Activists put the heat on coal at Bonn climate talks

A participant in the climate justice march in Bonn on November 4. Photo: Takver/flikr.

It’s that time of year again when countries get together to discuss taking action on climate change. Progress is painfully slow at these United Nations Climate Change Conferences (known as COPs). We are up to number 23 — hence it is called COP23.

COP23, held in Bonn, Germany from November 6-17, is not as significant as COP21 in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was negotiated. Much of this year’s conference is concerned with fleshing out details of the Paris Agreement, the so called rulebook, for adoption in 2018.

But there is one special feature. For the first time a Pacific island nation – Fiji – is the host. This is allowing a greater voice for Pacific Islanders, who are vulnerable to climate change impacts. The Pacific Climate Warriors, who toured Australia in 2014, are actively engaged both in and outside of COP23.

However, Fiji is too small to accommodate the tens of thousands of people attending COP23, hence proceedings are taking place in Bonn. So German climate activists are using the current spotlight to call for an end to the German coal industry. Most of their activities are outside of COP 23.

Incredibly, the Paris Agreement doesn’t even mention fossil fuels. But actions outside the Bonn talks are putting the heat on the coal industry.

25,000 march against coal

Ahead of the start of COP23, about 25,000 climate activists took to the streets of Bonn on November 4 with the demand “Fight for Climate Justice – End Coal”. People poured in from across Germany and nearby countries. About 1000 people cycled together from Cologne — about 30 km — to join the march.

The march was supported by more than 100 climate, environment and development groups, citizen initiatives and churches from all over the world. Also attending were also thousands of ordinary folk from Bonn and further afield, who came to say it’s long past time for action on climate change. The march was led by Pacific Climate Warriors, chanting “We are not drowning! We are fighting!”

The speakers came from several countries and spoke about the impacts of climate change in their lands, the effect of fossil fuel extraction, and the consequent injustices they face. In her speech, Dipti Bhatnagar from Mozambique said: “Those who benefited from dirty energy and put the whole world on a development trajectory of export-oriented dirty energy must now do the most to address it.

“Even today all the coal which is mined in my country of Mozambique goes from the mine straight to the port and out of the continent, while 70% of our people don’t have a lightbulb in their homes. It stops here and now.”

(Photos of the November 4 rally from Takver/flickr.)

On the next day, more than 4000 climate activists converged on the Hambach open-cut coal mine, around 50 kilometres from Bonn. Hambach is the largest such mine in Europe, covering more than 42 square kilometres. It is operated by the German firm RWE and mines brown coal (lignite), similar to that found in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. Activists shut down three of the mine’s gigantic excavators and a conveyor belt.

The action was organised by an alliance of anti-coal and anti-nuclear groups called Ende Gelaende (“Here and No Further”). Again they were joined by the Pacific Climate Warriors. There was a large police presence at the action, and images have emerged of police using pepper spray on seated protesters.

Pacific Climate Warriors declaration

On November 8, the Pacific Climate Warriors released their Declaration on Climate Change #HaveYourSei. The declaration demands: “The immediate phase-out of existing fossil fuel projects – the banning of all new fossil fuel infrastructure, shutting down of existing ones and canceling planned expansions … Immediately deliver the finance and support needed for countries already facing irreversible loss and damage.

“As well as the immediate establishment of adaptation mechanisms to cope with ongoing climate impacts. The prohibition of the fossil fuel industry from participating in the UNFCCC processes so that they can no longer delay, weaken and block action on climate change.”

Climate activists also ran a four-day event outside of COP23, called the People’s Climate Summit. This included more than 50 workshops presented by activists from around the world. The focus was on global struggles for climate justice, and putting the social-ecological transition into practice.

Just transition — no jobs on a dead planet

A popular event at the People’s Climate Summit focused on ensuring a just transition. In richer countries, the term “just transition” is used in the sense developed by trade unions:  ensuring that communities dependent on fossil fuel industries do not bear the brunt of the transition to sustainable energy, and can obtain decent new jobs and maintain their livelihoods.

Another emerging issue is affordable energy particularly for vulnerable households and businesses.

However, in poorer countries, the term is often used in a different sense. It is primarily about justice for vulnerable and disadvantaged people as these countries develop.

In developed countries, we often hear proposals to ensure that communities who are dependent on fossil fuel jobs are provided with jobs in the clean energy sector. But there are critical issues to consider.

First, such jobs may be in different locations and may require different skills. Second, many such jobs could be of poorer quality.

In particular, wages, benefits and job security are likely to be worse. Fossil fuel industries tend to be unionised, and in many countries they are in the public sector. This means job security and better working conditions. Renewable energy companies, however, tend to be small and non-unionised.

A key point was that a market-led approach will not deliver a just transition; governments need a strong plan and trade unions must be involved.

In developing countries, just transition demands tend to be more multi-faceted, and vary according to their circumstances. The emphasis is not just on jobs and livelihoods, but also broader issues including human rights, equity, gender equality, health (particularly cutting pollution), protecting groups vulnerable to climate impacts, and access to energy for all people. Indeed, in much of the world, many people don’t have access to electricity.

Thomas Hirsch from Climate and Development Advice spoke about how in poorer countries, discussions around development were much stronger than those around climate action. He said that justice had to be at the centre of discussions about the sustainable energy transition, and it is important to emphasise that the transition to sustainable energy will aid development as well help the climate.  

Given the complexity of the just transition narrative, a key issue is how groups with differing justice concerns can form alliances.

A key recommendation was that countries include just transition plans within their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — the commitment that each country has made under the Paris Agreement. Currently, only South Africa’s NDCs explicitly mentions just transition.

But mere words are not enough. Hirsch noted that in fact Costa Rica was the leader in trying to implement the various dimensions of a just transition plan.  

Implications for Australia

Direct action groups targeting coal are active in many countries. There is an extra dimension in Australia. Not only are we highly dependent on coal for our own electricity, but we are also a major coal exporter. The narrative being promoted by Australia’s minerals and energy industries — that coal exports are vital for bringing people out of energy poverty — must be rejected.

People in developing countries have their own ideas about how to achieve a just transition. They do not need the Australian coal industry telling them what is best for them. And while development is a high priority, the emphasis needs to be on achieving sustainable and equitable development.

Australia need clean energy systems in the hands of people and a just transition that ensures no one is left behind. Coal workers and their communities are already in steep decline. They need strong support, now, to build new lives with clean renewable jobs and other economic opportunities.

We cannot rely on markets to do this; we need strong government planning. Moreover, we cannot rely on private renewable energy companies to provide decent, well-paid, secure jobs. Strong unions in these industries are vital.

Just transition is a complex multi-faceted concept. We can learn much by considering how groups in developing countries are interpreting this concept.

In coming years, Australia will need to revise its NDC. This will mean ratchetting up its carbon emission reduction targets. As we push for higher targets, we also need to be pushing for a just transition plan within Australia’s NDC.

[Andrea Bunting and John Englart are Melbourne-based climate activists. They are part of the Climate Action Network Australia delegation at COP23.]

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