Why South African unions should stop investing in fossil fuels and lobby for a just, planned transition to a green economy.
More jobs: Yes, the fossil fuel industry creates jobs, but it also creates climate change, air and water pollution, substantial corruption, wars, social instability, economic crises and fuel shortages, and destroys arable land — all of which destroy jobs and human wellbeing. A greener economy will create more, better, safer jobs. According to the International Labour Organisation (https://goo.gl/rSryng): “…most studies show that a transition to a low-carbon economy will lead to a net increase in employment”. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has argued for “a planned closure of coal power stations – along with both a jobs and energy plan for the country”, saying it will “create a more prosperous and diversified economy”. (https://goo.gl/k4da08). Renewable energy is now capable of powering developing economies, indeed the whole world, without all the terrible costs of fossil fuels.
Threatened investments: Investments in fossil fuels are losing value in many markets. Even if they do not embrace the moral arguments for divestment, unions still have a fiduciary duty to the members whose funds they manage to understand, manage, and where appropriate, divest, to avoid the multiplying threats to investments in the fossil fuel industry. According to BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager: “Investors can no longer ignore climate change. Some may question the science behind it, but all are faced with a swelling tide of climate-related regulations and technological disruption.”
Health and the right to life: Researchers at UCT’s Energy Research Centre estimate that 27,000 premature deaths across South Africa annually (7.4% of all deaths) are currently due to high levels of fine PM (microscopic particles), mostly from burning fossil fuels… and often in poorer communities. Even without climate change, we would still need to shut down the fossil fuel industry.
Human and worker rights: Climate change is a profound threat to Africa. Climate change is a human rights issue, already killing hundreds of thousands of African children every year through malnutrition and disease. Climate change threatens food security. It threatens economic growth and stability, and thereby threatens workers’ job and savings.
The fossil fuel industry is facing multiple, critical threats:
- Renewable energy (especially wind & solar) is now the fastest growing energy industry in the world.
- China is moving fast to phase out coal, and its coal use has already peaked.
- By some predictions, electric cars will mostly replace petrol/diesel in 20 years’ time.
- The 2015 Paris agreement on climate change saw most countries agree to phase out fossil fuels.
- Even without these changes, in 50-100 years time at the most, all accessible fossil fuel reserves will be exhausted anyway.
- Transition away from fossil fuels is inevitable, but a managed, just transition is preferable.
Solidarity and tradition: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The global divestment movement is led by many people of colour and people of faith, constituencies which overlap strongly with the union movement. The union movement has a social and historical responsibility to stand up for social justice, human rights and good governance. The fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, is extremely corrupt, threatening good governance and worker’s rights as well as human health and the environment.
A just transition from fossil fuels to a greener economy
A “just transition” would bring business, labour and government together to plan for a smooth move away from fossil fuels, as energy companies transform their business models. This transition is already beginning in other parts of the world, as, for example, offshore oil service companies move to servicing offshore wind power installations. Proposed ILO guidelines (https://goo.gl/jdaetC) for this just transition include re-skilling and training, social support and economic diversification. (more…)