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COP26: Prospect panel tackles challenges of a Just Transition

8 November 2021

As the COP26 summit got underway in Glasgow, Prospect hosted a panel of experts to discuss the challenges of ensuring a Just Transition as the UK moves towards a net zero economy.

The UK government has a target of reaching Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a key part of this process will be the transition from traditional energy sources to renewable and low carbon alternatives.

Prospect is at the forefront of growing movement for a ‘Just Transition’, which calls for the fair treatment of workers, such as those right now in oil, coal and gas, and those communities who will be most affected by the move to a net zero economy.

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy chaired the discussion on the ‘challenges of a just transition’ and panel of experts included:

  • Colette Cohen, CEO of the Net Zero Technology Centre
  • Ryan Morrison, just transition campaigner, Friends of the Earth Scotland
  • John Barry, professor of green political economy at Queen’s University Belfast and co-director of the Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action
  • Sue Ferns, Prospect senior deputy general secretary and member of the government’s Green Jobs Task Force.

Their comments below have been edited for length and clarity.

Colette Cohen, CEO of the Net Zero Technology Centre

I’ve been a just transition commissioner for Scotland for the last two years so this is something very close to my heart. I’m going to look at the innovation opportunity that comes from this period and how it ties into a just transition.

What we’re facing now, they talk about it being one minute to midnight, which is quite fatalist. Or, we can turn it around, and say that it’s an opportunity.

A quote that I really like is that although it’s unprecedented in our scale and impact, this energy transition (because I’m coming at it very much from an energy perspective) offers us an opportunity to shape the future of the energy system in a way that should be sustainable, affordable, inclusive and really drive a positive change for society, as well as help the planet.

We have to recognise that, as a society, hydrocarbon and fossil fuels are embedded in everything we do. We need to change not just our electricity generation, not just how we turn on our lights or power our cars, we need to change how we live and how we develop products if we’re to truly have a just transition.

I’d like the conversation to be about driving this transition at a greater pace than what we’re currently seeing today. That’s the expectation we should be creating, both transition of jobs because that’s where the biggest value comes from, but also for the politicians to create the policy that drives this kind of transition.

The area that I focus on is trying to accelerate the technology that would enable this to happen. The oil and gas industry has a huge amount of skill that could accelerate areas, such as floating offshore wind, hydrogen generation and carbon capture and sequestration.

They are the sort of areas that we need to focus on because that will help us deliver an integrated energy system and if we do it fast, we could actually attract a huge amount of investment into the UK over the next 30 years and create thousands of jobs.

Ryan Morrison, just transition campaigner, Friends of the Earth Scotland

When we think about challenges for a just transition, I think it’s important to talk about why we are trying to do that, and it is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

We are already seeing real impacts of rising global temperatures. It’s costing lives, communities and livelihoods. It’s for that reason that this must be the decade of delivery. The limit in warming to 1.5 degrees will be determined by what we do between now and 2030.

A lot of the low-hanging fruit has been taken and the challenge now for a just transition is about how you tackle systemic change across the economy and in people’s lives.

Take transport as an example, emissions from transport in Scotland has barely fallen since 1990 and that’s because private car use continues to dominate. Public transport is increasingly inaccessible, increasingly unaffordable and we continue to embark on massive road building projects.

For me, it is going to take a proper industrial strategy that is backed up with the investment and the delivery methods to make just transition possible.

That means looking at the economy today and seeing that means for our economy in 10, 15 and 20 years. What will that mean for the people who work in sectors that are going to change? Workers that we will need more of in areas like, care work, teaching, health care and other sectors. How we grow and create decent work is central to addressing just transition.

In the energy sector, how do you ensure that people are able to transfer the wealth of skills and experience that they have into something green within the time frame? Who is going to make sure that these changes happen at the necessary pace? What we’ve seen so far is that the market can’t do it alone.

At the moment, we’re seeing an unjust transition. We’re not meeting our climate targets, we’re not creating alternative jobs, and communities and consumers are suffering as a result. Ultimately, just transition is something we’ll need to fight for and something that we have to organise for.

