No to market solutions, says union climate conference

Melbourne’s trade union climate conference in October was a big step forward for the climate movement in Melbourne. The conference, organised by Victorian Trades Hall Council’s Climate Change Working Group and the Climate Emergency Network in Melbourne, attracted over seventy unionists from over fourteen different unions.

Significantly, it endorsed a call for direct government investment in renewable energy and rejected market mechanisms as a solution to climate change. It should give confidence to climate activists across the country that we can and must win workers to fighting for direct government investment in renewables.

The market

While most of the climate movement looks to Labor and The Greens to deliver a carbon price, the conference statement, adopted in the last session of the day, took a different approach. It called for “a commitment from government… to develop and direct new industries for renewable energy… we cannot rely on the free market to support those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged. We reject market-based solutions like carbon pricing and instead call for regulation and direct government investment in renewable energy.”

This is an encouraging step towards building a climate movement that is not focused around failed market schemes. There was still plenty of debate at the conference about market mechanisms. While the statement passed unanimously, over the day some participants raised the idea that a carbon price or a feed-in-tariff will be needed to kick-start the transition and argued that it is more achievable in the short term than government investment.

But demanding a carbon price or feed-in-tariff is unlikely to mobilise people and it also means pushing the cost onto workers. A carbon price would mean huge electricity price rises. It also ignores that business is currently doing all it can to get a carbon price that suits their interests. Marius Kloppers, the CEO of BHP Billiton, has embraced a low carbon price, while simultaneously expanding BHP’s coal production. There is no getting around the power of big business—it can’t be achieved by a clever market mechanism. Our power to shift the agenda lies in our ability to strike and protest. By doing so, we can make not acting on climate change politically impossible. To make that happen, the climate movement needs to win support among wide layers of workers. The conference shows it is much easier to do that by arguing the government and industry ought to bear the cost.


The alternative to campaigning for a market mechanism is a campaign for jobs and investment, a very popular idea at the conference. Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) gave a well-attended presentation showing how 100 per cent renewable energy is possible with currently existing wind and solar thermal technology. The report was commended in the conference statement.

BZE modelling that projected electricity price rises of 30 per cent to implement their plan were rightly contested by participants. BZE themselves are “agnostic” about who pays and argued the figure was only an illustration of the scale of the cost. But a much more useful measure to emphasise is the estimation that the plan would cost the government $37 billion a year over ten years—if the payments were spaced out over a longer period, it could be paid for at $9 billion a year, the current rate of government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

A session on climate jobs discussed the need for massive job creation to address climate change, as well as the important question of a ‘just transition’ for workers in polluting industries. One unionist from the La Trobe valley spoke from the floor about how some workers there were looking to the Nationals, because they were promising to protect jobs in the coal industry. This fact shows that the climate movement must take these concerns for jobs and pay seriously, and put ‘green jobs’ at the centre of its campaigning—otherwise the movement risks further alienating this powerful section of workers.

The conference statement also condemned HRL’s plan for a new coal-fired power station in Victoria, which students have recently kicked off a campaign against.

Since the conference, unionists have begun to organise in the climate movement. Union members have set up a group to take the Beyond Zero Emissions presentation into workplace and union meetings. Unionists are also organising a ‘green jobs’ contingent and a union speaker at the upcoming Hazelwood demonstration on November 6. It’s a good start for organising unionists around climate change.

Chris Breen


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