Former President Mary Robinson on Climate Change and Just Transition

4 Jul 2019


I am honoured to give a keynote address to this Biennial Conference of ICTU at a time when Ireland is, at last, becoming serious about climate change. I commend Congress for its report in February 2019, ‘Building a Just Transition’ The Case of Bord na Móna. Much has happened since then, notably the Climate Action Plan published by the Government. So your motions today on this issue are indeed timely.

Only a global movement can mobilise the transformation needed to prevent an irreversible climate crisis and only a climate just transformation – one that protects the rights of all people – can be sustainable and protect both people and the planet.

The countries and governments of the world still have a lot of work to do to ensure that global warming does not exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – but the bedrock for proper development has been laid through the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights and General Assembly Resolutions for climate action inspired by our common humanity and the need for solidarity between people and between generations.

 It is appropriate that we salute Greta Thunberg in particular, for her leadership in bringing out millions of schoolchildren on Fridays for Future. At the most recent UN Climate Change conference in Katowice, Poland on 15 December 2018, Greta said to the delegates:

“Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there’s no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions with this system are so impossible to find then maybe we should change the system itself?”

Every day the news on climate change gets worse. On 11th May 2019, scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which has tracked atmospheric Co2 levels since the late 1950s, detected 415.26 parts per million (ppm). The last time Earth’s atmosphere contained this much Co2 was more than 3 million years ago when global sea levels were several metres higher. Time is of the essence, and we need to mobilize.

 So let’s go back to 2015.

The frameworks negotiated by member states of the UN in 2015 – the 2030 Agenda with its seventeen sustainable development goals, and the Paris Climate Agreement – were voluntary or weak in enforceability. However, the report of the IPCC last October on global warming at 1.5°C has altered our understanding of the situation we are in. The report made it clear that staying at or below 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial standards was the only safe level for the whole world, and that further warming up to 2°C would cause considerable risk to the planet.

This was followed by the UN report in May 2019 on the loss of biodiversity and potential extinction of 1 million species.

I have a personal reason for taking global scientific reports very seriously, as I was honoured recently to become a Patron of the International Science Council, together with Ismail Serageldin. The ISC was launched in 2018 following a merger of the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council, and has become the global voice for science.

As a consequence of the reports, we can no longer afford to regard the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement as voluntary, and a matter for each member state to decide on its own. Instead, the full implementation of both has become imperative in order to secure a liveable world for our children and grandchildren. This requires a change of mindset at the global political level. The IPCC has called for a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and said that this is doable if there is the political will.

How do we get that political will and sense of global solidarity? I believe it is through the emerging movement for climate justice, putting pressure on governments and on business, particularly the fossil fuel industry.

 It is heartening to see women leaders stepping forward, school children striking and young people making their voices heard. Some, such as Extinction Rebellion, have taken to peaceful protest, and there is increasing business and investment leadership making commitments and calling for more ambition from governments.

 As I mentioned, the voice of science is also crucial. The importance of this growing climate justice movement is that it will call for a just transition to a world powered by clean energy, and climate actions that fully respect human rights. Workers in coal, oil and gas will not be left out, and priority will also be given to reaching the 1 billion people who still lack electricity, and the 2.3 billion who cook with charcoal, wood, peat or animal dung and ingest indoor air pollution that kills millions each year. We have the off grid lights, mini-systems and clean cookstoves that can transform the lives of a significant portion of our world, and enable them to take themselves out of deep poverty.

What is required is that people from all walks of life commit to three steps.

The first is to make the issue of climate change personal in your life and do something to reduce consumption emissions, such as energy conservation, better recycling or change in eating habits.

 Having done this, the second is to get angry and take action. Get angry with those who have more power, and therefore more responsibility, such as governments at all levels – including cities and towns – business, especially fossil fuel business,  agribusiness, and transport. Take action by using your voice and your vote, and by supporting organisations involved in conservation issues or climate change advocacy, which will also help to reduce your climate anxiety.

The third step is perhaps the most important: we all need to imagine this world we must hurry towards. It will be a much healthier world, without the air and water pollution of fossil fuel, and it will be a more equal world because everyone will have access to clean energy. To get there, we will have had to show the solidarity called for in the 2030 Agenda, so it will be a world of deeper human relationships at all levels. It will also be a world of a circular economy, consuming less and valuing more.

Rising to the challenge of addressing the threat of climate change can be truly transformative, and achieve the commitment in the 2030 Agenda to ‘leave no one behind’.

What is required now is a just transition to a cleaner, healthier world – one which protects people and their rights as we embrace unprecedented levels of climate action. We need to jump-start a collective consciousness to save ourselves, and that consciousness must have justice and the protection of people and their rights at its core.

 Limiting global warming to 1.5oC would reduce the number of people exposed to climate risk and poverty by several million by 2050. It would reduce the risk of drought, extreme precipitation, and hot extremes when compared to warming of 2oC.


But even at 1.5oC climate risks are inevitable and they will disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities in all countries, with Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States amongst the countries most at risk. These risks are to health, to food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth, and all risks increase the more the planet warms.

So climate action on an unprecedented scale is required. Due to the pace and magnitude of the transition, it will pose risks to human rights and sustainable development if not carefully managed. For example, 1.5oC pathways include large scale land use changes to grow fuel for bioenergy that could compete with food production and cause food insecurity.

When we think back to the push for biofuels in the 2000s, we recall how it displaced land for growing food to grow fuel resulting in food price volatility. It increased pressures on land in all regions of the world, causing local communities to fear evictions, small food producers to be priced out of land markets and led people to protest in the streets to highlight the rising prices for staple foods.

