Global South Unions Search for a “Public Pathway” Approach to Energy Transition

Several decades ago, unions in the Global South were on the cutting edge of societal struggles for democracy, new forms of organizing, and efforts to build a more equal world. In Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Philippines, and elsewhere, unions contributed to a political culture that was class-based and militant. As unions in the North were staggering under the blows inflicted by rightwing governments determined to reign in the power of unions, South unions in a number of key countries appeared to be going from strength to strength.

In October 2022, a good number of those same unions that had led historic struggles in the 1980s and 1990s attended a three-day meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, to launch a new South-focused platform where unions work together on issues of energy transition, climate change, and economic development. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), the global network which I coordinate, convened the seventy-person meeting with union representatives from twenty-seven countries. Leaders from the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, and Mexico joined their counterparts from sixteen African countries. Unions from France and the United Kingdom also participated.[1]

Trade union discussions on climate change are always difficult, and normally produce more consternation than inspiration. There are few heroes, and seldom any uplifting stories. And while the radical traditions of the unions present were on display in the banners that decorated the room, this new generation of leadership finds itself contemplating a challenge so formidable it threatens to redefine what it means to be a trade union.

Participants referred to the devastating floods in Pakistan that, just weeks prior to the Nairobi meeting, had displaced 7.9 million people and killed 1,700. According to UNICEF, 27,000 schools have been washed away and child mortality levels have risen in the months since the floods took place.[2] Earlier in 2022, 400 hillside dwellers died during record-breaking rainfall in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.[3] These events further corroborate what scientists have been saying: the impact of climate change will everywhere be severe, but the lack of public services and resilient infrastructure will mean that poor countries will be hit particularly hard.[4] Meanwhile, the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are mired in energy poverty. In 2020, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for more than three-quarters of the world’s people (568 million) who remained without access to electricity.[5]

TUED South and the “Public Pathway”
Naming the new platform “TUED South,” the meeting recognized that energy and climate are, from the perspective of the working class and the poor, issues of utmost importance. It also
recognized that the current neoliberal approach to energy transition and climate protection is failing in several important respects, principal among them being the lack of investment (especially in the South); the lack of long-term planning, and the neglect of energy conservation and efficiency. In launching TUED South, the unions in Nairobi decided to work together to develop a “public pathway” alternative to the current “energy for profit” model. They agreed that the political starting point for the “public pathway” is the need to both defend existing  public energy systems and extend public ownership over systems that have been either privatized or marketized as a result of decades of neoliberal policy.

Naming the new platform “TUED South,” the meeting recognized . . . that the current neoliberal approach to energy transition and climate protection is failing in several important respects, principal among them being the lack of investment (especially in the South . . .

But what will public ownership achieve that decades of neoliberal energy policy has been unable to accomplish? Public ownership can mobilize investment in ways that private investors cannot. Backed by governments, public companies can borrow at lower levels of interest, and governments can use various mechanisms (including taxation) to generate the capital needed to drive the transition at the speed and scale required, while expanding access to areas of the world that currently have limited access to clean and affordable energy. Equally important, public companies can be tasked with planning the transition across different economic sectors, such as transport, industry, and building and construction, and—backed by a pro-public mandate—they can pivot toward radical energy conservation and efficiency.

The public pathway approach views the energy transition and climate stability as “global public goods.” It therefore stands in complete contrast to the current neoliberal “energy for profit” regime where corporations have an incentive to sell as much coal, oil, and gas as possible.

By offering a plausible alternative to the current model, the public pathway will help unions rebuild a sense of purpose during a time of setbacks and defeats. Representing workers in electricity, oil and gas, mining, nuclear power, as well as transport, health care, and public services, the leaders in Nairobi acknowledged that, by fighting for public ownership and control of energy, both they and the workers they represent could be pivotal in the effort to transition to a more sustainable political economy and a more stable climate.

