If you really want to know what a just transition looks like, don’t start with the official speeches of Cop26. Ideally, don’t even ask me. Ask those who need it most.
Ask a teenager in south Wales, where coal mining jobs have not been replaced by alternatives and unemployment levels are among the highest in the UK. Ask the oil rig worker who has been travelling to work by helicopter for 15 years but is having to pay £2,000 for yet another helicopter safety training course to be able to work on a wind turbine. Ask the Eurostar driver who does not know if the train she drives will still be running in two months’ time. Ask, if you can, one of the Uyghur people forced by Chinese authorities to work in a labour camp to make polysilicone for solar panels.
They can tell you about an unjust transition – the opposite of how we want to change our lifestyles and economies to meet net zero. Just transition mustn’t become a global policy-speak catchphrase, reduced to the intersection between environmental and social concerns, or vague promises of skills training. A real just transition makes sure people don’t lose out as their lives and livelihoods are transformed by climate action. Like the up to 600,000 workers in UK manufacturing and supply chains, whose future employment relies on government and industry investing to retool and decarbonise.
Here’s who is building a just transition: the Scottish fabrication yard worker, who is campaigning to make the foundations for offshore wind turbines being built in sight of their town. It’s the car engineer in Birmingham fighting to transition the factory to make electric vehicles. The Swedish steel mill worker making the world’s first batch of zero-carbon steel, soon to be used to make Volvo cars. The postie, perhaps the one who delivered your online shopping this morning, working with colleagues to manage the switch to an electric vehicle fleet for Royal Mail.
Or it’s the South African coalminer marching in the streets for a transition plan that gets her and her colleagues a clean power job in a public energy service. The teacher, perhaps in your child’s primary school, asking her class what they need from their education to face a future of climate chaos while the national curriculum lags far behind.
These people – all of them real union reps – might not be on the podium at Cop26 in Glasgow, but they are among the world’s real climate leaders.
So what do they need from the rest of us? First: resources. To give the at-risk jobs of today a future, governments must invest to build the pioneering zero-carbon steel plants, the fabrication yards and ports, and the domestic supply chains that the industries of tomorrow need. The TUC has called for £85bn of green infrastructure investment over the next two years. And where public funding takes the first step, private capital will follow.
Governments must invest, too, in the public sector. They must give more resources to local councils to insulate homes in their area and support the NHS’s net zero plan. And they need to invest worldwide: industrialised countries are well behind on their $100bn climate finance pledge to the global south.
Second: a say over how the transition happens. The postie knows what they need from the delivery rotas of the future. The oil worker knows what training he requires. The coalminer knows what she wants to do when the mine closes. This knowledge should shape the transition. Each workplace needs a formal agreement negotiated between unions and employers about the nature and pace of change – and a plan for how good jobs will be protected. This needs to be mirrored with commissions at every level – from local to national – where unions, employers and governments allneed to listen to each other and come up with a common plan for their industry or area. The lack of planning and coordination in the UK is a key reason why we’re lurching from one crisis to the next today.
Third: the removal of barriers. No worker should see their income plummet or have to pay to retrain if their workplace shuts down. And no worker should be barred from the jobs of the future, whether by biased recruitment practices, lack of support for parents or for disabled people, or by institutional racism.
Fourth and finally: job quality. Green jobs must be great jobs. If a job involves back-breaking work and pays badly, if the work is unreliable or on a precarious contract, if the employer doesn’t recognise unions and if employees have to pay for their own training, then no wonder workers aren’t lining up to switch careers.
Any job can be a good job. If we want workers to move from high carbon jobs to net zero jobs, climate movements must help unions fight for decent pay, terms and conditions. When these four challenges are met – enough resources, workers’ voices listened to, barriers brought down, every green job a good job – climate action will be made with people, not done to them.
So let’s make a start. Join a union. What can you do in your community, in your workplace, to support those whose jobs are on the line, and bring about the just transition that we all need?