The North Sea oil industry will either plough on regardless until it crashes or we can have a sensible plan, recognising the industry needs to come to an end because it is fuelling the climate emergency, driving a just transition to help workers find new jobs and communities new futures.
On Tuesday the Just Transition Commission published the results of two years’ work looking at how we can move our economy away from fossil fuels in ways which are fair to workers and communities currently dependent on high-carbon industries.
At Friends of the Earth, we helped set up the Just Transition Partnership of unions and environment groups with the STUC in 2016, at first to call for a government commission and then to follow its work and make input. Together we were determined that Scotland should meet its climate change targets in a way that did not leave people behind.
Following a commitment in 2018, the commission was set up by the Scottish government in 2019. It is chaired by Professor Jim Skea, an academic climate and energy expert, and made up of representatives of the unions, environment groups, the oil industry, energy companies, academia, fuel poverty interests and farming. Over the course of their work, they talked to unions and workers and held public meetings.
As you can imagine, the inclusion of members from the oil industry and carbon-capture enthusiasts drew criticism. To them, just transition appears to mean they can just keep on pumping the oil and gas but, maybe, one day, capture some of the carbon in it.
Nonetheless, there is much to welcome in the report, especially the top recommendation that “pursuing an orderly, managed transition to net-zero that creates benefits and opportunities for people across Scotland” should become a “national mission” for Scotland.
They also recommend a pilot project for free public transport, a leadership role for the forthcoming publicly owned energy company, more action to provide the training people need to make the transition from high-carbon to zero-carbon jobs, and the creation of a set of just-transition action plans. They said there needs to be a strong leadership role from government but also a clear role for local communities on creating plans.
But not all is as it should be. Not surprisingly, given its composition, the commission does not attach sufficient urgency to the just transition, talking about an end to oil-and-gas production in the space of a generation, when climate science says this should be more like a decade. Yesterday the UK government announced a deal that could see oil-and-gas production going on for decades.
There has been some limited progress from government during the two years the commission has been doing its work, but there have also been missed opportunities with the updated Climate Change Plan published before Christmas failing to spell out concrete action on the just transition and jobs at BiFab’s yards having been lost to overseas competition instead of being secured for nearby windfarm contracts.
The Just Transition Commission’s report must be seen as a strong and urgent agenda for action by the new Scottish government formed after May’s election.
Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland