Soviet Power + Renewable Electrification of the Whole Economy

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For a Red-Green New Deal in transport

The transport sector represents one of the biggest challenges when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. They are increasing faster than from any other sector in society—and at an ever-increasing pace (over 120 percent globally over the last 30 years, and still increasing in all parts of the world). In Europe, transport is the largest climate problem, accounting for 27 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in 2017. It is also the only sector in which emissions are above 1990 levels (Transport & Environment, 2018).

The use of private cars is by far the largest contributor to emissions in the transport sector. However, this article will mainly focus on freight transport. Heavy-duty vehicles represent around one fifth of all EU transport emissions, and its importance is expected to continue to increase. In Germany, freight traffic on the roads is responsible for more than one third of CO2 emissions in traffic. Since 1970, its share of total freight transport has increased more than tenfold to 72 percent, while rail freight transport only accounts for 19 percent and inland waterway transport for only 11 percent.

Aviation is already a major and growing emitter, and in Europe its emissions have doubled since 1990. Shipping is one of the largest GHG emitting sectors of the global economy. EU related shipping is responsible for about one fifth of global ship GHG emitting.

The transport sector, globally as well as in Europe, has been and is still going through deep transformations. Economic crisis, globalization of the economy, rapidly growing world trade, industrial restructuring into huge integrated supply chains including the digitalization of logistics, just-on-time deliveries, the development of the single market in the EU, followed by extensive deregulation—they have all contributed to this transformation.

Through the global division of labour, forced through free trade agreements, the need for transport has increased immensely. Consequently, transport systems have changed dramatically. Cheap transport services are the blood flowing through the veins of the liberalized global economy. Two of the most important effects of this development have been strongly increased GHG emissions and massively deteriorating working conditions for transport workers—and the two of them are clearly interlinked.

Deteriorating Working Conditions

Some years ago, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) carried out extensive work to map the situation regarding working conditions in road transport. In the period 2008-2012, the ETF interviewed about 1000 drivers—focusing on foreign drivers working in a Western European country. The alarming working conditions revealed by this project are reflected in the report’s title, Modern Slavery in Modern Europe.

Here are just some of the conditions revealed through the ETF project (ETF, 2012):

  • Most drivers spend 3–12 weeks in the host country before being able to return home.
  • The overwhelming majority of drivers live in the cab of the car, including weekends, and most drivers also prepare their food there.
  • There is a large lack of parking and rest areas, and drivers are lacking money to use existing ones. Thus, they have virtually no access to toilet facilities.
  • Most of a very low “salary” is paid in the form of dietary rates (40 euro per day). Thus, the employer saves taxes and fees, while workers lose social insurance.
  • Most drivers often cut the required 45-minute break after maximum 4.5-hour drive.

The establishment of mailbox companies in low-cost countries is a major problem. The ETF found that transport companies in that way were able to reduce pay and social costs by up to 90–95 percent. Drivers were recruited through a staffing agency in one country, on behalf of a transport company registered in another country, with a very favourable tax and levy level for employers. The drivers then operated in third countries, mainly in Western Europe—often with false contracts.

Many of the drivers’ conditions are contrary to existing laws and regulations, but lack of control and enforcement makes it possible to operate on the side of the law. This development has important effects also on GHG emittance in the road haulage industry. Firstly, transport services become too cheap and will thus be over-utilized by transport users. The fact that road freight transport far from covers its other external costs draws in the same direction. Secondly, the accompanying undermining of trade unions contributes to weakening one of the social forces that could have contributed to strengthen climate change policies. This is a serious weakness in a situation in which the transport system is in great need of a radical overhaul.

A great part of freight transport globally works as integrated parts of global supply chains. This creates a potential for building alliances between transport workers and manufacturing and warehouse workers in challenging employers in the many multinational companies which are undermining not only wages and working conditions, but also highly necessary climate change policies. This is a potential, though, that is far from being utilized by the trade union movement today.

How Can Transport Be Transformed?

According to the Paris Agreement, all economic sectors in society, including transport, can and must be decarbonised by 2050 at the very latest in order to reach net zero emissions. Four years after the Paris Agreement, however, there is very little transition to cleaner energy, particularly in freight transport. Emissions are still increasing. This is also the case in other economic sectors, but the transport sector is the one that is most in demand.

