Scotland has put a just transition at the heart of government

This post is by Jim Skea, chair of Scottish Just Transition Commission and professor of sustainable  energy at Imperial College London. He writes here in a personal capacity.

There are two very good reasons for bringing justice to the heart of the net zero transition. The principled reason is that it is simply the right thing to do. Sweeping changes to society and the economy will be required, and it is right that climate action is steered by, and responds to, people’s needs and aspirations. The second reason is pragmatic. Change on this scale will not happen without broad social consent. There needs to be a shared perception that the transition is fair and costs are shared equitably.

In many countries, just transition has focused on the consequences of exiting from coal. This does not apply in Scotland, where the last coal-fired power station closed five years ago, or in the UK as a whole. Members of the independent Just Transition Commission appointed by the Scottish Government, which reported in March, came from a wide range of backgrounds in business, trade unions, NGOs and academia. We took a broader view and decided to look not only at the energy sector, or even the supply side, but also at consumption and the critical importance of community and place.  

Meetings were held all over Scotland
There is no widely agreed definition of a ‘just transition’. The commission’s working definition was that “the “imperative of a just transition is to ensure the benefits of climate change action are shared widely, while the costs do not unfairly burden those least able to pay, or whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly at risk as the economy shifts and changes.” In practice, this meant following three principles: the need for clear planning to avoid surprises and avoid the unjust transitions that some communities have experienced in the past; building equity into climate policies right from the start; and engaging with people so that climate action is aligned with society’s expectations. The commission put the last principle into practice, holding its meetings all over Scotland, hearing from guests and running town hall meetings with farmers, oil and gas professionals, and other stakeholders.

The commission was also keen to emphasise that just transition presents an opportunity, as well as a challenge. There are present injustices in every society, Scotland included, and issues like land tenure, fair work and energy poverty can be addressed within a just transition framework.

The commission’s report characterised a just transition as a national mission. Government has a central role to play, but all parts of society need to be engaged. The challenges cut across all sectors. What is the future of our energy system and how can local industry and workers be part of the renewables revolution? What is the future of the industrial base and how can roadmaps and skills development contribute to its development? How do we improve our housing stock and realise benefits in terms of  health, jobs and climate action? How can we transform our transport system to promote active travel, public transport and zero emission vehicles? How do we take advantage of the opportunities to sequester carbon on the land while ensuring that rural livelihoods are supported and benefits do not flow only to existing landowners?

The commission made 24 recommendations
To address these challenges the commission came up with 24 separate recommendations, intended to be practical, realistic and affordable, as ministers requested. We divided these into four broad themes.

The first is pursuing an orderly, managed transition. Just transition roadmaps can create a sense of direction that will help to drive investment and bring highly skilled jobs.

Second, people need to be equipped with the skills and education to participate in a net zero economy. Specific interventions were suggested for oil and gas workers, farmers and small businesses, particularly in  construction and transport.

Third, it is essential to empower and invigorate local communities so that a just transition is shaped by citizens, not imposed on them.

And finally, and most importantly, the benefits of net zero must be shared widely and burdens distributed on the basis of the ability to pay. Specifically, accessibility to ‘smart’ homes, transport and energy must be promoted and managed so that existing inequalities are not exacerbated.

A new ministerial post for just transition has just been appointed
The commission considered what happens next. We recommended a cabinet level responsibility for a just transition, a capacity for independent scrutiny of, and advice for, the Scottish Government, and a national call for action linked to the Glasgow UN climate summit (COP26) in November.

Commissioners were pleased to see that their recommendations were adopted almost wholesale in the manifesto of the Scottish Government elected in May. Scotland now has a minister for just transition located within the economy and finance portfolio.

Steering a path between aspiration on the one hand and practicality and realism on the other is always a challenge. The commission’s recommendations are intended to reset the pathway to net zero in the context of the pandemic, the harms it has wreaked and the inequalities it has exacerbated. We hope the Scottish Government, in concert with others, can follow through. 

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