Partnership for progress

Matthew Crighton outlines the Just Transition Partnership between the STUC and Friends of the Earth

Setting up a Just Transition Commission which will advise ministers on the development of ‘a carbon-neutral economy that is fair for all’ appears to be a bold move by the Scottish Government. Initiatives or commissions in other countries have so far been restricted to just transition of specific sectors or locations like the coal industry in Spain or Tar Sands in Canada. The Scottish Government is also setting up a Scottish National Investment Bank which may well include Just Transition or at least investment in low carbon infrastructure in its remit. In addition, the option of a publicly-owned energy company is being considered. These three initiatives are the core things which the Just Transition Partnership has been pushing for. So are we on the verge of a successful transformation to a carbon-neutral economy that is fair to all in Scotland? So far, welcome though they are, these are all words, not deeds.

Meanwhile in its Climate Change Bill, the Scottish Government has resisted calls to set a target date to achieve net-zero emissions. And its actions in supporting the continuing development of oil and gas extraction point in the opposite direction. SNP MPs appear to be supporting the introduction of Transferable Tax Histories, the latest Treasury wheeze to deliver public subsidy to underpin the continuing profitability extraction and further exploration. ‘Maximising Economic Recovery’, the policy framework established after the report of the Wood Commission in response to job losses in the North Sea, appears to be about financial support to private enterprise rather than workers’ jobs and conditions, which continue to be under attack.

How will the Just Transition Commission negotiate these contradictions? The announcement of its remit and some of its members without the participation of unions or any of the leading environmental groups raised some eyebrows though that may have been just an initial hiccup in the process and there have been assurances given that union representatives will be included.

The Just Transition Partnership, set up by Friends of the Earth Scotland and STUC in 2016, has made it clear that radical changes in objectives and methods of economic development and industrial policy are necessary. While built on longstanding dialogue about climate change and policy engagement of some unions, the impulse for the partnership was losing 60,000 North Sea jobs as the oil price plummeted in 2015-2016.

Oil Rigg
Oil Rigg at Burntisland

In face of further such jobs losses, and further deindustrialisation, the partnership focused initially on creating new jobs which can provide continued employment for those affected by decline in fossil fuel industries and provide similarly good or better wages and conditions in order to avoid the unjust transition when coal mining was shutdown. Some of these new jobs will be offshore (wind, wave, tidal, decommissioning) and others in the economic transformation needed to go low-carbon onshore (such as transport and energy efficiency).

The partnership has facilitated unions having a voice in the debate about climate change, seen originally as an environmental issue; and environmental organisations having increased purchase on economic and industrial issues. Working through the practical issues in joint papers combining these two perspectives, often for government consultations, identified:

• The need for action for reasons of climate change and economic justice are urgent.
• Market-based solutions have failed, publicly-driven solution are necessary, rooted in the extension of public control over economic outcomes.
• This will require public, municipal and community ownership of key parts of the energy systems so that it is reliable and effective and anchors development benefits in Scotland and to localities within it.
• Plans at national, sectoral and regional levels will not only generate well-paid jobs, with better employment conditions, but also deliver social benefits, which will be core to popular support and political positioning of this transformation as an opportunity not just a cost.
• The participation of the workers most effected, through unions as well as relevant communities, should be central aim.

This approach to economic development will give certainty and confidence for the large-scale investment programmes which are urgently required. Transformation of finance is needed for transformation of energy and industrial infrastructure, for which a powerful National Investment Bank will be at the core. Just Transition has to be central to its remit and to a revised Economic Strategy which ensures the commitment of the development agencies and moves government support away from fossil fuels. Any support to the energy sectors should be to deliver the just transition and employers should be required to negotiate just transition agreements with government and unions.

The biggest failure in terms of justice will be if the transition does not happen or is too slow. There has to be as much emphasis on ‘transition’ as there is on ‘just’; the transition won’t happen unless it is just because it will require a popular movement supporting it. If the Just Transition Commission follows through on its remit logically and without fear or favour to the powers that be, it will understand this and will be able to build on the policy framework developed by STUC, Friends of the Earth Scotland and other members in the Just Transition Partnership. We hope it does; and whether within or without the Commission, the Partnership will continue to develop support from across the political spectrum for these vital ideas.

Matthew Crighton works at Friends of the Earth Scotland