John Barry, professor of green political economy at Queen’s University Belfast & co-director of the Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action

Let me start with a question: can anybody name in the room where you’re sitting something that hasn’t been made, in whole or in part, or transported there, in whole or part, using fossil fuels? It’s quite a challenge.

Once you start looking at the energy system, everything else changes. From our food system, transportation, how we heat our homes and so on. That’s the scale of the energy transition, which is the flip side of the climate challenge.

I’ll make two statements. I think the future is post-carbon, post-growth and post-capitalist and I think we need to raise our ambition in terms of the transformation. I think ‘transition’ is too soft for the scale and the urgency of what we need to do.

The other statement is that in the same way that the stone age didn’t end because of the lack of stones, the oil, coal, and gas age is not going to end because of a lack of those particular resources. We should perhaps start reframing them as fossil resources, not as fuels to burn, where we see innovation and investment into what are the non-energy uses of these resources.

I think we need to recognise that we’re in a wartime mobilisation situation. Many of us know that across these islands, politicians and parliaments have all declared climate and ecological emergencies but what has happened? Nothing.

The pandemic is what a real emergency looks like. It shows that determined state action in furloughing workers, PPE for healthcare staff, the support for our key workers and so on was matched by the solidarity of our population. I think we need to learn that the state is not dead. The state is going to have a central role in the energy transition.

We need to move beyond a kind of a plug-and-play version of the climate challenge that we simply take out the dirty fossil fuels and we stick in renewables. Who wants to be unemployed and in an unequal society but now it’s powered by renewable energy?

I think we need to raise our ambitions beyond that and so for me in terms of what we need to do as trade unionists is we need to educate, communicate and organise.

There’s a problem with the phrase ‘just transition’. In my experience, it has very little traction with ordinary people. Let’s call it a green jobs strategy.

Ideally, I would love to see trade unions coming together to strike for the climate in the same way that we’ve seen those inspirational young people do. Or, if we’re stopping short of that, what can unions do to express solidarity and support for those who are arguing for much quicker, more radical and more transformative changes?

This is about a radical transformation of the structure of our economy where we can fix multiple problems in terms of inequality, exclusion and poverty. It’s that level of ambition that I think we need to instil.

Sue Ferns, Prospect senior deputy general secretary and member of the government’s Green Jobs Task Force

I think John is right that people don’t really understand what ‘just transition’ is. I don’t think we should be surprised if people are uncertain about the future; that they will also sceptical about a just transition and that will slow down the process of change.

We have seen some good examples of internal company progress, for example in EDF we have seen workers move from coal generation into renewables and we’ve heard about companies greening themselves but clearly, we’re in a position now where we need to see a much stronger approach across industries, regions and nations.

People are of course concerned about their livelihoods and economic well-being.

A piece of work we did in the energy sector showed that the remaining fossil fuel generation of gas and the bit of coal contributes about £2.8bn to the UK economy and supports around 10,000 jobs. It is significant that many of those are in relatively high unemployment and above average numbers of people are dependent on universal credit.

Those energy jobs are generally well paid and productive. It’s neither realistic nor acceptable to expect these workers to move into jobs that are going to require significant cut in their standard of living and don’t allow them to utilise their skills.

The key questions we need to ask answer are who pays and who benefits?

From an international perspective, a just transition is a key objective for COP, but I have to say that I think we need to work hard to persuade the UK presidency of that.

Although people may not understand ‘just transition’ I think it is fair to say awareness of the climate crisis has never been higher. Most members of the public are aware and accept the need for action. So, in a sense, I think the greatest challenge is not climate denial but climate delay and getting that sense of urgency over to people.

I was a member of the green jobs task force and Professor David Reay from Edinburgh University, was also a member. He was very clear that we need to mainstream climate education across the life cycle from primary to tertiary age. You also need government skill strategies for our current and future workers.

I want to conclude really by emphasising the importance of a joined-up approach. Government talks a lot about actions at company level, but we need government to take a coordinated approach to ensure that there’s coherence and no loss of momentum after COP26. That’s got to involve all stakeholders, including unions and give us a real voice in decision-making.


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