Between Two COPs

Six months after Sharm el Sheikh and six months from Dubai, the hard struggle continues to push governments to fund a just transition, writes Stephen Smellie.

Strange to think that six months ago I was in Sharm el Sheikh at COP27, accommodated, like most other delegates, in a holiday complex with swimming pools, restaurants, beauty parlours and well-watered and manicured lawns. When I walked out of the complex I was in a desert with nothing till the next complex, half a mile down the road. Nothing but a 5-lane motorway with hardly any traffic save the taxis and buses ferrying holiday makers to another complex or delegates to the conference centre. It is bizarre to think that in this environment, world leaders met to try to do what 26 COPs before had failed to do, and what another conference in Dubai in six months time will attempt to do: come up with real plans to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from burning fossil fuels. These gatherings receive major media attention every November, but sixth months on, midway between milestones, is a better moment to assess the journey on which they attempt to guide domestic and global policy.

The one big success that was achieved six months ago was the Loss and Damage Fund. The USA and EU seemed determined throughout the two weeks to kick it into the long grass. However, their usual tactics of buying off countries with promises of bilateral aid or trade, or sometimes threats to end current arrangements, didn’t work as the ‘G77 group, pluswith China’, held together and insisted on L&D being a commitment. As Ben Wilson wrote in the last issue of Scottish Left Review, this represents a real success for the Global South countries and the climate justice campaigners who fought a long battle – and Scotland played a significant role in bringing it about. But having a Fund isn’t the same has having the funds to compensate those countries who have suffered most from global warming and climate change. That is the next stage in the battle.

The big issue that has dominated COPs for many years is finance. $100 billion a year was promised for the Global South and was supposed to be delivered in 2020. The cash is sStill not on the table, but more promises were made about next year, maybe. Finance will continue to be the hot topic, and there remains the illusion that private financing will be able to be brought to the table. The reality is different. The vast majority of the money already provided to tackle climate change is public money. Private capital, in the form of loans or investments in renewables or the gas to replace coal, does slosh around but all of it is in pursuit or profit or interest payments. The much lauded Just Energy Transition Plan for South Africa to help SA move from coal to renewable energy, launched at COP26, is based mainly on state and private sector loans. The JETP for Indonesia and other countries will be the same. Countries already crippled by debt repayments are being invited to borrow more or to give up their natural assets to offset them or to provide profitable returns on investments.

It is public money that will be required to construct the flood defences and other adaptation measures needed, and the retro-fitting of houses and other mitigation measures. The ITUC and ILO emphasise the need for social protection for workers and poorer populations as a transition to a low carbon economy takes place. In other words, health, social security, education, water, energy supplies and all the other essentials that are needed to protect workers when jobs are lost or health declines. Workers in the Global South, faced with transition away from coal, look to hunger and homelessness when their jobs are lost as none of these social protections exist.

It is central to the Just Transition demands of trade unions, that these services are developed and funding provided to enable them to become a reality. A significant expansion of publicly funded and publicly owned public services is needed to achieve a Just Transition, as well as new jobs in new industries. Of course, that means facing up to the question of where public funds will come from – taxation. Given the emergency nature of the climate crisis, emergency taxation will be needed and some NGOs at COP27 were raising the idea of windfall taxes on the fossil fuel companies to pay for climate action. The principle of the Polluter Must Pay applies to this crisis and the BP, Shells, etc, and those whose current wealth is based on the 2 centuries of vast profiteering, while destroying the planet, should be taxed to provide the emergency funding needed for the crisis.

These points were not being promoted at COP27, and in between times the debate has gone silent. The $100 billion and the L&D promised, is needed to finance the massive public works needed to save millions of people living in coastal areas, to invest in renewable energy and to build the public services to protect the lives of the billions who will be impacted by climate change and the transition to a zero-carbon economy. Private investors are not going to ride to the rescue. There needs to be a greater drive to promote the public funding and public control of funding that is needed to battle climate change.

Of course, the issue of finance to address the climate crisis and achieve a Just Transition discussed at COP are the same issues that should be central to the debate in the domestic jurisdictions of the world leaders, and that includes the UK and Scotland. We have seen the failure to publicly develop off-shore wind, just as we saw with on-shore wind. We saw private investors brought in to develop Scotland’s forests, to allow them to use that to offset their fossil fuel burning. Profits, not public benefits, being their priority. Some in the Scottish Government wring their hands and say they have no choice, whilst the UK government remain committed to private sector profit-making as the only way to meet targets. But either way, the fact is that public money, land and assets are subsidising private profit whilst we cannot find the money to invest in retro-fitting and other alternative sources of energy production. The demand to tax those profits to fund the climate action necessary must now become a key demand, in Scotland as elsewhere.

Midway between COP27 and COP28, a commitment to a greener future with human and labour rights protected seems as unlikely at Dubai as it was at Sharm el Sheikh. Unless, that is, the climate justice and trade union movements develop the strength and determination to challenge the huge, vested interests, and their representatives in governments, that are responsible for climate change and who are resisting change to their economic model and power.

Stephen Smellie is co-convenor of the Climate Justice Coalition Trade Union Caucus and a UNISON NEC member.