Brothers and sisters;
Let me first thank organisers of this global trade union roundtable for bringing us together to discuss one of the critical issues facing human civilisation presently; the issue of The Climate Crisis and the Need for an Energy Transition.
The growing appetite for fossil fuels, the discovery of new oil reserves and the use of “extreme” methods of energy extraction such as fracking and tar sands; renders current attempts to control global warming and climate change futile.
The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) agrees with organisers of this roundtable that what confronts us is an Energy Emergency.
As people who lived under different “states of emergency” imposed by the apartheid government, we South Africans know and our experience has taught us that emergency situations call for emergency and drastic measures.
We have travelled more than 12 000 kilometres to be here with the hope that this gathering can begin to discuss the drastic measures necessary to take us out of the Energy Emergency.
Secondly, let me thank Dr. James Hansen for his valuable input and say that as workers we are inspired by scientists like you. In an era of widespread corporate-sponsored denialism and in a context where a large number of “embedded scientists” remain beholden to their political masters, it is vital that people like you continue to provide scientific evidence on the catastrophe that faces us.
For us – workers and the people of the Global South – the evidence of rapid climate change is there and undisputable.
• We experience intense weather systems with changes in average rainfalls and extreme weather patterns
• The Sahel region and water-stressed Southern Africa is becoming dry with large areas experiencing intense and longer droughts
• Sea levels are also rising.
THE PLANET IS GETTING HOTTER. With the temperature increases that we are experiencing, life as we know it will change completely.
Reports by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) point to unequivocal evidence that use of fossil fuels by humans is leading to global warming or steadily increasing global temperatures.
We therefore agree with your work Dr. Hansen when you argue that climate change is not about some future catastrophe but about present dangers.
We also agree with you when you say that what we are experiencing now in relation to climate change is not some scientific theory but a scientific fact.
We just hope that the evidence that your work provides will load the CLIMATE DICE against climate change denialism. Continue with you scientific endeavours!
Friends, comrades, brothers and sisters; as a way of emphasising the importance of this roundtable, I want to sketch the background from which we come from:
• ONE: South Africa is an energy-intensive country with a fossil fuel-dependent economy.
In political economy terms, we describe our economy as a MINERAL-ENERGY COMPLEX because of the dependence on energy of the mineral-based extractive industry. The concept of a MINERAL ENERGY COMPLEX also refers to system of accumulation that has supply of cheap energy at its centre.
• TWO: As a country, we are endowed with huge coal deposits and reserves. Coal has and continues to drive the South African economy. 93% of total electricity generated in South Africa comes from coal. 33% of the coal mined in South Africa is exported.
• THREE: As we speak, two coal-fired power stations are under construction in my country as part of a massive 20-year government infrastructure investment programme that includes the setting up of an oil refinery; rollout of electricity infrastructure; expansion of rail transport as a way of connecting coalfields to power stations; building of dams; and modernisation and extension of ports .
• FOUR: About a quarter of all liquid fuels consumed in South Africa comes from coal through a “coal-to-liquids” technology managed by SASOL; an ex-parastatal that was privatised and is now listed in the stock exchange in this very city, New York.
This dependence on coal makes South Africa, the 13th emitting country in the world; a position that changes to 8th if one uses a per capita measurement.
But South Africa is not only dependent on coal. Exactly in the same way described in the framing document prepared for this roundtable, in our country there is a rush – not for gold (as it was the case at the end of the 19th century) or platinum (as it has been the case in the last 20 years). The rush is for EXTREME FORMS OF ENERGY;
• In September this year, the Cabinet agreed to allow normal exploration, geological field mapping and other data gathering activities by multinational corporations (MNCs) for shale gas in the south west region of the country known as Karoo.
This is after the United States Energy Information Administration announced that there were 485 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of technically recoverable gas through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in this region.
• As we speak there are 25 licensees exploring coalbed methane; which is the methane contained in coal.
The interest has come about after promulgation of a law in 2002 that separated the rights to methane from the rights to coal.
I’m sure that in the next three days we will hear participants in this roundtable narrating stories similar to our one; stories of how what we are seeing is NOT just a growth in the appetite for fossil fuels but that a number of corporations are going for EXTREME and UNCONVENTIONAL WAYS OF PRODUCING ENERGY. The unfortunate and tragic part about these developments is that;
• ONE: Instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these developments will increase these gasses
• TWO: The development of EXTREME ENERGY and the infrastructure programmes that are being championed as a way out of the global economic crisis, have the consequence of locking us into a carbon future; the CARBON LOCK-IN that the framing document refers to.
It is because of these developments that as NUMSA we support the argument in the framing document for this roundtable that says that despite all the talk about the green economy, THE TRANSITION TO A LOW-CARBON ECONOMY IS NOT HAPPENING.
Our union’s position emanating from NUMSA’s International Conference on Building a Socially-Owned Renewable Energy Sector held in February 2012 is that the concept of a “green economy” has been hijacked by capitalists. This is what the conference declared:
“Efforts in ‘green capitalism’ are rapidly being viewed by sections of the capitalist class as paving way for a new cycle of global accumulation and as necessary attempts to resolve the current economic-financial crisis.
Capital as is always the case, views the introduction of renewables as a new site of accumulation. As NUMSA, we do not believe that a socially and ecologically desirable transition to a new energy system in which renewable energy plays the dominant role is actually possible within the constraints imposed by capitalist relations”.
Another clear sign that an energy transition is NOT happening is the failure of the climate negotiations conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to deliver a deal that will see a significant reduction emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).
Last December, our country hosted the Conference of Polluters known as COP17. If one puts aside the spin doctoring around the outcomes of the conference, the gathering was a copout and the Durban Platform was another lease of life for emitters to continue emitting.
In light of the failures of the UN system, it is our humble submission that as the global union movement we should reconsider how in our work on climate change, we end up prioritising UN climate negotiations and all the “dead COPs” at the expense of educating our members and fighting for a genuine energy transition.
We also strongly believe that instead of chasing the “green economy”, we should squarely put at the centre of our work on an energy transition, questions of democratic control, public and social ownership of energy systems.
While democratic control and public ownership of energy systems cannot be equated with a transition to a low-carbon and equitable energy system, the two are prerequisites for what the transition we are talking about.
In its September 2012 national congress, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) which NUMSA is affiliated to took a resolution on climate change that said;
1. that the trade union federation endorses the necessity of moving from a high carbon economy dependent on coal and oil to a low carbon economy powered by renewable energy sources based on solar and wind in order to reduce CO2 emissions to mitigate global warming.
2. that such transition requires a new economic growth path which must address the mechanisms of a just transition from jobs dependent on coal and related products to alternative jobs in low- carbon industries including renewable energy, agriculture and food production and the production of necessary consumer goods for all.
3. that we must avoid a situation where workers bear all the costs of the transition.
4. that to avoid a “just transition” being another capitalist concept, the path to a low carbon economy must be based in worker-controlled, democratic social ownership of key means of production and means of subsistence, including the energy.
There is a need for long term collective planning of wealth and production and how needs are met.
5. that we should campaign to reject all forms of global climate agreements based on notions of containment through “market forces”.
How this approach is translated into day-to-day union strategy is something that we are keen to discuss and share with you over the next three days, particularly in the session on union strategies.
11 October 2012
Numsa President Speech in New York