A transition to renewables is coming but will it be a just transition?

In recent years, climate change has become a key issue and we are only starting to realise the full impact that it could have on our lives. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth report stated in 2013 that they are 95% confident that climate change is being caused by humans burning greenhouse gases. More recently the UN Chief called climate change an existential threat to humanity. In light of the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is bad for the planet and therefore all life on Earth it seems obvious to suggest we stop burning fossil fuels, and of course we should. However, we cannot forget about all the jobs and money tied up in the fossil fuel industry.

The North East of Scotland is a region that depends upon the oil and gas sector for much of its wealth. Scottish government stats show that in 2019 the oil and gas sector accounts for £16.2 billion or 9% or Scotland’s economy. The high concentration of fossil fuel jobs within the North East has meant that the employment rate in Aberdeenshire, in 2018, was 82.3% compared to the UK average of 74.8%.

 The North East relies heavily on the existence of the oil and gas sector for its prosperity and therefore we must replace the oil and gas industry with an equally strong industry that will mean the local area isn’t hurt economically. This is a concept that is referred to as a just transition. The aim of a just transition is to ensure that communities reliant on fossil fuel industries are not economically disadvantaged when moving away from fossil fuels and are provided with opportunities to grow economically in other sectors, namely the renewable industry.

If we want to avoid the worst consequences of climate change a just transition needs to happen very soon. Scotland just like the rest of the world is warming at an alarming rate.

This chart was created by Climate Central and is part of the showyourstripes project that maps tempertaure rise, with each stripe representing a different year. The red stripes represent warmer years, with warming evident in recent years. This specific chart shows the temperature increase in Scotland.

The rise in temperature is leading to a rise in sea levels that will threaten many communities all across the world, including many Scottish towns and cities. A study by Scottish Natural Heritage in 2017 has suggested sea levels could rise by 0.5 metres or more by 2080 in the Clyde area threatening Glasgow, Glasgow Prestwick Airport and the nuclear base at Faslane. Other areas under threat include Falkirk and Leith.

These infographics come from the project Surging Seas which is led by Climate Central, a group of scientists and journalists documenting the impact of climate change. This infographic shows that within mere decades some of Scotland’s largest population centres could be flooded. This presents risks to people’s lives and the economy of Scotland. It is inarguable that humans must stop burning fossil fuels. That being said there are many communities and households reliant on the continuation of the fossil fuel industry within Scotland and we cannot leave them economically disadvantaged like what happened to the coal mining communities.

Pete Cannel is a Just Transition campaigner for the group Scot. E3. Scot.E3 was founded by a mix of trade unionists and climate activists who wanted to push the idea of climate action in the work place. The three E’s stand for employment, energy and environment as the group seeks to link all three issues in campaigning for a just transition. Pete Cannel first got involved with Just Transition campaigning in response to the Scottish government asking for consultation on their energy policy in 2017. Cannel says the main aim was seeking to avoid the sort of unjust transition we saw away from coal in the 80s that left coal communities economically deprived as the industry wasn’t replaced with anything.

Christopher Barbour, works as a saturation diver for Subsea contractors and lives in the North East of Scotland. He says his decision to get into the fossil fuel industry was fairly money driven as he wanted to provide his kids with the sort of opportunities he never had. He believes the fossil fuel industry sheltered the North East from the recession and has provided the area with a great many jobs. Chris is proof that fossil fuel workers don’t work in the fossil fuel industry to destroy the planet, their intent is to put food on the table and look after their family. They should not be penalised for wanting to support their families and should rightly be looked after when we shift away from fossil fuels.

Without campaigners like Cannel a just transition may not happen and without a just transition, families like Chris’ right across the North-East could be left struggling. When shifting away from fossil fuels we must keep families like the Barbour’s in mind.

Cannel suggests that a just transition would require it to be government led. Cannel uses the example of an offshore wind farm project, off of Fife, that has been taking up by an Indonesian company. This has led to a loss of potential jobs in Scotland. It also means that due to shipping the materials needed to build the wind farm across the world, that the wind farm would need to be active for 25 years before it could offset the emissions from shipping the materials.  Cannel says this is exactly the sort of projects that a just transition seeks to avoid as the jobs that the renewable sector creates should stay within the local communities and not harm the environment. Without government leadership corporations will shift to renewables in a way that prioritises profits, not the local economy or environment.

A recent report called ‘Sea Change’ created by Friends of the Earth Scotland details what a just transition would look like and require. The report Sea Change cites Sovacool from Aarhus University who argues that transitions to a different energy economy are most successful when the government leads the initiative. Sovacool uses the example of when France went from 8% nuclear to 70% in just 12 years.

The report mentions that there are plenty of studies that prove a transition to renewables is easily achievable. The report mentions The Zero Carbon Britain project of the Centre for Alternative Technology that has shown how the UK could achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030. Also, citing Mark Jacobson and colleagues at Stanford University have developed detailed roadmaps for how 139 countries (including the UK) could achieve 80% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by 2050, based on wind, wave and solar energies.

The problem with a just transition needing government leadership is that both the Scottish and UK governments are showing no leadership whatsoever. Due to UK government cutting support the number of jobs in solar power has fell by 75%. Jenny Hogan Chief Executive at Scottish Renewables suggests similar declines in employment are likely to be seen in other renewable industries without a change in government policy.

The difference in size of the renewable and fossil fuel industries is clearly evident. The annual revenue of the renewable sector in 2016 was £5.5 million, compared to an annual revenue of £11.8 billion in 2017 for the fossil fuel sector. This is no accident and is down to the levels of government support that each industry gets.

The lack of support for renewables is contrasted by the governments hard-line support for fossil fuels. Cannel says that the UK and Scottish government still support maximum extraction and that one of the ways they do so is through the Petroleum Revenue Tax. The Petroleum Revenue Tax means that the government pays money to the oil and gas companies as long as they are not realising profits on every single investment. The UK government is the biggest subsidiser of fossil fuels in the EU, at 12 billion euros a year. New UK oil and gas extraction licenses also last about 30 years and are generally extendable, which locks us into projects that cannot possibly continue for the length of the license if we want to protect the planet. The Sea Change report argues that this government support helps the fossil fuel industry by enabling projects that would otherwise be unprofitable. Cannel cites an E3 study written by a leading corporate tax lawyer, which argues that the UK government has given the oil and gas sector £250 billion throughout the years. The Office for Budget Responsibility projects that the 2015 tax cuts would increase oil extraction in 2019 by 23 million barrels and gas extraction by 104 million cubic feet. The fossil fuel industry gets maximum support for maximum extraction.

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne argues the government supports the oil and gas sector to protect jobs. However, this isn’t true. The Sea Change report showed that tax cuts did not prevent job losses as over the following two years, the UK oil and gas workforce continued to fall by nearly a fifth in direct extraction and the domestic supply chain. Sea Change report mentions that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has estimated that there has been an average 20% fall in staffing levels on UK Continental Shelf installations, with the remaining offshore staff working an average of 300 hours more per year for the same pay as in 2014. Christopher has also noticed there are more people working for longer hours with no noticeable pay increase. Sea Change argues that there have been instances of workers decommissioning a Canadian Natural Resources platform out with UK waters, being paid £2.70 an hour or just under one third of the minimum wage. Ths is because the UK minimum wage does not apply out with UK waters. This is a problem, when as Chris says decommissioning is going to become a bigger part of work in the North Sea oil and gas industry. Cannel mentions that since the recession there has been a total loss of 70,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector. Government support may sustain the fossil fuel industry but the government aren’t basing their support on protection of jobs, only the protection of the profits of the corporations.

You’d think giving the continued loss of jobs and increased workloads for the same pay that the oil and gas workforce would be all for a transition to renewables. However, as Cannel argues trade unions are sceptical of the idea of a just transition and this is due to a lack of government support. Cannel believes that if the Scottish and UK governments increased funding of re-training schemes and came out and said they’d guarantee the income of workers in the transition phase, then he believes the argument for going renewable would be won very easily.

A transition to 100% renewable is very feasible within the UK. Cannel says that when attending a Wood Group meeting, he was told they no longer distinguish between an oil rig and offshore wind farm worker as they have the same skills. This suggests that the oil and gas workforce are already prepared with the skills necessary to shift to renewables. The Sea Change report argues that the alternative to transitioning away from fossil fuels is a further loss of jobs in oil and gas as risk management company DNV GL predicts that oil and gas companies may implement fully autonomous, crewless, drilling by 2025.

A newly released report by Oil and Gas UK, the fossil fuel industries representatives has argued that there could be a loss of 30,000 jobs in the next year and a half and that investment in North Sea Oil and Gas could reach it's lowest levels since 1970. The report even went as far as to argue that the government needs to start planning for a transition to a 100% renewable economy. Fossil fuel representatives arguing for a shift to renewables would be previously unthinkable but it goes to show the dire situation currently facing North Sea Oil and Gas.

It’s time we put the workers first and prioritise their livelihoods, protecting families like the Barbour’s. Instead we currently have a government prioritising the profits of the corporations that will attack their own workforce with job cuts, increased workloads for no increase in pay and sometimes criminally low hourly wages for unprotected workers in international seas.

As we have seen corporations whether in fossil fuels or renewables would rather make a profit than protect local jobs. The only answer to this is a government led just transition project that puts workers first. When asked for what his definition of a just transition is, Cannel said “the narrow definition is as you make the transition from a carbon-based economy to a sustainable one, the people currently working in the hydrocarbon-based industry get looked after”. Cannel says that the best way to get the government to support a just transition to a green future is through civil disobedience such as the school strikes, activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion and through joining organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Global Justice Now.

Without government leadership workers will continue to be expendable in both the fossil fuel and renewable industries. At a time of increasing climate crisis’ such as the Australian bush fires and locust swarms in the Middle-East and Africa, now is not the time for the prioritising the profits of large corporations over sustainable green jobs that put local communities, workers and the environment first. Now is the time to ensure a just transition for all fossil fuel workers.