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Bulletin 52 - November 3, 2016
Energy Democracy at the “People’s Forum on BRICS”
John Treat, reporting for TUED
 On October 13-14, more than five-hundred delegates from dozens of countries convened at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research in Goa, India, for the “People’s Forum on BRICS.” I had the pleasure of representing TUED at the meeting, and of speaking as part of a panel co-organized with Transnational Institute (TNI) entitled “State of Power: Energy Democracy and Labor Perspectives” (details below).

Timed and structured as a grassroots, critical alternative to the official, state-led “BRICS Summit” — which took place over the two days following the People’s Forum (October 15-16), and also in Goa — the People’s Forum builds on two previous similar meetings, in Durban, South Africa in 2013 and Fortaleza, Brazil in 2014.

Under the theme, “Building Solidarities Across Communities,” the meeting addressed a range of issues facing progressive forces in the BRICS countries, as well as broader challenges to achieving justice, development and international solidarity and cooperation. Full plenary sessions of the meeting heard testimony from representatives of various countries, organizations and movements about the role of the BRICS countries in advancing neoliberal agendas and policies, including the heavy and intensifying reliance on “extractivist” approaches to resource exploitation, including in energy. A range of smaller workshops over the course of the two days explored in more depth issues of food sovereignty, urbanization, the BRICS bank and development finance, international financial institutions, international solidarity, the struggle against trans-national corporations, and more.

TNI has been working closely with TUED on advancing the struggle for energy democracy, through deepening the analysis and extending the discussion that informs this work. TNI’s publication in May 2016 of Towards Energy Democracy provided a very valuable contribution to these efforts; the report summarises discussions and outcomes from an international workshop on energy democracy held in Amsterdam in February, organised by TNI in partnership with Global Justice Now, Rosa Luxemburg Brussels, Platform London, Switched on London, the Berlin Energy Roundtable, the Alternative Information and Development Centre, Public Services International, and TUED.

In our workshop on energy democracy, panellists spoke about the struggles for democratic control of energy in several of the BRICS countries (India, China and South Africa), as well as some of the challenges — technical, social, political — confronting the pursuit of social justice and inclusive development in those countries, especially in the context of the struggle to limit the dangerous impacts of climate disruption. The panel was introduced and moderated by TNI’s Benny Kuruvilla.
 Among the panelists, Ashim Roy, former (and founding) General Secretary of India’s New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) spoke about some of the issues raised in a forthcoming TUED Working Paper being prepared by NTUI: Energy Transition in the South: A Scoping Study Based On the Case of India. In particular, the NTUI paper argues that India faces a specific set of challenges related to industrialization and development — challenges that are similar in certain ways to those facing other countries of the global south, but that also have a unique configuration in the Indian context (as in other individual countries). For India, these include the countries generous natural endowment with relatively low-grade coal — the mixed blessing-and-curse of a heavily polluting natural “asset” — as well as the need to confront the reality of a formative “national space” that plays a key role in shaping developmental challenges and political struggles, without playing into the hands of a “nationalist” political culture or narrative.

For my presentation on behalf of TUED, I gave highlights from another forthcoming TUED Working Paper entitled, Is the World Really Moving Away from Fossil Fuels? Co-authored with TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney, the paper engages with the wave of “green growth” optimism that has gathered strength over the past year or two, especially as a result of the decline in coal consumption, the growth in renewable energy (103 GW last year) and the levelling off of CO2 emissions levels. While these empirical trends are real, we show that the optimistic narrative that relies on them — which aims to confirm that markets will be able to deliver the energy transition we urgently need, if only policy makers will “send the right signals” to investors — is based largely on a selective reading of energy and emissions data. Shared by the likes of Al Gore, Nicholas Stern, and echoed by some large environmental NGOs, this “we are winning” perspective falls apart quickly when these superficially encouraging data points are considered in the context of larger trends — among them the global rise in the use of oil and gas, as well as the sharp growth in methane emissions in recent years. The fight to achieve the science-based targets adopted at COP 21 in Paris in December 2015 and to avoid dangerous climate impacts therefore requires another approach — one that is grounded in social ownership and democratic control over energy resources, infrastructure, and options.
John Treat is Special Initiatives Coordinator for the International Program for Labor, Climate and Environment at Murphy Institute, City University of New York.
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