Desperate Deals
TUED South has emerged at a time when the for-profit approach to energy transition is clearly failing. Emissions should be falling dramatically, but they are set to hit record levels in 2023. Coal use—the leading single contributor to CO2 emissions—is today at its highest point in history.[6] Meanwhile, short-term climate targets adopted under the Paris Agreement are not going to be reached, making the longer term “net zero” targets meaningless.[7]

A sense of desperation has engulfed those in charge of climate policy, who now resort to delusional appeals to the private sector to “do the right thing.” In late 2022 Inger Andersen, the head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP)—a staunch advocate of “public private partnerships” and “market-based solutions”—noted “Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.” Radical talk, for sure. But what, then, should be done? Commenting on the lack of private investment in the transition, Andersen added, “I urge everyone in the private sector to start reworking their practices. I urge every investor to put their capital toward a net-zero world.”[8]

Of course, a one-minute conversation with an investor or corporate CEO would be enough to dispel the notion that they are likely to welcome the cold embrace of commercial suicide in order to rescue a burning planet. Both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have calculated that reaching the Paris climate targets will require an infusion of trillions of dollars annually, and current private-sector investment levels fall far short of that. The shortfall is particularly serious in the case of the South.[9] According to the IEA, so-called  “emerging and developing economies” (EMDEs) account for “two-thirds of the world’s population but only one-fifth of investment in clean energy.” And it is getting worse due to what the IEA refers to as “persistent challenges in mobilizing finance.”[10] But these “persistent challenges” actually boil down to one thing: not enough profit. In the words of one analyst, “For any private-sector actor, the investment climate is critical . . . often, as we know, in low-income countries the risk profiles versus the returns just aren’t there.”[11]

So where to now? At the January 2023 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, the IMF’s Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva remarked: “We are in the ditch . . . there is plenty of money, but they [the investors] don’t go where they should go . . . if you don’t send a signal to investors that low-carbon intensity pays off, why would they go?” Her solution is simple: “You are not going to move money to go into climate investment in the EMDEs if you don’t accept that public money should sweeten the deal for these guys.”[12]

Such is the fiasco of neoliberal climate policy. First, insist that investors should direct their hoarded gold toward the creation of vital public goods (clean energy and climate stability) and, when they do not respond, simply throw billions of public dollars in their direction in the hope that it will “unlock” the trillions of dollars needed for the transition. But it is not working—and certainly not in the South. As the IEA notes, despite the subsidies, “There are few signs of the major shift of capital that is needed to turn emissions around . . . today’s [policy] frameworks are not yet equipped to avoid multiple risks for the future.”[13]

Beyond “Green Growth Unionism”
Meanwhile, global trade union climate and energy policy has for years been dominated by the more conservative unions from the North, and it reflects both their priorities and their ideology. This policy has helped prevent the international trade union movement from playing the role it can and must play in the fight for a just energy transition.

. . . [G]lobal trade union climate and energy policy has for years been dominated by the more conservative unions from the North, and it reflects both their priorities and their ideology.

In the fifteen years since the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) became officially recognized by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), its interventions have focused on the need for a “just transition” for workers in carbon-intensive sectors. Its first submission to the UNFCCC at the thirteenth session of at Conference of the parties (COP13) in Bali in 2007, the ITUC stated, “These [U.N. climate] negotiations are ultimately about jobs . . . Hundreds of millions of jobs. Effectively combating climate change is ultimately the biggest trade and employment treaty process ever attempted.” But, the ITUC warned, “social dialogue” is essential, otherwise “no worker can genuinely participate in efforts to reduce global warming.”[14] Fast forward to the U.N.-convened COP27 that took place in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022, outgoing ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow stated, “Workers must have a place at the table” and “otherwise we risk stoking the fear of those who feel left behind and left out of decision-making.”[15]

For many South unions, “green jobs” and getting a “seat at the table” are not exactly a priority—especially when “the table” has been arranged to serve up structural adjustment programs and most of the companies purportedly creating green jobs are North-based multinationals pushing neoliberal privatization and deregulation in the name of “saving the planet.”[16] For many unions in the South, the international labor movement must take the lead in the fight for a different political economy, one that breaks with “endless growth” capitalism. The struggle to defend and  extend public ownership of energy lies at the heart of this effort to bring about system change, in that owning and controlling energy can provide a means to impede and then reverse the dynamics of wasteful and reckless expansion in ways that can advance social and economic justice.

