In 2018, the world’s climate community descended on the small city of Katowice in southern Poland for COP24. An unusual choice for a climate conference, as this region is home to a major part of Poland’s coal mining operations. Coming in the middle of December with snow on the ground, the air was thick with lingering coal smoke from thousands of fireplaces and the distinctive silhouettes of coal mine towers were visible from the windows of the conference centre.
The message from the Polish government was clear: we cannot act on climate change without considering and supporting regions such as this and the people whose jobs currently depend on polluting industries.
For many, the shift to a net-zero economy powered by clean energy and producing the new range of goods and services we will all need to lead low carbon lives, presents a once in a generation opportunity. Politicians, business leaders and others regularly hail the potential for prosperity and success in a cleaner, greener future.
However, there is another side to this optimistic story. Across the UK, as with Katowice, many people are extremely worried about what a low-carbon future could mean for their jobs, livelihoods and communities. Jobs in polluting industries are set to disappear. Whole towns and cities with a strong reliance on fossil fuel industries could enter a sharp decline. The skills essential for the economy of the past may not match those needed in the economy of the future.
Without consideration of those in society at most risk of losing out in the transition to a greener economy, the government risks losing the political ‘licence to act’ on climate change. This is why supporting those likely to be most disadvantaged is so important, and why a just transition must underpin all government action on climate change and sustainability over the coming years.
Financing the just transition
Over the past year, the Financing a Just Transition Alliance, led by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment at the London School of Economics, has aimed to identify steps the sector can take to scale up climate action, while achieving positive social impact, and it is set to publish its wide-ranging report with a series of recommendations for government and the finance community.
We hope it will lead to a step change in the current debate around a just transition, both in government and the finance industry. The time has come for government to consider how to meaningfully embed just transition considerations across policy.
For example, these considerations should be core to the remit of the recently launched UK National Infrastructure Bank, connected and integrated into its existing net-zero and levelling-up mandate as a coherent overarching objective. Most significantly, a UK ‘Just Transition Commission’ must be launched as a priority, to help better define a common language and priorities, and identify areas for policy action.
The UK Commission could be based on a similar commission in Scotland, charged with making recommendations to government; among its considerations could be the publication of just transition roadmaps for each sector of the economy, including an analysis of those sectors where jobs are most at risk and of the reskilling interventions that are needed.
The UK should also seek to play a global leadership role on the just transition, due to its own experience of managing an economic transition in the 1980s, and consider the issue at a global level, including at the UN, making this part of our regular dialogue with other countries and shaping work internationally.
Achieving the net-zero transition is hard; trying to do so without considering the needs of individuals and communities across the country will be close to impossible. The Alliance’s report makes very clear we need concerted focus on a just transition from all sectors of the economy and government. If we do this, not only will we successfully create a greener future, we’ll also deliver the shared prosperity this transition has long promised to achieve.