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Climate change will drive a revolution in transport and workers are ready to respond

11 Aug 2021
Credit: MUA
Stephen Cotton, the ITF General Secretary, argues that worker participation is vital in the transition to a zero-carbon transport sector.

Transport creates 21% of carbon emissions. Yet 95% of the energy consumed by the sector still comes  from petroleum and other fossil fuels (as of 2015). It’s a grim reality, but these numbers need to change urgently. The very survival of the human race depends on it.

Things are becoming desperate according to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published on Monday (9 August 2021). Without urgent action, average global temperatures will hit 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by 2040. This is a tipping point, beyond which climate change may be irreversible.

IPCC reports have laid the scientific basis for international climate treaties and policies since 1990. They are published every seven years. Never has their message been clearer or more urgent than this time around. We’re on course to hit the point of no return a full ten years earlier than previous modelling suggested.

We must heed the IPCCs warning and adopt a comprehensive global strategy for a sustainable, zero-carbon future. We must do it now. And transport is going to be a big part of that. This November, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow is likely to respond with tougher targets and we in the transport sector must be ready to respond.

Just transition

But the transition to a decarbonised transport sector must be managed carefully to ensure it is fair for workers and for passengers. Transport businesses must be part of the solution. Road, aviation, shipping, and rail all need cleaner sources of energy, but also a new approach to doing business. Transport is a public good: it cannot be driven by short-term business interests. It needs a coordinated policy where governments around the world put sustainable transport for the public before profit.

A switch to green fuel must go hand-in-hand with investment in infrastructure and that will require government intervention and democratic oversight. For too long fossil fuel vested interests and a short term ‘business as usual’ attitude have delayed necessary changes and brought us to the environmental brink.

Energy policy must have a democratic basis if it is to succeed in tackling climate change. One example is the ITF’s approach to public transport. The ITF believes we need to rethink how transport works in urban areas. The IPCC report highlights the significant CO2 emissions from cities. Much of that carbon footprint results from urban transportation choices. Public transport funding needs to increase, mass transit systems should be expanded, and communities must be involved in the strategic development of urban transport.

And workers should be at the heart of that process.

Workers have the know-how

Because transport workers are in the front line of climate disasters. Many of the catastrophic events described in the IPCC report (heat waves, extreme weather, droughts) are already impacting transport in 2021. Seafarers in Greece and Turkey have been evacuating residents endangered by this summers devastating wildfires. Subway workers in London, Zhengzhou, and New York City struggled to deal with overwhelming floods in train tunnels, helping to mitigate damage and loss of life. Fire and mudslides have severely disrupted routes in parts of the western US. 

Around the globe, transport workers are putting their own lives at risk. Yet as the IPCC report notes, these kinds of events and no longer extraordinary. Climate disasters are likely to increase in frequency and severity.

With this kind of first-hand understanding, transport workers must be at the centre of developing sustainable policies and systems. We must not leave things to be decided in lofty boardrooms and government offices — these people have failed us already. Change must happen as part of a just transition to a greener economy, anchored by high quality union jobs, access to training, and full social support.

Financial and technological support must be shared widely, particularly in the global south, if transport is going to meet its green obligations and produce just outcomes for workers and the ordinary people who use public transport. If we are to succeed, workers must be included in decision-making. Government investment choices must be guided by workers with practical know-how of transport and green issues. And we must invest in developing these types of skills, particularly for women and young workers.

Two more IPCC reports are expected in 2022 - one on the social and economic impacts of the crisis and another on the methods for combating climate change. These will help us see the way forward but putting the plans into action will hinge on including transport workers at the heart of decision-making. Transport unions must have a greater role at the UN bodies which regulate transport, and greater input into the national plans that emerge from COP26 in Glasgow.