Climate, jobs and justice

Matthew Crighton reviews some core messages from a climate conference and their relevance to debates in post-election Scotland and at COP26.

The idea of a ‘Just Transition’ (JT) has moved from the fringes to centre stage since 2016 when Friends of the Earth Scotland and STUC set up the Just Transition Partnership. Having been a concept used mainly by unions as they orientated to the climate crisis, it is now routinely used by governments and even corporations, although often without respecting its core content. The Scottish Government has made JT one of the themes of its programme for the COP26 talks in November.

In reaction to the alarming IPCC report released in August 2021, re-stating how dire are the dangers from global heating, debate is increasingly focused how we make the economic changes necessary for the emission reductions set in our statutory climate change targets. The questions of how we organise and fund this, who pays, who benefits and who may suffer are seen to be increasingly intertwined with whether change will actually happen at the pace and scale necessary.

Just Transition is a framing which offers answers to these questions – it says that to protect us all from climate catastrophe, we have to ensure that our measures to decarbonise both protect the workforce and bring wider social benefits, in particular reducing the inequalities which stain our society. It then expands into the practical ways to do these things. It was, therefore, the right time to present the ideas and practical policies developed by the Partnership in our conference which we entitled ‘Climate, Jobs, Justice: making the Just Transition happen’ on 2 September 2021.

For the Scottish audience, our messages had to recognise that, for all the talk about JT in policy documents, there has been little or no progress on the ground and, in some respects, it had appeared that industrial developments were going in the wrong direction. We had said in 2020 that there actually seemed to be an ‘unjust transition’ underway for workers at fabrication yards, in bus manufacturing and in wind turbine manufacturing.

This view has underpinned our advocacy for a radically different approach to economic and industrial policy requiring bold government intervention, an extension of public ownership and active engagement by workers and communities most affected. The detail of this was set out in our Manifesto for the 2021 elections. The headings from that give a guide to its contents: i) ‘Turn the tide for workers facing the crisis of unjust transition now’; ii) ‘Set a new course through public funding and intervention’; and iii) ‘Chart the route to long-term transformation by planning and policy coherence’.

In the context of the election results and the inter-party discussions since then, and of the economic disruption and policy innovations arising from Covid-19, we have identified some immediate actions for a government which is committed making a JT happen. There has to be rapid progress in preparing ‘Just Transition Plans’ for each economic sector. It should be within these that specific actions like free and publicly-owned transport, increased local content in local supply chains for renewables, a fossil fuel decommissioning programme, building retro-fits by municipally-owned enterprises, and public investment in renewable manufacturing facilities should be set. There should be JT-related conditions on all funding and support to businesses, a skills guarantee for workers in carbon-intensive industries and the ‘Climate Change Plan’ must be amended to include measures and target outcomes for job creation, community benefits and a more inclusive labour market.

Many of these proposals featured in the ‘Green Recovery’ and ‘Final’ reports of the Just Transition Commission (2020 and 2021 respectively) and we have urged the Scottish Government to implement these recommendations – we await a formal response, however. The Commission’s interim report in March 2020 had explicitly said that the Scottish Government should not wait until its work was completed to start implementing the JT but sadly that appears not to have been heeded.

The work of the Commission presented many useful proposals and detail on the sectors which it examined, but it did not address the scale of investment needed and how to direct that to deliver the key elements of a JT strategy. It likewise did not consider the need for a significant extension of public ownership to achieve these ends – in transport and retro-fitting as well as the energy system. Therefore, the Partnership felt that the Commission’s reports did not add up to a fully comprehensive plan for JT and we hope that our conference has now been an opportunity to broaden and deepen the framing of JT.

We also have the opportunity provided by COP26 in Glasgow to present and debate these positions in a global theatre and we were extremely pleased with the encouragement given to us by the international speakers at our conference including Sharan Burrow of ITUC and Dipti Bhatnagar of Friends of the Earth International. The contributions in that session reminded us that we need to build our approach to just transition in Scotland and the UK with an international perspective – both in solidarity with climate justice and labour movements around the world and taking account of possible consequences in other countries of our policies.

In the Scottish, UK and international arenas, we are faced with government greenwash and inaction, and corporate deceit and delay, in the face of the urgent need for action on climate change. A movement strong enough to turn this tide has to include unions and environmentalists at its core and the concept of a JT is central to building that alliance.

Matthew Crighton, Secretary of the Just Transition Partnership. The conference details can be found at https://climatefringe.org/events/climate-jobs-justice-making-the-just-transition-happen/

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