 In fact, action to achieve the 1.5oC goal can go hand in hand and have multiple synergies with sustainable development, poverty reduction and reducing inequality, if designed with people and their rights at the center. A zero carbon future is compatible with a zero poverty future if justice and rights inform the transition.

I would like to discuss what this means in the context of a just transition. The concept of a just transition has its origins in the labour movement, aiming to secure the future and livelihoods of workers and their communities in the transition to a low-carbon economy. It is based on social dialogue, participation and a commitment to human rights. It is ‘an economy-wide process that produces the plans, policies, and investments that lead to a future where all jobs are green and decent, greenhouse gas emissions are at net-zero, poverty is eradicated, and communities are thriving and resilient.’

The transition has already begun. It will be down to national and local governments to work with unions and the fossil fuel companies to ensure that workers in the fossil fuel industry are not forgotten in this global struggle to save our planet. The challenge we face is to design and manage the next industrial revolution - the transition to a zero carbon, climate resilient future - with minimal negative effects on workers and communities.

There are, unfortunately, too many examples of unjust transitions away from fossil fuels. We are all acutely aware of the suffering brought by the closure of coal mines in England, Wales and Scotland during the 1980s.

Collieries were shut down and the miners went out on strike. The Margaret Thatcher government vilified the unions and the workers who stood up for their rights were plunged into poverty. Communities in Durham, Kent, Yorkshire, South Wales, and central Scotland, the heartlands of the industrial revolution, were left to bear the brunt of the social, economic and environmental fallout from the mining closures. The impacts continue to be felt in these communities to this day. It is unconscionable to neglect the communities upon whose labour a nation built its affluence.

I would like to salute my friend Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. She knows a lot about a just transition. In her native Australia, the town of Port Augusta faced the closure of the coal-fired power station on which the local economy depended. In the five years leading up to the plant’s closure in 2016, the workers, local businesses, citizens and the union came together to forge a just transition plan.

The plan was informed by research that found that a solar thermal plant was the best option for a smooth skill transfer from the coal-powered plant and for a long term clean energy solution. The solar plant will create 1,800 jobs and save 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. But it will also support the wider community to thrive and reap the benefits of a zero carbon future.

More recently she worked with colleagues to secure a Declaration on Just Transition at the COP in Katovice, Poland, last November.

 I am pleased to be an honorary leader of a group of business leaders called the B Team of which Sharan Burrow is Deputy Chair. Our mission is to catalyse a better way of doing business for the wellbeing of people and planet. I co-chair the B Team’s Working Group on Net Zero Emissions that aims to reduce emissions to zero by 2050 through a just transition. Business leaders that join this progressive team commit to ensuring that their ambitious transition plans account for the positive and negative impacts on workers and communities, and work in partnership with stakeholders to ensure the transition is just and fair.

Companies giving this leadership include Kering, Unilever, Dow, Tiffany, Natura, and Safaricom. They share their progress and experiences towards the twin goals of decarbonisation and just transition with their peers, and have committed to sharing an annual report on the progress they are making. The first Progress Report was published in January this year and shows companies taking their initial steps to understand and plan for a just transition.

They are doing this informed by the Just Transition Guide for Business, developed by the Just Transition Centre of the International Trade Union Congress and the BTeam, as well as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Guidelines for a Just Transition towards Environmentally Sustainable Economies and Societies for All.

The Progress Report shows companies on a just transition pathway. They have a long way to go, but they are sharing what they are learning along the way in the hope of inspiring others to follow their lead. For example, Natura, a beauty product company based in Brazil invites its workers to training sessions and meetings to discuss its net-zero strategy and how it could affect the workforce and the wider community.

Social dialogue and the right to participation lie at the heart of a just transition. The worst thing a company can do is deny that change is going to happen and fail to prepare and engage workers, suppliers and the wider community for the inevitable. Coal miners, oil, gas and peat workers, all need to have an active role in deciding what they want their future to be. It cannot be imposed on them.

It takes time and investment to ensure that communities remain vibrant and jobs secure. Workers need support to reskill and access training to find new jobs, or if close to retirement age, to gain early access to their pension. The right to participate and to be part of this decision making is key.

The Just Transition Centre and BTeam business guide to a just transition identifies three key steps companies and governments need to take in addition to having clear policies and plans on both climate actions and human rights.

The first step is to engage employers, workers, and unions, as well as government, communities and civil society in a just transition planning dialogue. The second is to plan with all stakeholders to develop a concrete, time-bound, company and sectoral strategy for a just transition. Finally, all stakeholders must enact the strategy.

 Social protection will be critical to protect people who lose their jobs while they reskill and find new jobs. There is a role for government to provide a social protection system but also for companies to ensure that contributions and taxes are paid in full so that workers can claim health benefits, social welfare, pensions, etc. Investment will also be needed in education and training so that the oil and gas worker of today, for example, can retrain and upskill as a solar engineer, an IT specialist, or whatever they want to reinvent themselves as. Change is as we know inevitable – and planning for it is key.

As Bord na Móna moves to seize the opportunity it sees in its renewable and fossil fuel free future, parallel efforts must ensure that the workers are supported in finding the path to their future too. As it winds down its peat business, which I believe it can do in advance of the 2028 target, it will need to spearhead a collaborative and inclusive effort to develop new businesses to support the low-carbon economy and create 400-500 jobs across the Midlands.

So remember in particular the third step I mentioned, that we must imagine this better world we must hurry towards. Let me end with the inspiring  words of Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathi:

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called upon to switch to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground.”