Answering your questions on Just Transition

Richard Hardy · 1 May 2020

Richard Hardy, Prospect national secretary for Scotland, and a member of Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, answers members’ questions from the Just Transition webinar.

On Monday, I had the novel experience of presenting a webinar on the importance of a Just Transition if we are to achieve net zero.

It’s a sign of the times that we’re now primarily engaging with Prospect members via video conferencing, but even once the coronavirus pandemic has passed, we will still face the grave threat of climate change.

So while, at the moment, there’s only one story dominating the news agenda, we can’t lose sight of another critical challenge:

How do we transition to a low carbon economy, while also protecting the local communities who will bear the brunt of this change, and ensure that they will continue to have access to high-quality, skilled and well-paid jobs?

This is an issue that Prospect that has been leading on for a long time, and judging by the response to the webinar, it would seem that Prospect’s entire membership also recognises the urgency of the matter.

Joining me on Monday’s webinar were Sue Ferns, Prospect’s senior deputy general secretary and Steven Thompson, environmental sustainability manager for the National Grid.

Thanks to everyone for taking part. I’m sure we’ll do it again soon, so keep an eye out for Prospect’s webinar emails.

Meanwhile, Monday’s webinar can be watched here in full and, as I wasn’t able to answer all the questions in the time that we had, I’ve tried my best to answer some of them here.

How can we retrain existing ‘high carbon’ energy jobs?

Many companies will do this for workers as their approach to operations and business models change, but for areas of the economy where there may not be a long term future it’s important that the government identifies its key strategies for delivering net zero.

This will enable third party training providers to develop the courses, and recruit and train the staff they will need to deliver the skills for the new economy.

It’s vital that a just transition creates and trains people for high-skill, well-paid jobs, but it’s not just about providing employment. Unions must play a part in the design of the new economy

Do you think there’s going to be a change in the net zero targets due to the pandemic? Can the pandemic be used as an excuse to change targets?

Personally, I don’t think we should be using the pandemic as an excuse, but it would be appropriate for the key players to take account of what impact the pandemic has had on progress to net zero and our ability to deliver net zero.

It’s important that any target we set retains credibility. At the Just Transition Commission we will have to revisit a substantial part of our evidence gathering due to economic changes and we will likely delay our final report.

What mechanisms will be used to develop or incorporate the sector transition plans into whole system plans?

From our perspective in Scotland this is an important question as many of the levers to assist industrial change are in reserved areas such as energy and employment law.

I think it is vital that the UK Government follows the example of the Scottish Government, and many other countries, and establishes a Just Transition Commission.

We need to examine how the greening of sectors is delivered, what role there is for government in delivery and how we ensure that it’s paid for in the fairest way by the public.

We need to stop thinking in the short-term business investment/return cycles that have largely dominated the UK since the first and second industrial revolutions.

We need the longer term approach that brought us the investments in electricity distribution and transmission, and water and gas networks in the post-war period.

How/where does the aviation and global tourist industry fit in with net zero being achieved?

We know that aviation is a major contributor to carbon emissions, but in terms of the crucial changes needed to meet net zero transport it is a long way behind the changes required for, for example, domestic heating.

According to the latest available data from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, in 2018 domestic aviation accounted for just 0.3% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, UK domestic aviation emissions are down 42% from the 2005 peak.

We should not lose sight of the fact that air transport also provides strategic lifelines, particularly in Scotland for our remote and island communities in the North and West, and has been crucial in delivering a fast response to the equipment needs of the Covid-19 outbreak.

In the UK alone aviation employs over 200,000 largely unionised, high-skill jobs. We need government leadership in areas such as short-range battery operation and carbon offsetting.

As I’ve said elsewhere we need governments to set out what they require from the aviation sector at a strategic level.

The coronavirus crisis has shown that government can take drastic action when it needs to. Will we see government start to take the similar type of drastic action to deal with the climate emergency?

I hope so. You will have seen from our interim report that we wanted the Scottish Government to start taking action on the issues we identify as soon as possible.

UK-wide, we do need a sea change in engagement and leadership from all governments.

It will come as no surprise when I say that trade unions will have a crucial role to play here, and it’s why our engagement with government on climate change issues at a strategic level, such as with the Just Transition Commission and the Climate Change Action Plan group, are so important.

