How the UK government could support a Just Transition to a sustainable industry

28 October 2021

By Thomas Campbell

5 minute read

CPP joined a politics placement programme at the Social Mobility Foundation to provide young people with an overview of the work of a think tank and advice about building a career in the policy sector. As part of the programme and on the eve of COP26, students wrote blogs offering their important voices on the need for a just green transition. All the students produced outstanding contributions, three of which are published here.

As the UK continues to take steps towards net zero COemissions by 2050, 6.3 million workers across the UK are set to be affected by the switch to a sustainable economy. Roughly half of these people work in occupations crucial for our sustainable future and can look forward to increased demand for their skills, but the other half, mostly working in polluting or high-carbon industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction and transport, will need to upskill or change career. Furthermore, these workers are not evenly spread around the country, but disproportionately located in areas where polluting industries are based – such as the Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber, and more often in deprived areas, creating the risk of deepening regional and economic inequalities. Thus, a ‘just transition’ – efforts to ensure that the push for a sustainable economy leaves no-one behind and takes full advantage of the considerable opportunity it poses to improve lives throughout Britain – is an area of high importance for the UK Government to focus on in the coming years.

The wellbeing and support of the workforce is central to a just transition, and clear communication of this is vital. Currently, there is little public knowledge that “just transition” is more than a buzzword, and it is frequently viewed with distrust, particularly in areas in the North of England where memories of the closure of coal mines and deindustrialisation in the 1980s are linked to unemployment and civil unrest. Thus, a wide-reaching public awareness campaign is vital to highlight the benefits of sustainable industry and disprove the myths that it will lead to job losses. Additionally, to ensure all workers have a variety of options available to them if their job is negatively affected, inspiration can be drawn from the Scottish Government’s £12bn Transition Training Fund, which helped unemployed workers access education to get new jobs. A similar fund can be provided could be created for the rest of the UK, so if workers are unable to switch to a new role that fits their skill set, they can upskill in order to take on different work, or if they are already close to retirement, receive compensation. This, along with a commitment to workers’ rights and fair wages in the new industries, will ensure all workers are protected from any negative impacts of the transition to a green economy.

Another priority for the government is to increase the support and incentives available to businesses during this transition- workers will be unable to make the switch to a green economy if employers can’t provide green jobs. This is especially important as only 5 of the 34 unique industrial sectors identified by the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) have made reasonable progress towards adapting to likely changes, with some companies choosing to rely on speculative technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage. This is unhelpful, causing more damage to both the economy and the climate in the long term. To combat this, a ‘carrot and stick’ approach could be adopted- to discourage companies from dragging their feet on sustainability, higher taxes could be applied to companies which fail to meet decarbonisation targets, whereas an ambitious green finance programme of loans, grants and potential tax breaks can be provided to existing industries seeking aid to adapt, or to support newly prominent sectors such as battery manufacture and renewable energy in their expansion. Consumer incentives are also essential to reduce any possible lost revenue and encourage the use of sustainable goods and services.

Finally, the UK Government itself should lead by example to support the just transition- while many historic commitments have been made, more concrete action on sustainability must be taken. A ‘Net Zero Test’, as proposed by the CCC, should be applied to all government policy to ensure it will not be damaging to emissions targets, and collaboration with local authorities, trade unions and the public is essential to ensure that the just transition can be a ‘bottom-up’ process that works for the whole country. For while the challenges posed by the move away from high-carbon industry are considerable, those caused by the destructive impacts of climate change will be far worse if we delay meaningful action much longer.