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Renewable energy

How far has Scotland moved towards a ‘Just Transition’ in its actions on climate change?



Until comparatively recently, a “Just transition” was not a phrase commonly used in the UK. It was a term first used by North American unions in the 1990s to describe a support system for workers who had become unemployed due to the introduction of environmental protection policies.

This was all part of the realisation that global warming was enhanced by fossil-fuel industries and proponents of the Just Transition advocated that workers should not lose their jobs to achieve the goals of environmental protection but that the costs should be fairly distributed across society.

By 2010, the International Trade Union Conference had adopted it as the approach to fight climate change, declaring that “Congress is committed to promoting an integrated approach to sustainable development through a just transition where social progress, environmental protection and economic needs are brought into a framework of democratic governance, where labour and other human rights are respected and gender equality achieved”.

2021 Scottish Government – a Minister for Just Transition

Fast forward 11 years and the newly installed Scottish Government has Richard Lochhead MSP as Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work, sitting under Michael Matheson MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport. So what has brought about this swift acceleration of the Importance of the Just Transition and how is it likely to play out for Scotland?

Just Transition Commission

The starting point was the establishment by the Scottish Ministers of a Just Transition Commission, under the Chair of Professor Jim Skea, which first met in January 2019. Its remit was to advise on how just transition principles could be applied to climate change action in Scotland, following the setting of the target in 2019 legislation to move to a net-zero economy by 2045. A final report was to be issued by early 2021.

The Commission took a broader approach, however, to that applied in some other countries. While employment and skills were clearly central to the transition, it also decided to involve consumers and communities since they would be impacted by the transition to net-zero. The reach was also widened to cover sectors of the economy beyond energy.

February 2020 Interim Report

The Commission’s interim report was published in February 2020. At that stage they didn’t know how our lives were about to be disrupted in only a month’s time and that COP26 wasn’t going to take place in Glasgow in 2020 but, nevertheless, various immediate actions were proposed. These included ensuring Fair Work is promoted across all climate change programmes receiving public money; developing a Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan; ensuring the future of agriculture support post-2024 (i.e. post-Brexit) reflects the importance of a just transition for that sector; establishing a Citizens Assembly in Scotland on Climate Change; building on the success of energy efficiency initiatives and supporting them to expand; placing the climate emergency at the heart of spending decisions; and supporting the oil and gas industry through the energy transition.

July 2020 Update

A further update was provided in July 2020 by which time Covid-19 had, of course, hit hard. But that allowed an opportunity to emphasise the need for a Just Transmission out of Covid into a green economy as we head to net zero. The basic idea behind this is that the impact of Covid has not been felt equally across society; marginalised groups have been hit the hardest. As we move into a green recovery, the Scottish government would like to re-set our progress towards a net zero economy in way that tackles inequality and promotes regional cohesion. And to create a fairer, greener society for all.

For instance, not everyone can afford an electric car, a vehicle charging point in their driveway, solar panels on their roofs and energy storage. It’s also worth saying that it’s the better-off people in society who have the largest carbon footprint.

If I give some examples that might explain it better:

  1. Heat – Covid has meant more people at home, which has meant more heating is required, particularly in winter, leading to more cost for those who struggle to meet heating bills. So in November 2020, the Scottish government announced a new £4.5m renewable heat scheme with up to a 75% return on up to £7500 of costs;
  2. Broadband – you cannot work easily from home if you don’t have a decent internet connection. So the government will be looking to roll this out to areas, often remote rural communities, not properly connected;
  3. Transport – Covid has meant far fewer people using public transport because of (a) working from home and (b) safety concerns from coming into contact with others. If the government were looking at this purely economically, it would therefore cut back on services. But that would disadvantage those without cars / car parking spaces at work. So the government is planning to invest heavily in e.g. new electric buses;
  4. Offshore Wind / Energy transition – as North Sea oil and gas jobs reduce, we don’t want thousands of unemployed workers. Their skills can, however, be used in offshore wind – which will be the biggest renewable growth area over the next few years – if adequate support is given.