The Road Ahead
For TUED South, the immediate task after Nairobi is to wage a determined struggle against the “green structural adjustment” agenda that is currently being promoted through the so-called Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs). Ostensibly created to accelerate the South’s transition away from coal, the JETPs constitute the latest push to privatize and marketize public energy systems, create more room for North-based private-sector multinationals (“independent power producers” or IPPs) and, in ways that the IMF’s Georgieva would enthusiastically endorse, to “de-risk” private investment by way of legally binding agreements that guarantee revenues and profits over a twenty-to twenty-five-year period.[17] Initially proposed by the international Group of 7 (G7), the JETPs offer “concessional” loans (loans at below market-level interest rates) to “assist the transition” in return for commitments to support the private sector and curtail public energy systems.

Announced at COP26 in November 2021, the JETP with South Africa—the first of its kind—dangled the possibility of $8.5 billion in concessional finance to expedite the country’s transition away from coal. During 2022, JETPs were announced between the North and key coal-using countries, namely Indonesia, Vietnam, and India. JETPs are also being developed with Egypt, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Senegal, and Morocco.[18] In South Africa’s case, the financing is contingent upon the creation of “an enabling environment through policy reform on the electricity sector, such as unbundling [of the public utility, Eskom] and improved revenue collection” (read: higher prices for electricity, and the disconnecting of non-payers).[19] Just a week after COP26, the IMF also called for the unbundling of ESKOM into three entities and to reduce the size of its workforce.[20]

For many South unions, “green jobs” and getting a “seat at the table” are not exactly a priority—especially when “the table” has been arranged to serve up structural adjustment programs . . .

These pro-business clauses (or “conditionalities”) are reminiscent of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 1990s, when the IMF and the World Bank announced it would discontinue funding state-owned energy projects in developing countries, absent a commitment on the part of the governments of those countries to break up their public companies into separate entities responsible for power generation, transmission, and distribution (so-called “unbundling”); to establish an independent regulator (to drive through the neoliberal reforms and pare back the decision-making capacities of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and to create space for privately owned IPPs. This package of reforms became known as the World Bank’s “standard model” of power-sector privatization.[21]

Participants in Nairobi supported the idea that TUED South should be a platform for a united South-led opposition to the “green structural adjustment” proposals embedded in the JETPs, and they were heartened by the fact that progressive governments (e.g., Mexico) had successfully resisted the privatization agenda and others were canceling contracts with the IPPs (Ghana and Uganda, for example). However, building broad resistance to green structural adjustment will require TUED South to develop alternative proposals for mobilizing finance. These proposals must be anchored in tax justice, ending illicit finance flows, and requiring development banks to provide grant-based finance that does not impose additional debt on countries that are already heavily indebted.

. . . [B]uilding broad resistance to green structural adjustment will require TUED South to develop alternative proposals for mobilizing finance.

Looking further ahead, the Nairobi meeting identified three major challenges that a public pathway approach would need to address if it is ever to be considered a viable alternative to the current energy for profit model.[22] The challenges are first the need to address energy poverty and the lack of capacity to generate electricity in the poorest countries; second, rising levels of fossil fuel extraction; and third—and probably the most formidable challenge of all—rapidly increasing levels of energy demand in the high-growth economies of the South (such as China and India) that are driving up global emissions levels at a time when they need to be falling quickly.[23]

The unions in TUED South realize that addressing these challenges will require years of rigorous research, leadership development, membership education, and capacity-building. What makes this effort worthwhile is the prospect of South-based unions positioning themselves to lead the struggle for a just energy transition alongside unions in the North that have strong internationalist traditions. The international labor movement once brought hope to the world; now is the time for it to do so again.