In Scotland we also have the fair work convention, and a national performance indicator measured in terms of collective bargaining coverage. Other devolved administrations are also involving unions early in the climate change process.

We have to build our membership in new sectors (as we have been doing in renewables) and everyone, members and staff alike, have a role to play in spreading the positive story we have to tell.

Can we rely on the private sector and the market to decarbonise our economy?

Personally, I don’t think so, and I think we do need a fundamental reappraisal of the relationship between public and private finance, and how it is deployed to deliver net zero.

While this is unlikely to be a return to nationalisation, there is I believe a need for government and public finance to play a greater role than it currently does. Government leadership at a strategic level is best placed to deliver a more equitable way of paying for the transition.

How do we give people the message that there will be a better and brighter tomorrow when we get to net zero and not just lost jobs, higher costs and a reduced standard of living? What are the main initiatives you would prioritise: retraining, re-skilling, investment in R&D, or new infrastructure?

The unjust transition from coal is one of the key reasons I’m passionate about making sure we get the transition to net zero right for workers.

There are still a lot of people out there who we need to convince and take with us. Sadly, while there is widespread acceptance of the need for change, when it comes to making the changes there is still a common approach of “let you and them change, I’m fine.”

I think across Prospect we do a good job of talking about what we mean and need from a just transition, and where we engage with sister unions we try and influence their thinking.

Personally, I think we need to prioritise strategic leadership and decision making about how we will achieve net zero, rather than a market-led model. Once we have that, the retraining, R&D and infrastructure decisions become easier and clearer.

Is there the political will to think beyond the 4-5 year political cycle, as political short-termism often seems to frustrate realisation of longer term changes?

In some places I think there is, in others less so at present. Maybe the current crisis will encourage governments to move away from an industrial “just in time approach” to strategic decision making.

Partisan politics makes long-term decision making difficult, so we need to look at how key issues and decision-making on transition issues can be de-politicised, by which I mean not used as political footballs every election cycle.

The current pandemic has demonstrated that where there is the will and the urgency, and people understand the need, we can make very big changes to society quickly. What do you think we can learn from this about how to make the necessary changes to tackle climate change?

I think it’s just a little bit early to make wholesale conclusions on the impact of the outbreak. There will be hugely significant and detrimental impacts economically, and it is the UK’s economy that must finance our transition to a net zero economy.

Massive immediate impacts are, I think, unlikely but incremental changes based on looking at what was actually positive from the changes we have been forced to make are likely.

Given that Covid-19 has resulted in more people working remotely, with a significant reduction in work-related travel, how can we take advantage of this beyond Covid-19 and not just go back to business as usual?

Again, I think it’s far too early to draw conclusions about the impact of remote working and the reductions in work-related travel.

While very clearly this has had a positive impact on emissions, we also need long term data on the health and wellbeing of staff working remotely, and the equality impacts of remote working.

Prospect will be looking at all these factors (for both our own staff and our members), but we need to make sure the conclusions we draw are driven by evidence and have only positive impacts for the net zero agenda and our members’ health and well-being.

As a union concerned about employee working conditions, how do you see the immediate future once restrictions are lifted in terms of a change of approach to home-working?

What we are seeking to achieve as a trade union is the correct approach to restarting the economy and keeping our members safe.

I have no doubt that this will include phased returns, access to testing and better contact tracing, appropriate social distancing and appropriate PPE in all workplaces.

Trade unions are, by their nature, collective organisations that work best by working together. We shouldn’t weaken the union movement, which is vital to the delivery of a just transition, or harm our members’ health and well-being, by introducing or maintaining separations in the workforce beyond what is necessary to deliver a safe, socially distanced return to work.

Does Prospect support carbon emission reduction conditions for any bailouts for highly polluting industries, such as fossil fuel or aviation?

I think it’s wrong to see this as a black and white issue. As I mentioned in my answer in relation to aviation earlier, aviation is both a public good as well as a carbon emitter.

In Scotland the fossil fuel industry provides much of the economic base for funding an effective transition. Simply letting these industries collapse puts at risk hundreds of thousands of jobs, and puts the lives of those workers and their families at risk. That’s no better than the unjust transition from coal, and mitigates against the societal buy-in we need for a net zero end game.

Collapsing and destroying the North Sea basin is counter-productive if we are serious about carbon capture and storage. I think it’s preferable to examine how state support can be used to foster change in business models and investment decisions for the future.

Just Transition

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