Annual Energy Statement

So in some ways there are two complimentary parts to the Just Transition. The first is the Energy Transition. In the January 2021 Annual Energy Statement, Paul Wheelhouse, the then Energy Minister said – “The need for a Just Transition that supports sustainable economic growth and jobs is greater than ever, given the impacts we are seeing on the Oil & Gas sector and its supply chain, and the need to retain the skills and talent of those facing redundancy and to re-channel their expertise into supporting the energy transition”

So this part of the Just Transition is about ensuring that those people who contributed to our current energy needs, despite these industries being gradually phased out, can still play a role as we move to a greener economy.

And the second part is about a Fairer Society – (Paul Wheelhouse again) “As we emerge from the social and economic crisis following the coronavirus pandemic, we have a chance to build a greener, fairer and more equal society and economy, while ensuring no one is left behind”.

Final Report

The Just Transition Commission’s Final Report was issued on 23 March of this year and the Commission looked at the future of our energy system; the future of our industrial base; our buildings and how we heat them; how our transport system works; and how we use and manage our land.

24 recommendations were made, grouped around four key messages:

  1. First, pursuing an orderly, managed transition to net-zero that creates benefits and opportunities for people across Scotland. This will include clear roadmaps; ensuring the public sector is more prescriptive and strategic in its use of public money to build strong local supply chains; increasing local content in Scottish offshore wind projects; making public funding conditional on Fair Work terms; and creating just transition plans for high-emitting industrial sectors of the Scottish economy;
  2. Second, equipping people with the skills and education they need to benefit from our transition to net-zero. The specifics here include supporting universities and colleges to introduce new courses related to climate change; establishing a long-term commitment to support retraining for workers in carbon-intensive sectors; and equipping farmers and land managers with the skills, training and advice they need to deliver the sustainable land management required to reduce climate impact.
  3. Third, empowering and invigorating our communities and strengthening local economies. Some specifics – to place people at the centre of local climate action, consider Participatory Budgeting (which involves members of a community deliberating on the allocation of public funding for a service area); getting people involved in the new Regional Land Use Partnerships; establishing a Publicly-Owned Energy Company that can provide technical assistance to local authorities and social enterprises looking to invest in energy projects; and creating a new ‘Sustainable Scotland’ brand to support Scottish agriculture in delivering climate action and empowering consumers to choose sustainably-produced food and drink.
  4. Finally, sharing the benefits of climate action widely and ensuring costs are distributed on the basis of ability to pay. The proposals here include ensuring all consumers are able to benefit from new ways of buying and selling electricity e.g. battery storage and local peer-to-peer trading; reducing the energy demand of our housing stock to prevent increased fuel poverty; persuading companies in which Scottish public sector pensions are held to develop credible just transition strategies; and, lastly, the possibility of Community Municipal Bonds that allow people to contribute towards community action in their area.

And the Report ends by recommending that:

  1. The next Scottish Government should make a senior member of the Cabinet responsible for a just transition to net-zero.
  2. The Scottish Government must establish capacity for independent scrutiny and advice on the just transition provisions in our Climate Change legislation.
  3. The Scottish Government should launch a national call for action at COP26 that brings business, trade unions and civic society together in a commitment to support just transition principles in Scotland – by inviting them all to sign up and demonstrate their commitment to this national mission.

Next steps

The SNP’s Election Manifesto was unequivocal – if elected “we will implement the recommendations of the Just Transition Commission and maintain the Commission to advise us throughout the next Parliament”.

They have started on that route by Lochhead’s appointment, but that is the easy bit. As we run up to the delayed COP26, Scotland will want to show the strides it is making towards our world-leading climate change targets but doing that while also ensuring the costs are split fairly across society is a much greater challenge.

The importance of engaging with people and communities has already been emphasised and that will take guidance, a willingness to participate and climate-change champions emerging.

Nature-based solutions is another key theme but a lot of work will be required to educate and support a rural industry that expects to suffer from Brexit and now is being asked to radically change many working practices.

The Scottish government has declared a climate change emergency – the key word is emergency. The focus has rightly been on the pandemic over the last 15 months but as vaccinations start to win the race the focus must shift towards the legacy we are to leave future generations.

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