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Copenhagen talks create chance for labour to be part of environmental and economic solutions

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As the world turns its attention to the UN Climate Change talks in Copenhagen in mid-December, there are twin crises on the minds of world leaders.  Not only will they need to confront the growing global concern about climate change, but they also need to keep in mind the urgent economic crisis still gripping most of the world's economies. 

At a recent meeting I attended in Bad Orb, Germany, unions from around the world (with China notably absent) in the manufacturing and energy sectors tried to come to grips with these two crises.  A union leader from South Africa, where unemployment hovers around 25 per cent, described the dilemma faced by working people: Asking a person without a job to take action on climate change is like asking them to put a new roof on their house when the house is on fire.  Both are essential, but one is more immediate than the other.

Be that as it may, some roofs are already collapsing.  Preventing the future collapse of our roofs must also be a priority.  Especially since those in the South will disproportionately face the impact of climate change.

At the Bad Orb meetings, the new leader of the International Federation of Metalworkers, Jyrki Raina, was determined to hammer out a common labour approach to climate change heading into the Copenhagen talks. Refreshingly, he set out to ensure that labour was not the problem, but part of the solution. 

Delegates from around the world agreed to some key principles to lead to a more sustainable world(http://www.imfmetal.org/index.cfm?c=21012&l=2). The two key overall demands are:

-Labour wants a strong, legally-binding, comprehensive global agreement ensuring ambitious reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

-Social justice and long-term employment policies must be an integral part of climate policy. We want jobs, but a just transition policy is essential.

Shamefully, Canada is going into the Copenhagen talks, not as a leader, but as a laggard on GHG emission reductions and way behind other countries who signed the Kyoto Protocol.  First the Liberals and then the Conservatives in Ottawa ignored our international commitments.  The old polluting habits continue, including massive tax subsidies to the oil sands, in spite of the environmental consequences.

Canada has so far missed the opportunity to invest in green industries.  But the economic crisis offers both economic and environmental opportunities.  Governments can lead the transformation to a green economy.  As Van Jones so passionately demonstrated with Green For All, we can marry social justice for the many, job creation and sustainability. 

Through a mix of fiscal policy and industrial strategy our governments can encourage and reward the environmental and economic behavior we want, and discourage that which we don't want.  For example, more than a decade ago, Denmark decided it did not want to be dependent on foreign oil.  It invested heavily in wind energy and today not only is a major user of wind energy but is leading the world in wind technology, exporting its products around the globe. 

Given our vast geography, Canada ought to be a world leader in energy efficient transportation.  We already have important production facilities for autos, trucks, buses, trains, aircraft and ships.  But we have left it up to the market to decide the future of these facilities.  Our governments need to provide some strategic vision to ensure we are a world leader with cutting edge technology.  Domestic procurement policies can ensure that public dollars are most effectively used to create jobs locally.

Unlike Denmark, we have a variety of energy sources from oil and gas to hydroelectric and coal.  We have also developed nuclear.  But we should be developing other renewable sources such as geothermal, tidal, solar and wind, ensuring that we not only install but that we produce these new products here in Canada.  Building our capacity in renewable energy is an important step toward energy security and sustainability.

The opportunities for energy efficiency are also opportunities for job creation. 

Labour delegates will join other progressives from around the globe for discussions and events in Copenhagen in December.  The urgency of these twin crises needs to focus the minds of our world leaders to translate ideas into urgent action.  The people are way ahead of the politicians on this one.  We know we need a solid, energy efficient roof over our heads. 

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