Unions join fight against climate change

by Tito Drago

Madrid, 17 Apr 2001 (IPS) -- Workers’ unions from Europe and the United States are uniting to defend the Kyoto Protocol, the international accord dozens of countries support as a way to slow the process of global climate change and which labour leaders say would also contribute to creating more jobs.

Joaquin Nieto, environment secretary for the Confederation of Workers’ Commissions of Spain, told IPS that trade unionists from the industrialised North decided at a recent conference to speak out against US President George W.  Bush’s announcement that his country would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Labour leaders representing the textile, industrial, steel and service sectors of the United States and Europe gathered last weekend at the New York headquarters of UNITE, a textile union, where they hammered out their position on efforts to protect the environment and how this is related to employment.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, named for the Japanese city in which it was drawn up, commits signatory countries to cutting emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases to pre-1990 levels. The reduction levels are based on a gradual plan that is intended to achieve worldwide emissions stabilisation by 2012.

Bush’s recent announcement unleashed harsh criticism from around the world because the United States is the world’s worst polluter. The North American country, home to 5% of the Earth’s population, is responsible for 25% of all emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, produced from the combustion of petroleum, coal and natural gas.

Environmental organisations and countries that back the Kyoto Protocol, including the nations of the European Union (EU), are calling on Bush to review his position. Japan also chimed in, despite being a long-time ally of the United States in international negotiations related to climate change.

The decision of the trade unions to add their voice to the clamour further isolates Bush, commented Jose Luis Garcia Ortega, head of the climate change campaign for the environmental watchdog Greenpeace International. Pressure from labour unions on both sides of the Atlantic will underscore the isolation of the US president and the solidity of the international community’s desire to preserve the health of the planet, Garcia Ortega told IPS. The activist also stressed that the labour leaders took their decision in New York, which is also home to the United Nations, on the eve of the meeting of the global forum’s Commission on Sustainable Development.

The unions favour enacting measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions not only because it would help protect the global environment but also because doing so would have other positive effects, such as creating more sources of employment.

Nieto, who represented the European Confederation of Unions at the New York conference, indicated that, in the EU alone, 800,000 jobs would be created by the bloc’s programme to develop renewable energy sources - which by 2010 would represent 12% of the EU’s energy production.

At the US-European meeting of union leaders, it became evident through the discussions that the United States lacks legislation to protect workers who are employed in sectors that would suffer as a result of emissions-curbing efforts, such as coalmining.

Because of this, the participants resolved to issue a joint appeal for adopting mechanisms for a “fair transition” and including social and employment matters on the international negotiating agenda, areas that have not been considered so far.

The unionists also agreed to promote a coalition of European and US workers’ associations that would provide support for measures intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions in their respective countries.

In addition, the coalition would facilitate joint efforts to create institutional alternatives for a “fair transition,” which would help overcome resistance among some sectors of US workers to enforcing the measures outlined in the Kyoto Protocol.

The next meeting of labour leaders is to take place in Madrid just prior to the Seventh Conference of Parties (COP7) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, scheduled for November in Marrakech, Morocco.

For the Spanish Confederation of Workers’ Commissions, the meeting last weekend was an important step toward incorporating the United States into the Kyoto process, an essential move given the magnitude of that country’s emissions.

US participation could be achieved through international pressure on Bush, but also through lobbying from inside the United States, and that means reversing the anti-Kyoto attitudes still existing among some sectors of society, according to the labour confederation.

“The later the United States joins the process, the more dramatic emissions-reduction measures will need to be, taking into account that the US production system is already quite behind the times due to its inefficient use of energy and its enormous energy consumption, 70% more than in Europe per unit produced,” Nieto explained.

The United States must ratify the Kyoto Protocol without further delay, he said, because if it does not, all countries around the world will suffer the consequences, “especially in the developing South, where tens of thousands of people die each year as a result of natural disasters that can be attributed to climate change.”

But, meanwhile, the EU must maintain its course toward curbing gas emissions because it will still have “positive effects on the economy and the environment.” The European bloc “should also pressure Bush with all tools within its reach until he changes his rejection of the Protocol, which is based solely on US petroleum interests,” commented Nieto.

The Kyoto Protocol establishes that the countries which do not meet their emissions reduction goals can ‘buy’ quotas from those countries that curb emissions to levels below what the agreement calls for.

If this international legal instrument is not ratified by enough nations, including the United States, such transactions will not be possible.

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