There are three ways to reduce emissions in the transport sector, the so-called “Reduce—Shift—Improve” model of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF, 2010, p. 20):

Through better technology and energy efficiency (the technological fix)—including using other forms of energy.

By switching from a means of transport with higher to one with lower emissions (the modal shift). For example, freight transport by rail provides climate savings of around 85 percent compared to freight transport by road. In Germany, the first steps in this direction were taken in 2018, in which the prices for freight rail transport were halved. However, it is not possible to simply shift freight traffic to the railways because the corresponding infrastructure is not in place. Massive state investments across Europe are therefore required in order to reach pioneers like Switzerland.

By reducing transport needs.

Most often, the first two methods are highlighted in the discussion on climate policy in transport. However, there is no indication that these two methods alone will reduce emissions from the transport sector to a sufficient extent. It is imperative to also reduce transport needs. These, however, do not arise in the transport sector, but are answers to needs that arise in other sectors of the economy. Social and economic planning across a number of sectors in society will therefore be necessary in order to reduce emissions sufficiently, or to decarbonize whole sectors (“a whole economy approach”, cf. ITF, 2010, p. 18).

Transport consultants at Cambridge Systematics prepared some years ago an interesting report on how to reduce emissions from the transport sector mainly by reducing the amount of transport. They looked at nine different strategies to achieve it—across freight and passenger transport, such as different fiscal policy, land use planning, improved public transport, integrated transport systems etc. (but did not include more radical political interventions in the global production and trade structures). Interestingly, they concluded that this could help reduce emissions from the transport sector by 24 percent by 2050—that is, primarily through reduced transport needs (ITF, 2010, p. 22).

Transportation is too cheap. An easy entry point would be to fight for better working conditions and payment in the sector. That would lead to rising prices for unnecessary transport and could be combined with higher taxes and strong emission limits. In this way, the overstretching of complex global and European supply chains would be reduced, leading to a socio-ecological deglobalization and regionalization.

Renewable Energy

Transport and energy are two sectors of strategic importance that have always relied on each other. Electrification through renewable energy now seems to be the favoured way to decarbonize great parts of the transport sector. However, it does not seem to be corresponding to plans to build the necessary capacity of clean electricity. Also, there seems to be a belief among many politicians and climate campaigners that the task now is just to replace fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, while everything else should remain the same in our societies. In this way, they strongly underestimate the enormous structural challenges we face in the way we organize our lives and our societies within sustainable limits.

Programme Manager at Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All), Nancy Vandycke (2019), reminds us that “[t]echnology is no silver bullet and could actually reinvigorate existing transport and energy systems by making them cheaper and more efficient.” That can lead to more cars on the roads, more congestion, and thus less sustainable transport—also road freight transport. Thus, the decarbonization of the transport sector cannot happen using market forces. We will need public ownership and a democratically regulated and planned transition, which is among the important policy demands raised by the Trade Union for Energy Democracy network, which was established in 2012, and which is being supported by an increasing number of trade union organisations (TUED, 2013).

A Transport & Environment report (2018) concludes that it is possible to decarbonize land freight by 2050, but it would require a significant shift in policy and ambitious and early action to make it happen. Very large investments will be needed. Both curbing demand and a shift to cleaner transport modes will be necessary. The report assumes that the only form of zero emission energy that has the potential to power transport at scale is electricity. This means that the decarbonization of the energy sector is a prerequisite for a zero-emission transport system.

Based on those preconditions, the share of rail freight in the EU could be increased from today’s 18 percent to 23 percent—or hopefully more. E-highways could power long distance trucks with renewable electricity while they drive (with overhead lines through a pantograph—like a tram). The use of hydrogen-powered trucks is also conceivable. In the city, goods could be distributed via cargoBikes or e-transporters.

Aviation and shipping represent huge challenges. Around 90 percent of international shipping traffic is handled by ships. Previously, those transport modes were given to work through the UN’s aviation and shipping agencies, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). However, and unsurprisingly, very little has happened on a voluntary basis. These are sectors where vast amounts of hydrogen and synthetic fuels will be required—and it will be extremely expensive. The reduction in transport is therefore essential.

