U.S. president wants green industries to provide good, union jobs as part of the push for a just transition gaining ground worldwide
By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, April 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From installing solar power in villages in Sierra Leone to making electric buses for American schools, the clean energy revolution the world needs for a safer future can also bring secure jobs with good wages, a U.S.-led summit heard on Friday.
Hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, the second day of the international climate summit looked at how to develop clean technologies and industries to replace planet-heating fossil fuels, while ensuring prosperity for workers.
"If we can keep the focus on the jobs we're going to create, the economic opportunity, the growth - and in my country, at least, on union jobs - to provide the ability to raise the economy, raise the GDP, raise every part of who we are - I think this is just an incredible opportunity," the president said.
One of the first people Biden spoke to on environmental issues as he took office was Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he said.
That was "because I am so sick and tired of people talking about how we get this (transition) done and (they) don't care about jobs".
Biden has sought to connect efforts to fight climate change with opportunities to create jobs in growth industries like green energy as part of his $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure package, which requires approval by Congress.
Stephenson, who heads the largest energy union in North America, told the event that so far not enough employers in renewable power, including wind and solar energy, allowed workers to join trade unions and secure their labour rights.
He noted there would be new jobs in boosting electricity transmission capacity, building smart neighbourhood grids and laying fibre optic cables, as well as in adding nuclear and hydrogen power and working on carbon capture.
"The current energy transition can be a win for the climate and a win for jobs as long as lawmakers commit to implementing labour protections that ensure new energy jobs are good, union jobs," Stephenson said.
Roxanne Brown, international vice president at large of the United Steelworkers, a union with about 850,000 members, said governments around the world could put workers at the centre of building a clean energy infrastructure by "simply making room for us at the table, like you did today".
"Oftentimes, policymakers form ideas about what they think is essential for workers in a particular state, industry, region, province or country. But, really, only workers can best answer the question of how a net-zero economy includes us," she said.
Workers can and should be key allies in shaping green economy policies and "not an after-thought", she added.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, warned against repeating the unfair transitions of the past that left some communities stranded.
Starting in the 1980s, for instance, northern U.S. states lost heavy industry jobs to automation and factory moves overseas, while in Britain many workers were left jobless as the country's coal mines closed.
To curb climate change, clean technologies will be needed not just for energy production but also in agriculture, construction, transport, services and their supply chains in both cities and rural areas, affecting a wide range of workers, Burrow noted.
As the need for a socially and economically "just transition" to a low-carbon future becomes clearer, countries from Germany to New Zealand and Ghana to Canada have put in place agreements to consult workers on the changes, she noted.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez spoke about how his left-wing government has negotiated pacts with workers, businesses and local authorities in coal-mining areas to support the move from dirty to clean industries, with the aim of leaving no one behind.
Burrow also cited the example of Danish renewable energy company Ørsted, which struck a deal with North America's Building Trades Unions to train new offshore wind workers to supply a pipeline of projects down the U.S. East Coast.
"The good news is that for every dollar ... invested in climate transition, there are jobs," she said.
Every 10 jobs in renewable energy generates five to 10 jobs in supply chains, and can produce up to three times that many jobs in places where workers get good wages and spend them, she added.
Nthabiseng Mosia, co-founder of Easy Solar, a company that in five years has created about 800 jobs for young people in Sierra Leone and Liberia, said clean energy in West Africa could help provide the employment needed for a fast-growing population.
African nations should not have to "worry about a problem we did not create" in tackling climate change, she said.
But "I do believe it's a unique opportunity to look forward... challenge the status quo, and say economic development does not have to be dirty," said the off-grid solar entrepreneur.
In Kenya, decentralised renewable energy companies now employ more than 10,000 workers, most of them based in rural areas - a figure comparable to the number working for the country's state utility, Mosia noted.
But off-grid renewables will require billions of dollars in new funding to expand enough to beat energy poverty in Africa, she said.
The summit also heard from Erica Mackie, CEO of California-based GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that installs solar systems and also trains low-income communities and groups including women, racial minorities and ex-prisoners to do the work.
Many then find jobs in the solar industry or start their own business ventures, Mackie said.
"Those most impacted by fossil fuel pollution, climate-induced disasters and burdensome energy costs must be first (in) climate solutions - they must benefit first," she said.
U.S. National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy said the organisation's work was a reminder that clean energy "is not a luxury for a few".
"It's a necessity for all of us," she told the summit.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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