On behalf of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and our energy and natural resources sector group, I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear before it. The unions that comprise our energy and natural resources sector group represent tens of thousands of workers in the energy production and distribution sector, all of whom are directly affected by climate change. I understand the committee has been tasked with considering the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on this issue and how we can make Ireland a leader in climate action. The committee's deliberations also take place in the context of the development of the integrated energy and climate action plan for consideration by the European Commission, a process into which the committee's final report will feed.
Our delegation wishes to focus in particular on recommendation 7 of the Citizens' Assembly report, namely, that "the State should end all subsidies for peat extraction and instead spend that money on peat bog restoration and making proper provision for the protection of the rights of the workers impacted", with the majority of the members of the assembly, 61%, recommending that the State should end all subsidies on a phased basis over five years. Clearly, workers in this sector and in other carbon heavy sectors will face significant challenges in the coming years. Congress made a submission to the Citizens' Assembly which acknowledged this fact and also made the case for a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Unions have been campaigning in this area for a number of years now under the campaign slogan of "There are no jobs on a dead planet".
The concept of a just transition originates in the international labour movement and, over time, has become the benchmark in terms of how we should respond globally and nationally to this challenge. In essence, it means that workers and their communities must not shoulder the burden. The International Labour Organization recommends that transition policies must therefore "pay special attention to the industries, regions, communities and workers whose livelihoods might experience the hardest impacts of the transition". In practical terms, this requires governments to "formulate accompanying policies through social protection, including unemployment insurance and benefits, skills training and upgrading, workforce redeployment and other appropriate measures". Critically, repeated studies of this process and examples of best practice from Spain, Germany and Australia demonstrate the necessity to ensure the process is based on social dialogue, with close co-ordination between the government, state agencies, employers and trade unions. For example, Spanish unions only last month agreed an historic just transition deal with Government and employers in respect of the country's coal mining industry. The deal will see €250 million invested in the mining communities and supports for the affected workers. It has been hailed by the European Trade Union Confederation as a model of just transition. The ETUC noted: "We don’t need to choose between a job and protecting the environment. It is possible to have both."
In the Australian town of Port Augusta, unions worked with local businesses and citizens to develop their own just transition plan in advance of the 2016 closure of the town's coal-fired power station. Their research found that a solar thermal plant was the best option to enable a smooth skills transfer and ensure a long-term clean energy solution. The new solar plant will create 1,800 jobs and save 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. It will also help the wider community reap the benefits of a zero-carbon future. In addition, Australian unions, facing the closure of all coal-fired power stations in the near future, recently published a study that highlighted the example of the Ruhr in Germany, a region long synonymous with fossil-based enterprises and now home to new green industry. The secret was planning, social dialogue and co-ordination with all those affected. The study contrasted the success of the Ruhr with the disaster that has befallen the people and communities of Appalachia, where no just transition measures were put in place to deal with the closure of mines in the region.
The issue has been brought to the fore here with the recent announcement by Bord na Móna of a plan that will see the loss of 150 jobs before Easter 2019 and up to 850 redundancies in the peat harvesting business by 2025. It is a devastating blow for the midlands and illustrates the immediacy of the challenges posed by climate change to the workers, their families and the wider communities. Congress responded by calling for the establishment of a just transition forum and we have also initiated work with the Nevin Economic Research Institute and unions in the energy and natural resources sector to develop concrete propositions on how we might achieve a just transition for the region and to identify the supports that will be required to do so, along with the many opportunities that this will present.
As the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, notes: "Transitions to low-carbon, environmentally and socially sustainable economies can become a strong driver of job creation, job upgrading, social justice and poverty eradication." This call was echoed by the former President, Mary Robinson, in a recent keynote address to a climate action conference here in Dublin where she stressed the importance of just transition and the need to ensure that the rights of communities in the midlands are protected in this process. This is why congress has also recently written to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, seeking his support for the Silesia just transition declaration at the COP24 meeting in Poland this week and to return with a commitment to develop and implement such a transition here at home. It is our hope that the integrated energy and climate action plan will include concrete proposals on establishing a just transition forum for the midlands and the wider economy. There is no shortage of guidelines and examples of best practice in this area, including those cited here and those agreed by the world's governments, employers and unions at the ILO. A just transition represents our best chance of tackling climate change in a manner that ensures nobody, including workers and communities in the midlands, is left behind.