Agents of Change

A prerequisite for meeting the dramatic climate challenges we face is that we acknowledge that the neoliberal, market-focused measures taken so far have largely failed and that they will probably continue to fail if no serious restructuring occurs. This is not just about what is often described as a “lack of political will”. It is a systemic problem we are facing—an economy driven by growth, profit, competition and commercial mass consumption (Sweeney & Treat, 2017).

This failure calls for a programmatic shift on the part of the international trade union movement—one that shifts the focus away from market-oriented “green growth” towards a position anchored in the need to reclaim energy to public ownership and democratic control (Wahl, 2019). Changing the system of production and consumption requires democratic management of the economy, and such large-scale changes can only be achieved in the current situation through massive popular mobilization. In this struggle, the trade union movement is decisively important by organising those who through their work create the values ​​in society. In doing so, it is given a potential strategic role in the social struggle that becomes indispensable (Wahl, 2016).

However, trade unions are on the defensive all over the world, and they are under immense pressure from strong economic and political forces. Despite the enormous shift in the balance of power, which has taken place in favour of capitalist interests, most of the trade union movement has continued to cling to the social partnership ideology—with social contracts (i.e. class compromise) and social dialogue as its main methods of influence—something which, in the current situation, is rather counterproductive.

This was very well illustrated in the document which the International Trade Union Confederation produced for COP25 in Madrid last December (ITUC, 2019). The document states that “[t]here is a climate crisis. A net zero emissions economy with Just Transition measures is our only chance of survival.” And the ITUC response is: “Without the social dialogue vital to achieve progress on this, the impact on the economy can only worsen.” As we have seen over a number of years now, the impact on the economy can also worsen with social dialogue. What this illustrates more than anything else, is that great parts of the trade union and labour movement are in deep political and ideological crisis. The longer it takes until the trade union movement and the political left is able to break out from the political crisis and social partnership thinking—and go into fighting mode—the closer we get to the climate catastrophe.


Democratization of the economy does not come as a result of rational considerations and convincing arguments alone. It will be necessary to challenge some of the strongest economic interests in society, related to fossil energy. Here are some of the challenges we face:

  1. The demand for transport must be reduced considerably. However, the need for transport is created outside the transport sector, so we need a whole economy approach.
  2. A zero emission transport system can only be developed through the decarbonisation of the energy sector, which, in its turn will require that this sector is brought under public ownership and democratic control.
  3. There are very strong vested interests involved in climate change policies. The fight against climate change is therefore an interest-based struggle, thus an important part of the class struggle on what kind of society we want.
  4. The transport sector causes extensive social and environmental costs that are currently borne by society. These so-called external costs must be internalised, so that the prices reflect to a greater extent the real transport costs—including decent wages and working conditions.
  5. In the fight against climate change, we will need to mobilize broad social alliances of trade unions, social movements, environmental movements, youth, students’ and women’s organizations. Workers in the integrated sectors of transport, energy, manufacturing, and warehouses could thus form the core of a united movement that not only defensively responds to employers’ and governments’ inadequate climate policies, but also takes the lead on what kind of climate policies and societies we need.

On what we now need, we can paraphrase Lenin: Soviet power + renewable electrification of the whole economy. There is no need to hesitate.


ETF, Modern slavery in modern Europe? An ETF account on the working and living conditions of professional drivers in Europe, Report, October 2012.

ITF Climate change working group, Transport workers and climate change: towards sustainable, low-carbon mobility, Conference Report, August 2010.

ITUC, Climate Justice: COP 25 Madrid, Frontline Briefing, December 2019.

Sweeney, Sean and John Treat, Energy Transition: Are We “Winning”?, TUED Working Paper #9, January 2017.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), Resist, Reclaim, Restructure: Unions and the Struggle for Energy Democracy, Founding document, April 2013.

Transport & Environment, How to decarbonise European transport by 2050, Report, November 2018.

Vandycke, Nancy, These two global industries need to work together if we really want a decarbonised future, Article originally published on the World Bank’s website, 13 September 2019.

Wahl, Asbjørn, The role of labour in the fight against climate change, Paper presented at Global Labour University annual conference, Johannesburg, 2016.

Wahl, Asbjørn, Trade unions and climate change: the need for a programmatic shift, Global Labour Column, No. 325, November 2019.

First published at: Soviet Power + Renewable Electrification of the Whole Economy – Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (


The author

Asbjørn Wahl is Director of the broad Campaign for the Welfare State in Norway and Adviser to the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees.