Ending our dependency on fossil fuels is an opportunity to build a fairer and more equal Scotland. We know that this transition won’t be successful unless it is fair to workers and communities who depend on jobs in high-carbon industries.

At present government policy supports decarbonisation while also promoting increased extraction of fossil fuels. As the Just Transition Commission prepares to meet for the first time, we look at what it will take to move beyond these contradictory positions

Scotland’s Just Transition Commission’s remit

Setting up a Just Transition Commission which will advise ministers on the development of ‘a carbon-neutral economy that is fair for all’ looks like 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 at the core things of what Friends of the Earth Scotland and our trade union allies have been pushing for when we demand a Just Transition.
Are we really 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 the Government’s Climate Change Bill doesn’t set a target date for Scotland to achieve net-zero emissions, failing to bring more ambition to its plans despite the renewed impetus from the Paris Agreement and the latest science in the recent IPCC report.

Maximising Recovery of North Sea Oil

The Government’s support for the continuing development of oil and gas extraction point in the opposite direction. Maximising Economic Recovery’, the policy framework established in response to job losses in the North Sea, increasingly appears to be about financial support to private enterprise rather than protecting workers jobs and conditions, which continue to be under attack, as well as ignoring implicit limits on extraction and exploration derived from the Paris Agreement.

How will the Just Transition Commission, set up by this government, under the leadership of Professor Jim Skea, negotiate these contradictions?

Just Transition Partnership between Trade Unions and environmentalists

There isn’t a model from elsewhere to follow but the Just Transition Partnership, set up by FoES and STUC in 2016, has set out an agenda which can help the Commission with these challenges. It has been clear from the start that radical changes in the objectives and the methods of economic development are necessary.

While built on longstanding dialogue about climate change, the impulse to establish the partnership was the loss of 60,000 jobs as the oil price plummeted in 2014-16. In face of the likelihood of further loss of jobs in North Sea, and further deindustrialisation of Scotland, the Partnership focused initially on the clear need for creation of new jobs which can provide continued employment for those affected by decline in fossil fuel industries. Some of these new jobs will be offshore – wind, wave and tidal energy production, oil and gas decommissioning – but also in the economic transformation needed to go low-carbon onshore. Examples include transport, space heating, energy efficiency as well as electricity generation from renewables.

The outcome has been an alliance which 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. This is fairly unique to Scotland.

The Partnership has always borne in mind earlier examples of unjust transitions in the energy sector, for example the closure of coalmining; and the experience of onshore wind – an energy transition in which most of the jobs and profits have gone outwith Scotland.

Key aspects of a Just Transition

Working through the practical issues in a series of joint papers combining these two perspectives, often for government consultations, the Just Transition Partnership has identified some key points:

• for reasons of both climate change and economic justice the need for action is urgent;
• market-based solutions have failed, publicly-driven solutions 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 to be reliable and effective and to anchor development benefits in Scotland and to localities within it;
• plans at national, sectoral and regional levels could 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 affected, through unions, as well as relevant communities, should be central rather than an optional extra.

This mission-led 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 (Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and also Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Funding Council) and moves government support away from fossil fuels – any support to the energy sectors should be to deliver the just transition and employers in each of them should be required to negotiate just transition agreements with government and unions.

There is a view of just transition, which is prevalent within the discourse of many government and international bodies like the ILO and OECD, which asserts that an energy transition is happening and now it should add in a social justice dimension, thinking about the employment consequences. This ‘business as usual with a conscience’ approach offers no challenge to the status quo, to the corporate interests vested in neo-liberalism which have caused the crises of climate change and economic justice. It will fail to deliver an urgent, rapid and just transition.

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.

Political support for a Just Transition

The broad acceptance of these arguments shown in the government debate about Just Transition in the Scottish Parliament on 15 January provides the political space for this approach. All parties welcomed the establishment of the Just Transition Commission. The Government proposed the motion “That the Parliament supports the application of just transition principles in Scotland, acknowledging the need to plan, invest in and implement a transition to carbon-neutrality in a way that is fair for all” and accepted amendments from the Conservatives about the circular economy and from Labour about the option of the Commission being put on a statutory basis. The Greens’ amendment which criticized Maximising Economic Recovery did not, however, receive support.

The 12 members of the Just Transition Commission include experts in many fields of vital importance to its work, though, with one exception, it seems that they come fairly fresh to the concept itself. Fresh, committed and critical minds are important, as will be a thorough look at the economic and technical challenges ahead.

Alongside the work of the Commission, the Just Transition Partnership will continue to develop support for these vital ideas from across the political spectrum.

Matthew Crighton is Climate Jobs Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland. 
A version of this article appeared in a special edition of the Scottish Left Review which focuses on issues around Just Transition