1. Trade unions from Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia participated in the Nairobi meeting. Three Global Union Federations were represented, namely IndustriALL (which represents energy, mining and chemicals sector workers) the International Transport Workers Federation, and Public Services International (which represents workers in utilities and municipalities). For a list of participants, available at
2. See
3. See;
4. In 2019, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights noted that hundreds of millions of people living the poorer regions of the world “will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease, and death” due to the lack of public services and resilient infrastructure that might normally help deal with the impacts of climate change. Similarly, the IPCC reported in 2022, “vulnerability is higher in locations with poverty, governance challenges and limited access to basic services and resources . . . Between 2010-2020, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability.” Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, “Climate Change and Poverty” (Report A/HRC/41/39, Human Rights Council Forty-First Session, June 25, 2019), available at;
5. For the latest data on energy poverty, see IEA, IRENA, UNSD, World Bank, and WHO, “Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report 2022” (World Bank, Washington DC, 2021), available at See also: For data on the health impacts of indoor pollution, see:
6. See IEA on rising coal use:; See also: Robert Rapier, “Global Coal Consumption Is Being Driven By Developing Countries,” Forbes, July 19, 2020, available at;
7. IPCC, “Sixth Assessment Report” (August, 2021),
8. Foreword by Inger Andersen, Executive Director United Nations Environment Program. Along similar lines, Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), recently stated that “big financial sector players are becoming a liability for all of us . . . With about $300 trillion in wealth in the world today,” said Steiner, “there is enough finance to address [climate and sustainable development goals] but financial markets must change in order to do so.” See: Adva Saldinger, “Blended Finance’s Role in SDGs Depends on These Changes,” Devex, April 12, 2019, available at https://www.devex. com/news/blended-finance-s-role-in-sdgsdepends-on-these-changes-94692
9. See
10. IEA, “Financing Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging and Developing Economies (EMDEs)” (Special Report, June, 2021), 13, available at
11. Susan Lund, McKinsey Global Institute, available at
12. WorldEconomicForum,(January, 2023), available at
13. IEA, “World Energy Investment 2019: Webinar” (May 14, 2019), available at
14. See
15. The ITUC has, however, consistently echoed the demands made by developing countries for the North to honor their climate finance commitments to the developing countries. But there has been no serious interrogation of the kind of arrangements that are being proposed by the G7 and the financial institutions, and certainly no sustained objection to the “privatize to decarbonize” agenda and the relentless undermining of publicly controlled or regulated energy systems. See
16. The ITUC has, however, consistently echoed the demands made by developing countries for the North to honor their climate finance commitments to the developing countries, but there has been no serious interrogation of the policies pushed by the G7 and the financial institutions, and certainly no sustained objection to the “privatize to decarbonize” agenda represented in the JETPs.
17. See
18. See
19. Political Declaration on the Just Energy Transition in South Africa: Declaration from the Governments of the Republic of South Africa, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the United States of America, the Republic of France and the Federal Republic of Germany, and the European Union. See also:
20. The restructuring and unbundling of Eskom, said the memo, “must be accompanied by a substantial downsizing and structural transformation of its operations, notably through a meaningful reduction of procurement and personnel costs.” See
21. For a discussion on the “standard model” of privatization and its part in “structural adjustment.” See
22. Perhaps inevitably, there was some debate about the use of the term “Global South.” The TUED paper for Nairobi states, “The word ‘South’” is used here for convenience, and often loosely throughout this document. Its use is not intended to homogenize the countries of the South, or to use the term in a way that suggests a common political entity with a common interest.” In fact, the paper attempts to draw attention to important differences that exist across the South in terms of levels of economic development, the production and consumption of energy, and how these differences are expressing themselves politically . . . Based on World Bank and UN criteria, China is still considered a developing country even though it is the world’s second largest economy. In 2019, 373 million people in China still live below the World Bank’s upper-middle-income poverty line of US$5.50 per day.
23. Globally, electricity’s share of Total Final Energy Consumption is growing. It is the fastest-growing energy end use, as electricity consumption has doubled over the last twenty-three years, with a 37 percent increase in the last decade.

Author Biography
Sean Sweeney is the director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York. He also coordinates Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) a global network of eighty-three unions from twenty-four countries. TUED advocates for democratic control and social ownership of energy resources, infrastructure, and options.

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