Low trust and high-carbon jobs

After years of neglect, how can the industrial heartlands believe in government plans for change?

What is a just transition’ anyway?

Justice’ has many lenses. The UK has a hefty historical responsibility for carbon emissions; justice implies us going further and faster in our carbon cuts than other countries. Climate change is caused by the rich; justice implies making the polluter and the wealthier pay. Current generations may have to make changes so that future generations have a habitable planet to live on. For many NGOs the just transition’ is at essence about climate justice between nations and peoples.

The just transition’, though, generally refers to the world of work. The term started out with a specific coining by a specific group of people to mean a specific thing – unions in North America in the 1990s calling for support for workers who lost their jobs as a result of environmental policies. Industrial change should not hang exposed workforces or their communities out to dry. It’s still a central ask of the trade union movement to this day, with many unions and recently the TUC renewing their calls to put the voices of workers at the heart of climate policy.

But behind the scenes the term is considerably contentious. I have been in rooms with senior union leaders who warn me not to use the phrase with their members because they have come to see it as little more than a euphemism for job cuts, and with others who lambast the policy world for talking big about the need for a just transition while doing very little to actually make it happen.

What is really at play here is something of ineffable importance to making net zero a reality on any kind of useful timescale: social license. In a democracy, no change of the scale that net zero implies can be forced onto people, or appear to be being forced onto them. The Committee on Climate Change notes that more than half of the emissions cuts ahead require some form of behavioural change.

One of the unavoidable changes ahead is to the world of work. There is significant potential for a new generation of jobs in the clean economy, but that’s only half of the story. Some areas are currently disproportionately reliant on what the UN has described as climate critical’ sectors including energy, transport, manufacturing, and agriculture. These are all sectors that can and should thrive in a net-zero world, but that doesn’t mean they will. Given the rise of precarious work, it also doesn’t mean that jobs in those sectors in the future will be well-paid, safe, unionised and desirable.

NEF’s new report, Trust in Transition’, shows that these climate critical’ jobs make up more than 30% of all employment in more than 10 local authorities. Particularly exposed are the industrial heartlands of the Midlands and Yorkshire & the Humber – areas that have seen steady deindustrialisation over recent decades and where Gross Value Added is generally lower. It is here that the need for a place-focused and just’ approach to industrial strategy has been so notably felt by its absence. Entire economies will stand or fall by how fairly and actively workers are transitioned from a high- to a zero-carbon economy,

Trust is the essential currency of transition. But trust is in short supply. And you could understand cynicism on the part of those who are being asked to believe that, after 40 years of industrial and economic policy delivered in service of global capital, that this time will be different’. Another recent NEF report looked at the travails of the manufacturing sector in Scotland, where its success in installing renewable energy is not translating into jobs for workers at plants such as BiFab.

But different it must be. All parties now accept that direct investment in places is essential. Insofar as industrial policy has meant anything since the days of Thatcher it has been about increasing the power of capital in relation to labour. It would not be true to say that there has been no dialogue with government about the direction of industrial policy – it’s just that that dialogue has been with big business and finance.

A just transition isn’t something that you deliver by tinkering around the edges of a system that’s fundamentally not set up to deliver it. That’s why over a decade ago, in the shadow of the looming financial crisis, NEF and others first proposed a Green New Deal as a way to unite economic reform, radical climate action and a fair deal for workers. It’s an idea in new resurgence as it has become clear that deep rapid change simply has to be done fairly, or it won’t happen – there can be no Poll Tax for the Planet. A Green New Deal would change the rules, making sure that industrial policy is fundamentally for the delivery of a just transition, quickly, to a net-zero economy, built around social dialogue with the people and places that most need that to happen.

There is ultimately a simple reason that the UK has not delivered a just transition in climate or broader industrial policy to date: it hasn’t wanted to. And unless we hardwire social justice and climate radicalism into the machinery of government – putting government in the harness of the economy after years of unbridled laissez-faire – it won’t.

A longer version of this piece originally appeared at BusinessGreen and is reproduced here with permission.

Image: Pexels

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