Covid-19 and the campaign against climate change and a just transition

Gordon Morgan lays out a 22-point plan to bring about a decisive change

Across the world, CO2 emissions are falling due to the pandemic with lockdowns, restrictions on aircraft, car use and limitations on world trade. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates emissions will fall by 8% in 2020 and energy use fall by 6%. Renewables will make up 40% of global power generation, as compared to 34% for coal. Many countries are seeing improved air quality, reduced respiratory infections and fewer consequential deaths over time than the deaths caused by the pandemic. Government spending to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic has smashed the idea that money is limited and that ‘austerity’ is required to balance the books. If Britain can ‘find’ £125bn overnight, similar sums can be found to create green jobs and meet climate targets. Reduced fuel prices will reduce global fossil fuel subsidies to $180bn in 2020. The opportunity to eliminate them and invest in green energy is there.

Global CO2 emissions in 2019 were roughly flat as opposed to the 6% reduction each year required to limit the rise in temperature to 1.5% by 2050. Moreover, huge fires across Australia showed how unprepared we are for chaotic climate change. In this regard, the IEA Clean Energy Transitions Summit in July this year will help governments identify the best approaches for creating jobs, putting emissions into structural decline and increasing energy sector resilience. The pandemic has also postponed COP26 by one year and it will now be held in November 2021 in Glasgow.

In Scotland, a number of organisations have set out plans for how the epidemic can be used to create a ‘new normal’ creating jobs and shaping a green transition. Amongst these are: i) the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) has urged the Scottish and British Governments to prioritise actions to recover from the pandemic based on six resilience principles; ii) 82 organisations have written to the first minister seeking a Just and Green Recovery; iii) the Common Weal has produced plans for a Resilient Economy leading to a new green deal for Scotland; and iv) the Jimmy Reid Foundation has shown how supporting people and the planet is incompatible with the principles of our current economic models.

The commonalities of these approaches outweigh their differences so the following is a summary of their main points relating to climate change:

