Nachricht | Report | Power to the people: why social ownership and democratic control of energy is essential in order to reach climate targets

Civil society has to reclaim energy infrastructure from the private companies, organize it democratically and restructure it. Unions have an important role to play in that process.

December 3 2015 |4:45 - 6:15 pm | Civil Society Space 'Climate Generations'/World of Work Pavilion, Le Bourget | Room 5

Over the last few years, unions have become increasingly involved in the fight against climate change. On the one hand, this is due to the understanding that 'a dead planet offers no jobs', but also because of awareness of the need to actively shape the transformation to a post-fossil economy. 'Trade Unions for Energy Democracy' (TUED), which was founded in 2012, and consists of trade unions from 13 countries, is a key actor in this regard.

Resist - reclaim - restructure

During an event on the margins of the Paris summit, Sean Sweeney, a union member and co-founder of TUED summed up his organisation's strategy in terms of the triad 'provide resistance - reclaim infrastructure - restructure the energy system'. Resistance is directed against fossil fuel production, and particularly extreme forms of extractivism such as fracking and tar sands oil production, which are both tremendously damaging to the environment and the climate. TUED urges to reclaim the energy infrastructure, in other words, power stations and energy grids, and return them to public ownership.

In terms of restructuring the energy sector, the organisation calls for a reduction in fossil fuel production, the promotion of renewable energy and the democratization of the energy sector as a whole. Sweeney argues that 'The Paris negotiations completely ignore the need for a just transition to a post-fossil fuel society and that such a transition will have to be based on a public energy sector. He maintains that providing state incentives to the renewable energy sector and then leaving the market to do the rest is simply not good enough. Nevertheless, he warns that purely state-owned enterprises are also incapable of organizing the transformation. His position reflects the intense debate that is currently on-going within the worldwide trade union movement on the structures that are actually needed and the role of unions in this context.

A just transition can only take place together with the workers

The speakers on the podium were clear that trade unions can and must play a central role in this process. Peter Knowlton from the US union United Electrical Workers used the example of the situation in the US state of Massachusetts to argue that unions can decisively contribute to the dismantling of fossil fuel-based energy production and ensure that this process does not become separated from the expansion of the renewable energy sector. In 2017, the largest coal-fired power station in Massachusetts is to be shut down; however, this is to be done without offering the plant's workers a future in climate-friendly sectors. Knowlton stated that 'until now, no links for workers between the two industries exist. We intend to change that.'

Jan Rude'n, from the Swedish trade union SEKO, emphasised workers' rights to actively participate in the transition to a post-fossil fuel society. Rude'n stressed that workers need to participate in decision-making, and that no one should be left behind. This, of course, is not easy, but as Rude'n also argued, there is great potential for new jobs in climate-friendly sectors: 'if we transform society based on criteria of sustainability, we will also create millions of jobs around the world.'

Debate about this issue, so much is clear, needs to be wide-ranging: it is not just about the transformation of the energy sector. Indeed, - as Sweeney emphasized - it also requires a discussion of the current economic system and the way we want to live as a society.

Considering the drastic nature of climate change, time is running out. Intensifying the transformation of the energy sector will require massive investment. This is precisely why trade unionists argue that the energy sector needs to be transferred to public ownership: it is the only way to ensure that the sector actually invests its profits in the massive expansion of renewable energies.

« We need democratic control »

Nevertheless, an example from South Korea clearly demonstrates that transferring the energy grid to the public sector is not enough. Yuna Song from the KPTU-Public Policy Institute for People pointed out that state-owned enterprises now behave like private companies. Instead of investing profits for the public good, these enterprises prefer to invest in foreign expansion. Yuna Song argued that 'What we need is true democratic control. We not only need the right form, but also the right content.' In this context, discussion is needed on whether civil society can and should be involved at the local, regional and/or national levels. The debate also showed that the exact meaning of 'democratic control' may differ from country to country.

Sharing successful strategies and experiences is important, a number of panellists argued, in order to ensure that transformation advances quickly along the lines of the triad of 'provide resistance - reclaim infrastructure - restructure the energy system'. They pointed to the many good examples from around the world. Finally, Sweeney highlighted the importance of demonstrating alternatives to the present system and emphasizing that there really is a way out of the climate crisis.