Public services fundamental for tackling climate change in a socially just manner

conference organised on 17 June 2021 by the ETUI and the European Climate Foundation on climate change and welfare

(30 July 2021)  Public services are fundamental. This message came out loud and clear during the conference organised on 17 June 2021 by the ETUI and the European Climate Foundation on climate change and welfare.

The workshop’s themes reflected the growing interest and strategic reflection on the connection between just transition, climate change and welfare policies, and the failure of growth strategies to  deliver social and ecological progress.

As emphasized in the presentations, the trade union movement has every reason to move away from relying on growth - however nuanced with adjectives like sustainable, green, inclusive or job-rich - to deliver a just transition. Research shows that any link between growth in GDP, employment and equality/cohesion is not apparent, at least in advanced economies, and that market mechanisms to support the green transition are inadequate (or as said ‘you can’t solve the problems of markets with more markets’). EPSU and ETUI have an ongoing project on ‘beyond GDP’ that aims to build on - and communicate better - this research.

The ETUI conference illustrated that in a non growth-driven context, the (re)distribution of essential public goods and services to everyone will be necessary to ensure that collective human needs, present and future  can be met.

EPSU’s DGS Penny Clarke took part in the conference panel that addressed this  central role of public services, organised around a presentation by Professor Ian Gough of a paper written for the ETUI, Climate change: the key challenge. A framework for an eco-social contract, preliminary version and PowerPoint presentation.

In the paper Professor Gough sketches out two scenarios for public services. In both scenarios pubic services play a central part, but one scenario is more ambitious, advocating not only ensuring everyone has access to public services and essential goods but also tackling unnecessary and over-consumption by rich individuals. That ‘nobody should be left behind’ has been picked up in EU discourse on climate change, but rarely do we hear that ‘nobody should be too far out in front’ in spite of the scandalous level of wealth accumulation. The relevance of limiting extreme wealth to tackle climate change as well as inequality was illustrated by Professor Gough with the example of SUV cars, the sale of which expanded exponentially between 2010-2018 in both advanced and developing countries. The SUVs expansion cancelled out the carbon efficiency gains during the same period made in the entire fleet. Furthermore, if SUV owners would replace their cars with more modest vehicles, electricity could be provided for 1.6 billion people. This and other examples should prompt a reflection within the trade union movement as to whether all economic activity – and employment – is useful and defendable. In the discussion that followed the presentation of Professor Gough’s paper  it was interesting to see that the idea that trade unions should actively oppose extreme wealth accumulation and limit the right of individuals to buy (and to develop) luxury products and services is seen as very radical.

That public services are efficient in ecological terms as well as social was also well illustrated by Professor Gough’s example of healthcare. In the USA the ecological footprint of healthcare, (already well-known to perform less well in terms of health outcomes in spite of costing much more) is 2-3 times higher than in Europe. Economies of scale, focus on prevention and early intervention, fair distribution of resources, robust public health and flanking education policies all make public health and social care systems more efficient than private ones at meeting human needs and protecting the environment. In addition, ‘caring’ jobs in health and social care and education provide many decent jobs with low carbon footprints that depend on human relationships, and so less likely to be automised. 

The messages of Professor Gough’s paper tie in with arguments made during EPSU’s event for public services day on June 23.    Public services are key to enjoy human rights, crucial to reach the SDGs and implement the European pillar of social rights, to promote equality and build our economies and societies.

You can find further information about the ETUI conference speakers, the agenda and recording of the event as well as presentations of the participants here.