It was originally billed as a Brexit election, but this is fast becoming a climate election. 2019 has seen the shattering of the “climate silence”; the scientific evidence has been crystal clear for a long time but it has not cut through to electoral politics in a big way. But Greta Thunberg and the student strikers, the tenacity of Extinction Rebellion, ever more alarming disasters worldwide, and the sternest warnings yet from scientists have combined to unlock what has been until now a latent national appetite for the government to start doing something urgent about the climate and wider ecological crisis.
What’s remarkable is this is not, as can easily be caricatured, just a preoccupation of a comfy southern metropolitan elite. New polling by Survation for the New Economics Foundation has found that more than two-thirds of voters across the North and Midlands think that climate change will be an important factor for them in the election. Perhaps most remarkably in this divided nation, this demand cuts across Brexit lines, with 55% of leave voters and 72% of remain voters saying they would support government intervention in the creation of green jobs. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you think the climate matters.
All of the main parties agree, some more ferociously than others. While the Prime Minister was represented by a block of melting ice in last night’s climate debate after declining to attend, other leaders set out their aspirations for moving the UK’s ‘net zero’ emissions target forward from the legislated 2050 and some of the things they’d do to get there.
Achieving net zero, even on government’s current timescale, will not be easy. We have, to paraphrase the Government’s advisors at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), done the easy stuff – carbon cuts to date have been shouldered by the power sector, with the rise of renewables and the decline of coal power. Other than workers in and around those industries it would be safe to say that most people haven’t really noticed. But that’s going to change. As the CCC notes, most of the path to net zero requires people to notice and to change their behaviour – from eating less meat to changing how we travel around.
Most visibly and viscerally of all will be big changes to work, in particular the UK’s high carbon sectors. Net zero promises a new generation of green jobs nationwide in everything from insulating the nation’s homes, to making electric vehicles and this sunny upland is front and centre in most of the parties’ narratives on climate action.
But nowhere near enough time is spent worrying about what lies ahead for those that currently do high-carbon work, like making steel or ceramics, or generating gas powered electricity, or assembling diesel engines. What’s needed is a ‘just transition’ for the workforces and communities that are most on the hook for rapid changes to the world of work – a deliberate and managed process of transferring and reskilling old jobs to new, with the same or better terms and pay.
NEF, along with many others, propose a bespoke Just Transition Fund that would be disbursed through revamped local economic partnerships, replacing local enterprise partnerships, to make sure the transition happens in a way that makes sense for the infinite variety of local need. We recommend that government should be borrowing to invest 2% of GDP a year to deliver a Green New Deal – half of which should be devolved to create the Fund.
But such a Fund is the easy bit. Deeper reform to our failing economic system is needed. The reality is that the UK has an appalling record of deliberately managing industrial transitions in a fair way – just ask the coal miners of the 1980s. We have not had anything like a ‘just transition’ as a lodestar of modern UK industrial policy; the interests of global capital have thrived under neoliberal economic policy as swathes of the nation has deindustrialised; this several-decades-long, market-driven economic restructuring arguably underlies many of our current political woes.
This economic hollowing out has human consequences, exposed through the crisp anger expressed via the Brexit vote. And it manifests in sometimes surreal spectacle, like Scottish renewable manufacturing plants standing idle while parts for Scottish windfarms are shipped from the other side of the world. This is unfair, politically toxic, and risks creating a backlash against climate action at a time when only unity and a sense of a national mission will suffice. The speed and depth of the transition ahead means actively delivering a ‘just transition’ for those that could lose out – such as areas like Yorkshire and the Humber which have lower levels of Gross Value Added and are also disproportionately currently reliant upon high-carbon industry for work and economic cohesion. 30,000 people are directly employed in the region’s high-carbon industry.
But trade unions representing high carbon workers would be entitled to be deeply suspicious of vague promises that ‘this time will be different’. As NEF’s new report into the urgent need for a just transition shows, trust is in short supply. We propose turning industrial strategy on its head, giving real voice and new power to trade unions, communities and councils to shape a just transition plan for the whole of the UK, beginning in its particularly affected regions. A just transition will not happen around the edges of an approach to industrial strategy that favours London over everywhere else, and footloose international finance over people, communities, and the planet. Allowing market forces alone to determine the shape of our future economy will likely reinforce and deepen the nation’s current divisions.
There is political consensus on the need to address geographic inequalities in the UK, with the Conservatives calling it ‘levelling up’ and Labour ‘regional rebalancing’. But what they’re missing is that the climate transformation is the perfect opportunity to put this approach into practice. Whoever forms the next government needs to show they’re serious about prosperity outside London and put forward an offer to the UK’s deindustrialising regions which also responds to the climate crisis. The next ten years must see two urgent challenges coming together: moving rapidly towards net-zero emissions while restoring nature, and closing the economic gap between London, the South East, and pretty much everywhere else. That means not trading off communities and leaving workers in places like Yorkshire & the Humber on the scrap heap in the dash to decarbonise.
A Green New Deal – a plan first put together by NEF and others in 2007, and so far supported in this election by Labour, the Greens and the SNP – is the answer. It would use the full power of the state to invest not just in green job creation and direct capital investment in clean infrastructure, but also explicitly target that job creation at the places that most need it. Critically it is the opposite of industrial policy done to people and communities; instead it will be done with and by them. It would be guided by the principles of the ‘just transition’ – putting the needs and voices of those most affected by change at the very heart of the process. This time can and must be different: the urgency of climate breakdown, and the crisis of trust in institutions, demand it.