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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Radical climate action needs social justice and a just transition

There is a broad consensus on the need for ambitious targets on tackling climate change, but there are some differences around the edges when it comes to taking practical action.

The Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) Bill is being debated in parliament today. Timely, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is meeting in Edinburgh. I was pleased to be able to support the rally outside parliament, which included many references to the recent inspirational protests by school pupils.



This is the First Stage debate, so parliament is only considering the general principles. These mainly revolve around how ambitious the revised targets should be. Climate change campaigners, co-ordinated by Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, supported by Labour and the Greens, want the Bill to go further. SCCS are calling for a reduction in emissions of 80% (on 1990 levels) by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2045 at the latest. They also want the new legislation to provide assurances of transparency in how public funds are spent to contribute towards emissions reductions and commit to policy change to give warm homes, cleaner travel and support for greener farming.

The Scottish Government is not opposed to this in principle. The climate change minister argues in today's Scotsman that Scotland is at the forefront of global ambition on climate change. They are awaiting next month's UK Committee on Climate Change's advice on the credibility of a 100% reduction. 

The case for taking radical action is not in dispute, except for a few climate change deniers, or the subtler delayers. Denial is, as Mary Robinson described recently, not just ignorant, but ‘malign and evil’.

As the poll published by SCCS today shows, there is broad public support for climate action. 70% of respondents support Scotland taking greater action in transport, food and homes to tackle climate change. And the concern is growing, with one in three more concerned about climate change than a year ago.

So far so good. However, there have been some differences over the measures required to deliver on climate action.

For example, the Scottish Greens tabled a motion calling for a climate emergency, which called “on the Scottish Government to recognise that the policy of maximum economic recovery of oil and gas is incompatible with addressing the climate emergency.”

I would agree that the fossil fuel industry has to recognise that some reserves will have to stay in the ground if we are to achieve the necessary reductions in carbon emissions. The problem at this stage is that it is unclear how much of the existing reserves will be needed and how quickly technological developments will allow us to achieve this. Crucially, the motion omitted any mention of a Just Transition that protects jobs. Workers in the oil and gas industry have noted the absence of a Just Transition in the renewables sector, and we certainly don't want to repeat the experience of the coal industry, which blights many communities across Scotland to this day.

That is why we need to develop a new industrial strategy based on a Green Industrial Revolution that demonstrates a credible pathway to new jobs. This is an approach that a Green and Labour MP have come together on at Westminster, with their Green New Deal Bill. A statutory Just Transition Commission in the Climate Change Bill is an essential element of that approach.

Similar considerations apply to the Workplace Parking Levy. Penalising workers who have little option but to use a car to perform their duties or get to work, before we have a functioning public transport system, is not going to persuade anyone.

In essence, we need to put the horse before the cart, not the other way around. If we don't, we risk losing the argument on climate change and fuelling a backlash. The Gilets Jaunes protests were triggered by increasing fuel prices, and they were not an isolated example. Research by Davide Natalini at the Global Sustainability Institute has recorded 44 different events worldwide.

He argues that the design and implementation of new policies need to become more inclusive. The rich can buy their way out of climate action, the poor cannot. Climate policy needs to be seen as relevant for those communities if they are to support its implementation. Cash transfers, what I would call the redistribution of wealth, needs to ensure that those who cannot shift to more sustainable and expensive options quickly are supported.

There also needs to be better communication of why these measures are required to ensure the support of communities who are likely to be most affected.

The case for radical action on climate change is undeniable. But to win support for what will be a difficult transition we need to take workers and those least able to bear the cost of change with us.

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