A Public Energy Response to the Climate Emergency

This edition of New Labor Forum features three contributions that make the case for public ownership of energy in different national contexts, namely, South Africa, the Republic of Ireland, and Mexico. For many, the global wave of privatizations of publicly owned or heavily regulated electricity companies that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s bears all the signs of an irreversible counterrevolution, a done deal. But things appear to be changing. In the United States, the lack of preparation for extreme weather events has drawn attention to the fact that the drive to make returns on investment has led to the neglect of vital infrastructure. In the immediate aftermath of the Texas electricity failure, Cori Bush—Missouri’s first Black congressional representative and a registered nurse—tweeted that utilities need to once again become “public goods.”

The three contributions that follow are written with the unfolding global climate disaster in mind. Based in Cape Town, Dominic Brown looks at the financial crisis facing South Africa’s public utility, Eskom, as one that has been manufactured by the World Bank’s insistence on “full cost recovery.” He shows how advocates of renewable energy in South Africa see the breakup (“unbundling”) and eventual privatization of Eskom as a necessary measure to end the country’s dependence on electricity generated by burning coal. Brown notes the commitment of South African unions to set aside their many differences to unite behind both the defense of public ownership and the need for a modern national utility, reformed and “demarketized,” to oversee what will be a difficult transition to a low-carbon economy.

In her contribution, Sinéad Mercier documents the achievements of the rural electrification program pursued by the newly independent Republic of Ireland in the 1930s. Modeled on FDR’s hugely successful New Deal rural electrification program, the Republic’s public system brought the country’s rural areas out of darkness  and drudgery. However, during the last twenty years or so, Mercier shows how the privatization agenda pursued by the European Union (E.U.) through its “single energy market directives” have subverted the country’s public goods approach to electricity provision. With Ireland now failing to meet its climate targets (also set by the E.U.) and energy poverty rising, Mercier suggests that renationalization of the power sector in Ireland would provide the surest path to carbon neutral, universal access to energy—and environmental groups should support such an approach. My contribution looks at the largely unnoticed efforts by Mexico’s left MORENA government to reverse the energy privatization process set in motion by previous administrations. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) has taken a number of measures to restore the market domination of the state-owned oil company (PEMEX) and the national electrical power utility, known as CFE. However, as part of his desire to restore Mexico’s energy sovereignty, his government postponed the scheduled renewable energy auctions, thus imposing an indefinite moratorium on new wind and solar projects. An international campaign is being waged by business and green groups to stop AMLO. This article suggests that AMLO’s fight is our fight, because it draws attention to the failures of the current “privatize to decarbonize” approach promoted by the neoliberal elite in the name of “saving the planet.” AMLO is not a “climate champion,” but his actions could set the stage for a public goods approach to decarbonization that is cognizant of current realities.

––Sean Sweeney
Director of the International Program
for Labor, Climate & Environment at the
School of Labor and Urban Studies,
City University of New York


Read Sinéad Mercier’s article here: Ireland’s Energy System: The Historical Case for Hope in Climate Action

Read Dominic Brown’s article here: Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility

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