by Kat Rowland7 minute read
The decision of Cumbria County Council earlier this year to give planning permission for the Woodhouse Colliery, the UK’s first deep coal mine in 30 years, sparked a barrage of criticism from environmental campaigners, which led to the decision being called in for review by the Secretary of State. At a national level, it seems impossible to defend the perpetuation of this heavily polluting industry, especially when Britain will be urging countries to pursue “clean recoveries” at the COP26 in Glasgow in November.
In justifying its initial decision, Cumbria cited “the desperate need for jobs”. For an area which ranks as one of the most deprived in England, the prospect of an influx of steady jobs outweighed the mine’s long-term contribution to global climate change.
The debate in Cumbria is a microcosm of a fundamental conflict at the heart of the UK’s net zero future – how to manage a transition to a low-carbon economy whilst preventing unemployment, ensuring that the promised benefits of a Green Revolution are distributed equally across society. This is the concept of the ‘Just Transition’: understanding who is likely to be affected by the upheaval of a transition to a low-carbon economy, and what mechanisms are required to ensure that no people, sectors or places are ‘left behind’.
Boys from the Greenstuff
The UK Government has legislated to make its net zero 2050 target binding, committing to a gradual decarbonisation of every aspect of the economy. Decarbonisation will be more straightforward for some sectors than others, with energy-intensive industries such as steel manufacturing requiring radical restructuring to reach the 2050 goal.
It is understandable that this might give rise to concerns about the impact on those industries. The impacts of deindustrialisation in the 1980s loom large in the memory of communities up and down the country, wherever coal mining, steel working, shipbuilding or textiles had formerly been major parts of the economy. Previously secure employment was lost, and the new opportunities driven by the financialization of the UK economy were out of reach, both geographically and in terms of skills, for those in former industrial communities. These impacts continue to be felt today, with former coal mining communities still reporting average wages 10% lower than the rest of the UK.
Ironically, due to deindustrialisation, the UK is relatively well-positioned to transition to a low-carbon economy, as just 4% of jobs are dependent on the highest emitting industries – electricity, mining and quarrying and agriculture, which produce a third of the UK’s emissions. However, there are lessons to be learnt from the 1980s for our transition to a low-carbon economy. If people are to be expected to support this process, a credible plan is needed to ensure that the economic costs and benefits are equitably distributed.
But that still means that the UK has around 1.4 million jobs in sectors that could be adversely affected by a net zero transition. Those jobs are concentrated in certain areas: while only 23% of jobs in London are in high-emitting industries, the figures are much higher in some other regions:
- East Midlands: 42%
- West Midlands: 41%
- Yorkshire and the Humber: 38%
- North West: 38%
These areas have also been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic; special attention must therefore be paid to ensure a low-carbon transition does not perpetuate a regional divide and that the regions with the ‘most to lose’ are protected.
Up to the job
The government has made much of the job creation potential of a net zero transition, with the government targeting between 700,000 and 2 million new green jobs by 2030. The nature of the opportunities will vary geographically and based on existing infrastructure – in north west England, green jobs are expected to focus on increasing wind generation capacity, whereas in London more green jobs will be in the financial, IT or legal industries. However, some sectors can provide a spread of opportunities to redress the balance.
With the right investment, the energy efficiency and retrofit sector, for example, could provide widespread employment opportunities as well as much-needed emissions cuts – recent work Eunomia carried out for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) estimated that the mammoth task of undertaking energy efficiency retrofits for 27 million domestic buildings and 2 million non-domestic buildings will require 350,000 new roles by 2028. This task must be carried out across the country, so the jobs involved will be long-lived and geographically distributed. Unlike many green jobs, the skills required do not depend on higher education qualifications and so are accessible to a wider demographic and educational profile.
Demand for the services offered by these jobs already exists. The collapse of the Green Homes Grant was in part due to a lack of skilled, accredited workers to carry out retrofitting. The lesson from the 1980s is that significant programmes of upskilling and retraining will be required, and should be focused on workers whose jobs are most at risk.
License to skill
How this programme of upskilling and training will be delivered, however, is not yet clear. Neither the government’s 2021 Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy or the 2018 Clean Growth Strategy included dedicated mechanisms to reduce regional inequality or ensure that new green jobs are equitably spread.
According to the International Labour Organisation, this lack of direction from national government concerning skills and training is not unique to the UK. It states that globally skills and training programmes are
“often carried out by other actors, including civil society groups as well as regional and local government authorities and social partners, working to fill gaps from the bottom upwards”.
These actors may well be vital in delivering the skills training required for net zero. In the UK, combined authorities, for example, have a key role in addressing skills gaps at a regional level. They are aided by Skills Advisory Panels (SAPs), made up of business and training stakeholders, that meet regularly to review skills needs and devise solutions. But to be effective, they will need both policy and financial support.
Recognising this, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has called for a ‘people’s dividend’ to bring about a ‘fundamental change’ in the UK’s economic model which would involve multi-billion pound low-carbon investment – a central tenet of the Green New Deal – to support retraining. It also proposes granting local authorities new powers over economic strategy.
Just in time
Achieving an equitable distribution of jobs and training would also require a body with equal input from affected stakeholders and regions. Individual companies are beginning to address the issue – SSE, for example, recently published its Just Transition Strategy – but guidance is still needed from government. Momentum towards this is growing:
- In 2019, trade unions called for a cross-party body to ensure that the net zero transition was equitable.
- In 2020, MPs in the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission called for a ‘Net Zero and Just Transition’ body in the wake of COVID-19 to ensure that recovery from the pandemic would be achieved simultaneously with economic justice throughout the UK.
- Scotland formed its Just Transition Committee in 2019, which aims to have an “increased emphasis on equity… to tackle inequality and promote regional cohesion”.
- The Welsh Government has proposed a Climate Justice Advisory Group.
However, there is no UK-wide body for overseeing a just transition – this should be a priority.
This is not just about training and skills, however. Writing on the need for a Just Transition in the UK, Dr Abigail Martin and Dr Max Lacey-Barnacle of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex Business School said,
“Just Transitions are more broadly about strengthening social protection as a part of economic policy… [and]… addressing the plight of vulnerable groups who may need special consideration amid a broader set of tensions between environmental and employment policy”.
If lessons are learned from previous periods of economic upheaval, long-term widespread unemployment from the transition is not inevitable. However, it is unlikely that disruption can be avoided entirely and a safety net is likely to be needed. New policies such as a universal basic income, paid monthly to all citizens regardless of income, potentially funded through taxing environmentally-harmful behaviour or the profits of new green industries, could help cushion the economic blow in areas most affected by the transition. It would prevent citizens from being forced into taking low-paid work, and allow them to pursue training or community-based work, delivering wider benefits from the green transition.
It is crucial that government puts in place the right strategies to avoid trading an environmental disaster for a social crisis, and to assuage public concerns about the impact carbon reduction could have on their lives. As political commentator Owen Jones put it, “if tackling the climate crisis becomes associated with undermining jobs, public consent will be lost”. The tenets of a just transition must be front and centre of decarbonisation policy to maintain support for the economic restructuring needed to produce a low-carbon world.