1. Use climate investments to support economic recovery and jobs. Sets of investments have been identified, by the CCC, which reduce emissions and manage the social, environmental and economic impacts of climate change. Many are labour-intensive, spread across Britain and ready to roll out as part of a targeted and timely stimulus package.
2. The borrowing cap for the Scottish Parliament should be removed or lifted substantially so public expenditure can be used where needed and the Scottish National Investment Bank should be given full powers to act as a bank, capitalised from sources such as pension funds and lending to the public as well as the private sector.
3. Public procurement should be directed to supporting Scottish business and achieving the maximum number of manufacturing jobs. This unlocks many billions of pounds of investment for the Scottish economy with little or no additional burden on taxpayers.
4. The Government can lead the way to creating new social norms and behaviours that benefit wellbeing, improve productivity and reduce emissions such as supporting home-working, remote medical consultations and improved safety for cyclists.
5. Coronavirus is a rare chance to markedly accelerate the repurposing of government away from the prioritisation of economic growth and towards goals of wellbeing and sustainability, ending inequality and environmental destruction.
6. A resilient economy requires strong policies to reduce Britain’s vulnerability to the destructive risks of climate change and to avoid a disorderly transition to Net Zero. They must be implemented alongside the response to COVID-19 and will bring benefits to health, well-being and national security.
7. As it kick-starts the economy, the Government should avoid locking-in higher emissions or increased vulnerability to climate change in the longer-term. Support for carbon-intensive sectors should be contingent on them taking real and lasting action on climate change, and all new investments need to be resilient to future climate risks.
8. The benefits of acting on climate change must be shared widely, and the costs must not burden those who are least able to pay, or whose livelihoods are most at risk as the economy changes. Lost or threatened jobs of today should be replaced by those created by the new, resilient economy and a retraining guarantee given to anyone who has lost their job. Working with universities and, particularly, colleges, training needs for this new economy would be identified and training packages would be developed.
9. Create and protect jobs in sustainable travel, renewable heat, affordable local food and energy efficiency, with ambitious green employment opportunities for young people and support for retraining where whole industries are affected. Put measures in place to ensure all government programmes tackle inequality, public health and the just transition away from fossil fuels, excluding rogue employers, tax avoiders, major polluters and arms manufacturers from bailouts.
10. Strengthen incentives to reduce emissions when considering tax changes. Revenue could be raised by setting or raising carbon prices for sectors of the economy which do not bear the full costs of emitting greenhouse gases. Low global oil prices provide an opportunity to increase carbon taxes without hurting consumers.
11. Protect marginalised people and those on low incomes by redistributing wealth. Provide adequate incomes for all instead of bailouts for shareholders, significantly raise taxes on the wealthy, ensure all public workers receive at least the real Living Wage and strengthen health, safety and workers’ rights. The ‘new normal’ must effectively tackle health inequalities with radical action on income support, household debt, social security, housing, public services and the environment and eliminating child poverty. With interest rates at record low levels, there is no urgent requirement to pay back debt, and we should fund increased spending by tackling tax avoidance and taxing wealth.
12. Expand public ownership of public services and boost investment, including in social care, strengthen the NHS and cradle-to-grave education, and create zero-carbon social and cooperative housing instead of buy-to-let.
13. Build a broad alliance of unions, environmentalists, passengers and beyond to make clear that there can be no more of the status quo when it comes to public transport, that continued investment and public ownership is needed, to create a sustainable public transport system which values passengers and workers, not private profit.
14. Jobs dependent on the oil industry will be under threat and the corporations will be looking to governments for further cash in excess of the £2.4bn tax allowances documented over a five-year period for keeping the oil flowing. The costs to the public purse on tax relief for decommissioning oil installations (£30bn) could be redirected to maintaining the income of oil workers whilst the economy is restructured to a low waste, low consumption, renewably sourced, socially beneficial (and publicly owned) energy regime.
15. Instead of a quarter of all workers being furloughed for a few months, the 150,000 or so workers directly employed in oil and gas in Scotland should be furloughed in a planned, staged way as a state-led construction of a renewable infrastructure is put in place, creating 200,000 jobs in the process.
16. A national industrial strategy is required to create high-pay design, primary production, manufacturing and processing jobs to replace the low-pay service sector jobs that are being lost. This not only creates major economic stimulus and reduces low pay and poverty it also speeds up the greening of Scotland’s economy and creates much more resilience in an economy less reliant on importing. The sectors it should focus on are based on Scotland’s abundant natural resources.
17. If public procurement is reprofiled so ‘public kitchens’ (the food bought by all public sector agencies) buy in a way that provides ongoing security for domestic businesses it will enable them to scale up production with confidence. This can provide a foundation for substantial expansion in food growing and processing in Scotland.
18. Scotland has the lowest level of forestry in Europe but the highest potential for this industry. Materials crops (particularly wood but also crops like bamboo and hemp) form the basis of modern green advanced materials like cross laminated timber, insulation products, bioplastics and hempcrete. These can provide high quality, ethical, domestically-produced source materials for the replacement of unsustainable imported construction materials and to stimulate a light manufacturing sector. Scotland currently imports large volumes of low-quality light manufacturing which ends up in landfills, and billions of pounds of this is bought by the public sector (for example, furniture and equipment for schools, medical supplies for the NHS and stationery for local authorities).
19. High-quality public rental houses with low rents can be built without subsidy. The public sector can build as many of these as there is demand and, if targeted at medium-sized domestic businesses, guaranteed order books can be used to support these businesses to transition to green off-site building technologies and to develop and support domestic supply chains of ethical construction materials (only 20% of construction materials are sourced here).
20. Scotland has failed to capture almost any of the manufacturing jobs linked to our renewable energy resources. We need a National Energy Company which develops large-scale renewable energy opportunities in collective ownership, commissioning the manufacturing from Scotland and capturing as much of the supply chain in Scotland as possible.
21. To develop this industry requires a lot of spare electricity capacity. That nation will take a global lead in the emerging hydrogen industry and nowhere is better placed than Scotland to be that nation.
22. The Scottish economy is underdeveloped and in particular makes poor use of our land and other natural resources. Fuelling the transition will be land-based industries which themselves represent tens of thousands of potential jobs, with many of those in rural Scotland. However, this requires substantial land reform so that land-based businesses can gain access to the enormous proportions of Scotland’s land which is currently used unproductively. A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions globally comes from agriculture and other land-based activities. Removing subsidies to intensive agro-industry, introducing a pesticide tax and breaking up land ownership will enable more people to work in small scale food production, cut emissions and toxicity and increase food sovereignty as part of the system change to sustainability. Scotland’s seas, if responsibly managed, are also a great source of natural resources.

To achieve the above requires Government action and continued pressure on them to act.

Gordon Morgan is a member of the editorial committee of the Scottish Left Review