TEN YEARS AGO, IN JUNE 2012, AT the Rio+20 global climate talks in Rio de Janeiro, trade unions attending the meeting raised the critical need for an alternative narrative to the “green growth” model of addressing climate change. Those discussions were the beginning of what has become the public pathway, a transitional set of conditions that supports a broader public goods and services agenda and an alternative to neoliberal energy policy. The three prior decades of energy liberalisation and privatisation had resulted in ineffective policy. It was unable to move the world closer to reaching pressing climate targets. At Rio+20, unions understood that an alternative approach required the contestation of ownership in the energy sector so that decarbonisation decisions would not be held captive to profit-making for private investors. Additionally, models of democratic participation and governance were needed to ensure that decision-making would be in the best interest of the public, and not influenced nor corrupted by ulterior agendas.
In their statement at the end of 2012, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) captured the sentiment: We believe a just transition must be based in worker controlled, democratic social ownership of key means of production and means of subsistence. Without this struggle over ownership, and the struggle for a socially owned renewable energy sector, a just transition will become a capitalist concept, building up a capitalist ‘green economy’.
Reflecting the need to address ownership through government intervention, with clear social controls, the statement issued at the Trade Union Assembly (TUA), held during Rio+20, included that: Public authorities have the responsibility to… set in motion a rights-based transition (to sustainable development) that secures equity between and within countries, between generations and across genders. It must ensure that the Commons, natural and energy resources are brought and kept under public ownership, securing their public preservation and administration with social control.
These ideas were carried forward to a meeting in October 2012, in New York City, during which the international network, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), was formed. Over the last decade, neoliberal energy policies have failed to produce a clear plan to contend with continued rising emissions from increases in both energy demands and fossil fuel use. Meanwhile, working with the growing number of unions in the network and movement allies, TUED has pursued a research agenda to further articulate why the conditions of public ownership and democratic control of energy are so critical for meeting climate targets and advancing a progressive social platform. And researchers and unionists have analysed how to organise for those conditions in varying geopolitical contexts.
The Global South
Most recently, to confront the diverse challenges particular to the Global South and to further research on these issues, trade unions launched the TUED South platform in Nairobi, Kenya, in October this year. The platform seeks to promote trade union cooperation on energy issues, while developing a South-led public pathway alternative. This would be anchored in the defence and expansion of public ownership of energy systems, essential supply chains in the Global South and other aspects of the energy sector.
Across the Global South, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is utilising the pretext of the heightened urgency of climate action to pressure governments to accommodate private renewable energy companies in the name of being good climate actors. Simultaneously, we are witnessing emerging “partnerships’’ between governments of developed economies, including the US, Germany, France and Britain, and emerging markets and developing economies (EMDEs) such as South Africa and Kenya. Their purpose is to set up “enabling environments’’ for private investment toward an energy transition.
Neoliberal audiences applaud these efforts as solutions to the climate crisis; this only underscores the need for an alternative, South-led response.
Unlike standard structural adjustment programmes, a public pathway offers the conditions for a way forward that can lead to strengthened social and economic development in the Global South. It can benefit the people living there, particularly in least developed countries (LDCs).
Financing the public pathway
Among the topics prioritised by trade union leaders participating in the TUED South platform were the economic conditions needed for a public pathway. Specifically, unions analysed global financial trends and how to disrupt the relationship between capital and power in order to finance an energy transition that doesn’t replicate colonial and neo-colonial power dynamics. An intervention by Brian Ashley from South Africa’s Alternative Information Development Center (AIDC) shed light on how skewed financial flows have been between EMDEs and advanced economies: [i]n the years since 1982, developing countries have thus ended up transferring an estimated $4.2 trillion in interest payments to their creditors in Europe and North America, far outstripping the official-sector development aid these countries received during the same period.
Strategies to access the resources needed to finance an energy transition under a public pathway include fighting for debt cancellation, tackling current tax evasion instruments such as “trade mis-invoicing”, and passing a number of other tax reform measures. These could generate billions of dollars and contribute to an alternative narrative to development and decarbonisation in the Global South.
Last year, three-quarters of emerging market economies paid a third or more of their tax revenue on debt service, according to the IMF. Debt payments are cutting deep into public investment of critical energy infrastructure, as well as other public goods. A public pathway approach for trade unions must therefore include demands such as:
- direct public procurement on the best terms possible;
- cancellation of all public debt that inhibits the ability of former colonised countries to pursue an energy transition and to meet basic needs within a framework of energy self-determination;
- the establishment or improvement of multilateral financing mechanisms to ensure access to essential energy-related components and equipment for countries facing financial, material or other resource constraints.
A democratic public pathway
But public ownership is not enough. Even with an energy system reclaimed to public ownership, there is no guarantee of a transformative energy transition that places ecological and human needs first, unless we struggle for it and shift the dynamics of power. As Daniel Chavez and Lavinia Steinford of the Transnational Institute point out: [we] claim that the future is public, but only as long as the public sector becomes more democratic and sensible to the needs, demands and proposals of those segments of the world’s population most affected by the current convergence of crises.
As part of the process to achieve greater “democracy and sensibility”, energy systems and utilities reclaimed to public ownership will require a new mandate that ensures transparency, flexibility, and accountability to the public, guided by a greater public goods agenda, with local, regional and global cooperation. Laws and policies that facilitated the privatisation and marketisation of utilities and energy companies will need reversing. New ones will need to ensure that utilities and energy companies and systems exist to provide a public good and service to anyone who wants access. Ongoing struggles that the trade union movement and its allies will have to wrestle with include processes to determine which demands are prioritised over others and when. For example, electrifying a rural village would likely lead to other electricity needs, such as building a school that needs lights and a hospital with life-saving electrical equipment. With an estimated 733 million people without access to electricity in 2022, addressing energy poverty and development will increase the demand for energy massively, and therefore the need for new raw materials exponentially.
Issues of land use will undoubtedly arise, with potential for displacement and ecosystem destruction, in regions currently inhabited, and in many cases by those indigenous to the areas. A public pathway does not have the answer to this problem, but it can create a set of conditions under which profit generation is not part of the equation. Then solutions can come from collective effort and cooperation. It can intentionally change power dynamics so “those segments of the world’s population most affected by the current convergence of crises” are part of the discussion.
After decades of neoliberal policies to reduce emissions and encourage investment in the clean energy sector, global emissions are greater than ever. Meanwhile, there is an investment gap for clean energy in the trillions of dollars. On the other hand, the idea of reclaiming the energy system into public ownership is gaining more traction. People realise that the energy transition is only possible outside of a profit-making agenda.
Across the globe, privatisation, marketisation, and liberalisation of electrical power systems have led to price increases, falling levels of service quality, and inadequate investment. There is a need for a public pathway that is accountable to workers and communities, supports technical knowledge, is committed to struggle on the ground, and embraces international collaboration in the exchange of organising experiences. A public pathway is possible and ours for the taking.
Irene HongPing Shen and Lala Peñaranda work for Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).