Celebrating the just-announced US$8.5 billion partnership to help South Africa get off coal as an “exemplary blueprint” to follow, policy-makers and labour organizations opened COP 26’s Energy Day Thursday by stressing the need to accelerate a just, inclusive energy transition.
COP 26 President Alok Sharma heralded the 77 signatories to the newly-minted Global Coal to Clean Power Transition statement, which asserts that shifting from (unabated) coal power is essential both to “keep 1.5°C alive,” and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #7, which calls for affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030.
Grenada’s minister of health, social security and international business, Nickolas Steele, said natural gas is often proposed as a “bridge fuel,” but is actually “a bridge to nowhere”. He condemned fossil fuel subsidies as money much better spent on renewables and jobs, adding that a global just transition “unprecedented levels of cooperation and genuine levels of resolve” from G20 countries.
“If they don’t, then who will?” he asked, adding that “the future of counties like mine, depends on whether or not coal seams around the world are left in the ground.” For an island state like Grenada, “it is a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to leapfrog the energy systems of our grandparents, to create a new energy system that is fit for our children.”
A delegate from the Maldives echoed this conviction, noting that the island nation’s energy system currently depends on costly and toxic diesel. The country is desperate to embrace solar, both for its own energy security and because it wants to be a part of the solution to the climate emergency, but needs international finance to make this happen. “The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C for countries like the Maldives is a death sentence,” the delegate added.
Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), noted that 759 million people still lack basic electricity, while 2.6 billion have no access to clean cooking solutions. Which means that, “over the next nine years, we must do two things at once,” she said: drastically reduce emissions in line with the UN Environment Programme’s latest Emissions Gap Report, and deliver on SDG #7 in time for the 2030 deadline.
Noting that the 2.7°C climate pathway laid out in the UNEP report last week would translate into 600 million without electricity and 2.3 billion without clean cooking at the end of this decade, Ogunbiyi said it’s clear the fossil fuel economy cannot, and will not, deliver on the fundamental goal of energy equity for all.
UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng dodged a question about how the U.K. plans to ground its promised full phaseout of coal in the “imperatives for a just transition”. U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm traced the same question back to her previous stint as Michigan governor, where she watched 100,000 autoworkers lose their jobs in the 2008 economic crash—a calamity which left the state with the highest unemployment rate in the U.S.
“The pain I saw in the eyes of workers who had the rug pulled out from under them, through no fault of their own, that pain has seared my soul,” she said.
But the experience of helping to oversee a recovery with a substantial green component—including a significant turn to electric vehicle production that has made Michigan a national leader in the sector—gave her first-hand evidence that a just transition is possible.
“I became obsessed with how we can create jobs in clean energy to diversify our economy,” Granholm told participants. “And with large federal, state, and private sector investments, we in Michigan began focusing on electric vehicles and their supply chains, the batteries, the guts to those vehicles. And employment rebounded, as we re-anchored local economies all across the state, and today Michigan is a national leader in EV manufacturing.”
With the global market for clean technologies projected to hit US$23 trillion by 2030, she added, “we are back and ready to partner.”
Malik Amin Aslam, climate advisor to Pakistan’s prime minister and vice-president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said his country’s remains committed to reducing its carbon pollution, even though its contribution is less than 1% of global emissions. Pakistan has set a 60% clean energy target for 2030 and recently shelved 2,400 megawatts’ worth of coal projects, shifting to 3,700 MW of clean, but more expensive, power. (Although some of that progress may be at risk.)
Aslam praised the Energy Transition Mechanism, a new initiative announced at COP 26 by the Asian Development Bank. Pakistan will be one of three pilot nations working to test the Mechanism’s potential to help countries deal with the financial costs of closing down coal plants already in operation.
That challenge—how to help countries break free from locked-in infrastructure—has been one of the gaps in the conversation about a just transition, he added.
Long-time just transition champion Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the labour movement is at the forefront of the just transition in energy production. Throughout that process, she stressed, what’s fundamental for workers is “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
“We are totally committed to climate ambition, but it must also be in parallel with a just transition,” she said, which means “no stranded workers and no stranded communities.”
Burrow acknowledged the fear the energy transition is bringing to those whose jobs depend on the old energy system. “We know there is no future for coal. That is painful for our workers. We know that fossil fuels are nearing their exit date. This is painful news for workers.”
But there are powerful benefits to build on. “For every 10 jobs in the renewable energy sector, there are five to 10 in manufacturing and supply, and 30 to 35 in the broader economy,” she said. And “dollar for dollar, investment in renewables returns at least two jobs compared to fossil fuels.”
As with so many of the other breakthroughs delegates are looking for at this COP, Burrow said the key to a successful transition will be to build trust—which in this case means pensions for those close to retirement and retraining into good jobs for everyone else. She also praised the new initiative to accelerate South Africa’s move off coal.
“It will take all of us,” Burrow concluded, “so let’s get on the job.”