more impacted and have a higher burden than others. So we cannot, in my view, say that in every circumstance high action on climate change would leave everybody well off at the same level,” he said.
Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration Draft 1 (Text)
The general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Sharan Burrow told CHN it was “possible” to develop plans that “leave no-one behind” but only if labour was consulted.
The ITUC has submitted a proposal to the Polish presidency along similar lines to the draft published by CHN. Burrow said it was a belated but important step towards giving workers a voice in climate talks.
“They are fearful, they’re resentful. What else would you expect? But we have a responsibility to make sure they are included. That we leave no-one behind,” she said. “If you don’t bring people along; if they don’t trust there is a future for themselves; for their communities; for their children, then we will lose this race.”
At a conference in Oxford on Monday, experts said planning was key to ease the pain for mining communities.
Many coal mining areas have already faced dramatic job losses due to automation and other industry trends, said Oliver Sartor of French think-tank IDDRI, which has studied historic cases globally.
Governments should be prepared for climate action to trigger a similarly rapid shift – although not necessarily faster, he said. “If you anticipate, you can do a lot on the social side. If you don’t anticipate, it becomes very difficult.”
If a coal mine is due to close in ten years, for example, it can stop taking on new staff and offer early retirement or retraining to existing workers. The authorities may wish to stimulate new industries in the area.
Communities that embrace change tend to attract more investment in regeneration than those who wait, said Pao-Yu Oei of Berlin’s University of Technology. “There are going to be quite a few actors who profit from it but there are also going to be some losers. If they don’t join the transition they will definitely be worse off.”
Tara Caetano of sustainable cities network ICLEI researched the implications of moving away from coal in South Africa. She found that coal miners were unsure if their skills would transfer even to similar industries like platinum mining, because of the specific machinery involved. “Retraining is something that needs planning,” she said. At the moment, mining companies continue to sponsor university courses for new workers to enter the industry.
Some countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh are expanding their coal mining capacity, noted Jan Steckel of the Mercator Institute.
The urgency of the climate challenge, faced with industry clout, raises the risk of a disruptive transition, he warned. “There is not a lot of coal left in the optimal 2C scenarios past 2030. So I think it is tremendously important to get this right.”
The Polish declaration is one of three statements the government intends to be agreed at their UN climate talks. The other two declarations will be on forest carbon stocks and electro mobility.