Recognition of labour rights is a major victory for trade unions at COP28

Bert De Wel, Global Climate Policy Coordinator, ITUC

After more than two weeks of very difficult negotiations, a climate agreement was finally reached in Dubai on 13 December. The 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations climate change treaty was also a major victory for trade unions. By referring specifically to labour rights in the Just Transition Work Programme, one of the agreements that were concluded, and to social protection in the agreement on adaptation, workers worldwide are taking a step forward. It’s a recognition of the work unions around the world are doing to tackle climate change.

We’ve come a long way. And it remains worrying that so many countries suppress any reference to trade unions. In host country United Arab Emirates, it is illegal to form a trade union. Many climate negotiators still do not understand that social justice is necessary for public support to tackle the gigantic challenge of climate change.

The United States, President Joe Biden supports workers and their unions, made the difference this time, together with the European Union and several countries from the Global South such as South Africa, Brazil – where the new president Lula da Silva also uses a different tone than his predecessor – Nigeria, or Somalia. The adoption of the Just Transition Work Program now provides a basis on which to work in the years to come.

The Just Transition Guidelines adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) through consultations between trade union, government and employer representatives set out a clear framework to address the labour impact of climate change, and should be put into practice. Earlier in 2023, all countries reaffirmed those commitments at the International Labour Conference in Geneva. The same countries were at the table at the climate negotiations in Dubai.

Labour rights

Two examples illustrate how the just transition can contribute on the ground. For example, all countries must draw up national climate plans. These are called NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions). The massive efforts that will be needed to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 will have a significant impact on workers. Some jobs will disappear, such as in fossil sectors, and others will be crated, such as in renewable energy. To arrange the transition from old to new jobs, it is best to negotiate with employees’ representatives.

Otherwise, you will have accidents, as entrepreneur Elon Musk experienced in Sweden. He refuses to conclude a social agreement with his electric car manufacturer Tesla that guarantees good working conditions for the employee. The trade unions then went on strike. They immediately received the support of dockers in other Scandinavian countries, who refuse to disembark Teslas, and from employees of the Scandinavian postal company PostNord, who no longer wanted to send license plates for Teslas. New jobs in the transition must provide decent work, which is essential for support in society.

Or consider the importance of social protection in adaptation plans. A Belgian employee who falls ill at work during a heat wave can apply for health insurance without losing income. There is also income protection in the event of temporary unemployment, for example due to a flood. But more than half of the world’s population does not have that protection. 95 percent of Indians work in the informal sector. Without social protection. As a result, floods and heat waves often cause migration, leaving people in very precarious conditions. That is why it is a good thing that the COP’s agreement on adaptation talks for the first time about the important role of social protection.

A key debate at COP28 was about the definition of ’just transition’. The trade unions launched this concept in the 1990s. In Flanders, organisations such as Arbeid en Milieu, today Reset.Vlaanderen, were forerunners. For a few years now, the countries of the Global South have embraced the concept. They also gave it an extra meaning. In summary, they argue that you cannot have a just transition in the workplace without taking into account the international dimension. Without sustainable development, international cooperation and the realisation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, there is no way to talk about a global just transition.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) supports this global approach. Stumbling blocks for the Global South are initiatives such as the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which imposes restrictions on the import of products made with less stringent climate requirements. While such measures are important to protect European industry from unfair, environmentally damaging competition, the countries of the Global South argue that they do not give their industry the opportunity to develop. In the end, the COP came to an agreement and a paragraph was included stating that countries should not take protectionist trade measures through their climate policy.

Disgruntled island nations

The trade unions are also looking at the big picture. The big theme at COP28 was the phasing out of fossil fuels. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that no new unabated fossil fuel projects are possible if we want to keep global warming below 1.5°C. ’Projected CO2 emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure without additional abatement would exceed the remaining carbon budget for 1.5°C’, the report read.

For the first time, the UN climate conference stated that our energy systems need to transition away from fossil fuels. That is an important signal. Nevertheless, the oil-exporting OPEC countries have managed to include several loopholes in the text. The small island states were not at all satisfied with this agreement. After all, the proposed approach will not lead to the rise in sea level being sufficiently controlled to ensure survival on those islands.

As trade unions, we advocate a transition from fossil fuels that is underpinned by employment guarantees, elaborated into concrete plans for a just transition. The COP’s commitments are therefore insufficient for the trade unions.

The chairman of the climate conference, Sultan Al-Jaber, Minister of Industry in the UAE and also CEO of ADNOC, one of the largest oil companies in the world, handled the negotiations very well in the end. Although the differences remained very strong until the last day, he managed to reach an agreement. For example, he ensured that on the first day of the conference he could announce an agreement on the so-called Loss and Damage Fund, which is intended to compensate developing countries for climate damage suffered as a result of the climate crisis. In this way, an important demand of the developing countries was fulfilled from day one. However, the financing of the fund remains a major problem. The $700 million contributed by rich countries is far insufficient in light of the $400 billion a year needed. In addition, there are still no references to trade unions and workers in the provisions on how the money will be used. If workers are to be compensated through resources from this fund, then we as a trade union want to negotiate this collectively, so that the resources are spent fairly.

Climate finance

The international trade unions are calling for all climate finance streams to be in line with a just transition for workers. This is especially important for the talks on the New Collective Quantified Goal (NCQG), which must be agreed at the next COP. This is about the climate finance that is needed in the future.

In 2009, it was agreed that $100 billion a year should come from rich countries to support climate-neutral development in poorer countries, a promise that has still not been kept. There is a broad consensus that this amount should be significantly increased. The goal is to reach agreements to reach 600 billion a year. This should not only be about ’how much’ money is needed, according to the trade unions there should also be provisions that indicate that it should mainly be public money. Today, we see that private capital and loans are often used instead of grants. This only adds to the already considerable debt burden of the countries of the Global South.

Finally, a word about the surprise of COP28. Thanks to a major step in the peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are at war over the Nagorno-Karabakh border region, Armenia is no longer opposing Azerbaijan’s candidacy to host COP29. This means that COP29 will take place in November 2024 in the capital Baku. For the third year in a row, an authoritarian regime, financed by fossil fuel revenues, will take over the presidency of the COP. All the world’s hope to make real progress on climate policy thus lies with Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who will host COP30 in 2025 in Belém, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

What’s wrong?

The climate summit in Dubai had an important section on a just climate transition and the impact of the climate crisis on workers. The media overlooked that.

What to do?

The new targets to initiate a ’transition away from fossil fuels’, and the Loss and Damage fund for climate damage, must also include guarantees for workers. Whether it’s sustainable jobs, or means to insure income loss due to the climate crisis.