UK regions push for green transition done 'by the people, for the people'

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 19 March 2021 12:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Miners leave after working the final shift at Kellingley Colliery on its last day of operation in north Yorkshire, England, December 18, 2015. REUTERS/John Giles

Image Caption and Rights Information

Local climate commissions are putting social and economic justice at the core of their work, learning from the troubled closure of Britain's coal mines

* Unions say UK has learned harsh lessons from coal mine closures

* Social and economic equity have risen up climate policy agenda

* Local plans for a 'just transition' need financial support

By Megan Rowling

March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the mid-1980s, the northern England region of Yorkshire was home to more than 60,000 coal miners - but after the government of then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher decided to close Britain's pits on economic grounds, those jobs were swept away.

Miners went on strike for a year in protest at the policy bombshell, leading to ugly scenes on the picket lines between police and workers.

The last deep mine shut in 2015 - and the region is still suffering social deprivation and a lack of hope passed down the generations, according to Bill Adams, regional secretary for Yorkshire and the Humber with the TUC trade unions body.

He told an online discussion this month the time has come for a different approach as the former industrial powerhouse faces yet another transformation, this one brought on by climate change and Britain's plan to cut emissions to net zero by 2050.

"We don't want to make the same mistakes again," Adams told the Powering Past Coal Alliance summit. "We no longer want abandoned or left-behind communities."

As governments, companies and workers worldwide set out on the rocky road to a zero-carbon world, the harsh experiences of England's miners stand in stark contrast to what many are now seeking to achieve: a "just transition".

Calls for a fairer way of fixing a fast-heating planet swelled after the birth of France's "gilets jaunes" (yellow vest) movement in 2018, following a fuel price hike many citizens saw as an unfair bid to make them pay for climate pollution.

Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the precarious situation of frontline workers - from care home staff to supermarket employees - with few rights and little security, triggering calls by unions for a new "social contract".

That new contract must also include climate-friendly jobs that do not leave people and communities "stranded", Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, told the same event.

Key pillars for a "just transition" in industries facing a clean overhaul - like power production and construction - should include secure pensions, skills training, decent wages and investment in economic renewal in affected areas, she said.

That is not what happened in Yorkshire when the coal mines closed, Adams said. Small amounts of government money went into revitalising the battered local economy, while some logistics firms set up shop, offering low-paid, insecure jobs, he added.

The region continues to grapple with high rates of poverty and unemployment, depopulation, ongoing industrial health issues, and problems with drug and alcohol dependency, he noted.

"This is not the way to create a green, vibrant recovery or future," he said.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A man walks through the floodwater next to abandoned cars in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, Britain February 9, 2020. REUTERS/Ed Sykes

CLIMATE COMMISSIONS

The hope is that this time, better planning and the involvement of local governments, experts, companies and citizens will shape change that reduces economic and social inequalities, rather than exacerbating them.

At its launch this week, the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission, an independent advisory group, said it would pursue that aim in its efforts to help cut local emissions and prepare inhabitants for climate shocks, such as worsening floods.

"It is really important that we work in an inclusive way to ensure that we engage a real cross-section of Yorkshire and the Humber and bring people along with us," said commission chair Liz Barber, CEO of utility Yorkshire Water.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year announced a "green revolution" for the country, which he said would mobilise 12 billion pounds ($16.7 billion) of government money and create 250,000 highly skilled green jobs by 2030.

The Just Transition Jobs Tracker, developed by the Place-based Climate Action Network, estimates that some 6.3 million jobs in Britain - or one in five - are likely to be affected by the green transition.

About 3 million workers - mainly in construction, manufacturing, the motor trade, transport and utilities - will require new skills and an equal number will be in high demand.

They could include a car mechanic who must learn how to work with electric vehicles or a plumber switching from fitting gas boilers to heat pumps, said Andy Gouldson, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Leeds who worked on the tracker and also chairs the Leeds Climate Commission.

Gouldson said the Leeds commission, set up in 2017, had tried to move beyond listening to "middle-class greenies" by recruiting a 20-member citizens' jury to get a broader range of views from diverse ethnic, religious and income groups.

"It was a lot of effort, but it was really valuable," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Gouldson, who is also director of the new Yorkshire climate commission, said there was a desire in the mining-scarred region for the shift to a decarbonised society to be "a transition done by the people for the people, rather than to them".

Other climate commissions have been set up in Belfast and Edinburgh, while the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate, covering a rural part of eastern England, issued an interim report on Monday.

It highlighted the need to bring down emissions, which are about 25% higher per person than the UK average, and to reduce the "acute" risk of flooding, rising summer heat, water shortages and damage to natural carbon stores in fenland peat.

When investing to tackle those challenges, "ensuring fairness is core to the approach" will be key, the report added.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: The European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC) is seen off Aberdeen, Scotland, Britain, September 7, 2018. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

FINANCING THE SHIFT

Nick Robins, a sustainable finance professor at the London School of Economics, said local authorities would struggle to make such large-scale changes alone, because in most cases they cannot tap the funding needed.

"How do we develop bottom-up financing strategies to deliver on the climate emergency which respond to the needs of those communities ... (and) connect (them) with the large pools of capital crying out for deals?" he asked.

He noted the role pension fund managers and other shareholders could play in pushing companies to take social justice into account as a growing number put together plans to shift to a net-zero business model in the coming decades.

He cited the example of Scotland-based power utility SSE which, after dialogue with shareholders and workers, published a "just transition" plan in November, saying it was the first British company to do so.

The strategy is based on 20 principles to ensure the impacts of the firm's decisions are fair and to provide opportunities for communities to benefit from net zero, as SSE moves out of natural gas and coal and into renewables in Britain and Ireland.

SSE has promised to invest 4 million pounds a day in low-carbon energy and electricity infrastructure over the next five years, much of it in wind farms.

Chief Sustainability Officer Rachel McEwen said SSE had created 1,000 green jobs even in 2020, during the pandemic.

Many of them are in the same place as Scotland's declining North Sea oil and gas industry, she noted, adding "we need workers with science, technology and engineering skills".

Another of the wind farms SSE is developing - set to be the world's largest - is in Dogger Bank, off the coast of Yorkshire.

Union leader Adams pointed to this and other promising business plans in the region to build up green transport and carbon capture and storage, as well as renewable energy.

"I think we have an amazing opportunity to change the way we do things in the UK," he said.

($1 = 0.7185 pounds)

Read more: 

'Can I afford it?' Workers fear squeeze from green energy transition

U.N. chief urges wealthy nations to phase out coal use by 2030

UK citizens assembly wants 'fair' path to net-zero emissions

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.