Mary Church: Zero-carbon world must be achieved without repeat of miners' strike chaos

The transition from fossil fuels to a zero-carbon economy must be achieved without the chaos experienced by the 1980s coal industry, writes Mary Church of Friends of the Earth Scotland.

The last miners at Longannet colliery's deep mine in Fife leave work in 2002, ending underground coal mining in Scotland (Picture: Robert Perry)
The last miners at Longannet colliery's deep mine in Fife leave work in 2002, ending underground coal mining in Scotland (Picture: Robert Perry)

As the world starts to switch from fossil fuels to a zero-carbon economy, key sectors could be pitched into the kind of ­turmoil experienced by Scotland’s miners in the 1980s with communities ripped apart as people lost their jobs and mass unemployment set in.

However, although the issue doesn’t feature on the official agenda, one of the main themes at the 23rd United Nations climate ­summit underway in Bonn is the idea of how to bring about a “just transition” that would avoid this bleak prospect from becoming a reality.

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While official negotiations focus on contentious issues of the implementation of the Paris Agreement – in a process in which historic and current global injustices are always strongly present – numerous side events are highlighting the need for action to ensure that workers and communities dependent on high-carbon industries are not left behind in the move to zero-carbon economies.

The trade union-crafted concept was cemented in the 2015 ­Paris Agreement’s preamble, which called for “a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs” in the context of urgently needed emission reductions and adaptation to the impacts of climate change.

What is particularly exciting and inspiring is the diversity and strength of the movement coming together to call for a just transition.

Environmentalists and trade unions may be perceived as unlikely bedfellows, but what unites us is ultimately stronger than any differences and that is our shared recognition of the gravity of the climate crisis and our shared desire for justice. As the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) starkly puts it: there are no jobs on a dead planet. Clearly that is something we should work together to avoid.

In Bonn, Friends of the Earth International and the ITUC held a joint event at which we heard from a diverse panel of speakers about some of the challenges as well as some of the success stories.

There was plenty to reflect upon. We were able to celebrate emerging success stories of planned transitions from coal to renewables for workers in Australia.

But questions were also raised about whether multinational ­corporations could ever deliver the kind of transformative change needed to respond to the climate crisis – is it really credible to think of Shell turning around, cleaning up its dirty work in Nigeria and delivering renewable power to the people without being compelled to?

Scotland was among those examples with its recently announced Just Transition Commission hailed as an example of the climate leadership the world so badly needs right now. The commission was one of the key demands of the Just Transition Partnership set up by Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Scottish Trade Union Congress a year ago and we are delighted that the ­Scottish Government listened.

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However, at this stage there is very little detail about what the commission will do, beyond the brief ­reference in the recent Programme for Government.

The new Just Transition Commission will “advise Scottish Ministers on adjusting to a more resource-efficient and sustainable economic model in a fair way which will help to tackle inequality and poverty, and promote a fair and inclusive jobs market”. Not a bad starting point, but we need to put some flesh on the bones: who will sit on the Commission and what will it actually do?

First of all it is clear that the ­membership of the Just Transition Commission must include trade unions, workers, communities and environmentalists.

Its remit must be linked to the delivery of the five-yearly climate change plans which detail how Government intends to meet its legally binding emission-reduction targets.

And the plan itself must explain how policies and proposals will impact on employment and include measures to support workers. There must be a focus on the ­creation of decent jobs in low-carbon sectors including transport, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The commission will not be effective if it is pigeon-holed as a climate change initiative: it must have a cross-portfolio purview, particularly with economy, jobs and fair work. It must also have a clear link to the work of the new Scottish National Investment Bank, another welcome proposal in the recent Programme for Government.

As the climate crisis, which once seemed like a far-off thing that a future generation would have to deal with, starts to make itself felt, the world is at a crossroads. This is decade zero in the fight to limit global warming to a level at which our planet can still sustain human life.

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The transition to a low-carbon economy will no doubt happen one way or another, but if it is left to market forces it will be a painful one. Scotland has seen unjust transitions in the past – with the closure of coal pits in the 1980s tearing up the social fabric of communities, many of which still suffer from the consequences of the way in which that signficant change to the economy was mishandled. We have the chance to do it differently this time. Let’s take it and use this opportunity to build a fairer, more equal Scotland at the same time.

Mary Church is head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth Scotland.