Tackling climate change is the major economic, social and political challenge of our time. After a summer of raging wildfires and extreme flooding that has devastated countries around the world, it is clear that the effects of global heating are worsening, and the urgency of cutting emissions is growing. Contrary to Rishi Sunak’s claim that climate policies will ‘impose unacceptable costs on hard-pressed British families’, decarbonising the economy could actually drive a far-reaching economic transformation that builds a fairer, more equal society.
However, the challenge of decarbonisation is especially daunting in the UK because of our terrible track record of economic and environmental transition. The decline of British manufacturing and heavy industry in the late twentieth century led to swathes of job losses, which devastated entire communities. To ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, any government that is serious about tackling climate change must put the interests of workers front and centre.
No Unjust Transitions
British politicians often celebrate the fact that the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions dropped faster than any other major economy in the decades after 1990. That sharp reduction was driven by the rapid decline of the coal industry. Boris Johnson notoriously praised Margaret Thatcher for giving the UK a ‘big early start’ on cutting emissions by ‘closing so many coal mines’, but it’s no secret that for Thatcher, this was not about tackling climate change. Rather, her focus was on breaking the back of organised labour in her government’s battle with striking miners.
While the indirect effect of her war against Britain’s industrial unions was a reduction in the UK’s emissions, this was mostly achieved by aggressive, painful deindustrialisation. The effects are still felt to this day, with towns that once depended on coal now reliant on low-paid, precarious work for multinational corporations like Amazon. It’s a history that we must not repeat in the process of tackling climate change. While Thatcher capitalised on deindustrialisation to crush the power of trade unions, decarbonising the economy can do the opposite — giving workers greater power over the economic decisions which affect them and allowing unions to fight for their interests.
Unfortunately, there are signs that this government is already ignoring the lessons of history. Their recent deal with Tata Steel is the latest development in Britain’s inglorious trend of driving economic change in the interests of businesses but at the expense of workers. Steel is an industry which could thrive in a decarbonising economy because it is an essential material for green infrastructure like wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles. Steelmaking will continue in Port Talbot after a deal was finally reached between the government and the multinational Tata Group, but workers and trade unions are concerned that the agreement is likely to result in thousands of job losses.
The failure to protect jobs in Port Talbot has multiple causes. One glaringly obvious factor is the sheer length of time it has taken to negotiate the deal. It is more than a year since Tata announced that it would close unprofitable UK sites without government support and more than three years since unions first sounded the alarm about potential job losses. Yet most concerning of all is that workers and their trade unions were not involved at any stage in the deal between the government and Tata.
Steelworkers have themselves campaigned for rapid decarbonisation of their industry, and trade unions have proposed plans to make steel production zero carbon. In the Tata negotiations, they were ignored. Speaking after the announcement, assistant general secretary of the Community trade union Alasdair McDiarmid told the BBC he believes that ‘Tata and the government’s focus has been on rushing through the cheapest and easiest deal.’
No wonder some trade unions are nervous about decarbonisation. American trade unionists go as far as to privately describe the UK as a ‘cautionary tale’. While the government’s Climate Change Committee predicts that the shift toward a net zero economy will create more jobs than are lost, the UK’s efforts to ensure a just transition have been fragmented and, at times, entirely absent. The GMB has long voiced concern about the fate of its members working in oil and gas, while Unite recently announced it would pivot to campaigning for a just transition for workers in the North Sea.
Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), summarised the view of most trade unions when he warned TUC Congress that ‘without strong unions, the shift to net zero will see good jobs destroyed’. To assuage their concerns, any government that is serious about tackling climate change must reassure unions that the security of their members is not in jeopardy. That means giving them a clear picture of what the net zero transition will look like and committing to involving them at every stage.
The precondition for decarbonising the economy in a way which makes the country more equal is that the state must take a more active role in maximising the benefits and minimising the risks for workers. That means governments should implement policies which cut emissions while protecting the interests of those working in polluting industries.
Empower Workers, Fight Climate Change
Major economies are coalescing around an economic approach described as ‘green industrial strategy’ to achieve these aims. In the US, Joe Biden’s administration passed legislation which provides subsidies to private businesses starting renewable projects. Companies receive higher subsidies when they provide higher wages, sign collective bargaining agreements with unions and provide childcare for their employees. The EU has developed its own green industrial strategy, which focuses on helping workers to transition out of work in high-polluting industries.
Biden’s approach has benefited workers in some cases. A partnership between the United Mine Workers of America and renewables battery manufacturer Sparkz means that the majority of jobs at an upcoming battery plant in West Virginia will be reserved for former miners. However, his administration failed to ensure that workers and their unions were protected by the law after political opposition from both Republicans and Democrats. As a result, the vast majority of American electric vehicle manufacturing plants pay low wages and are not unionised despite being publicly funded. Even businesses tainted with accidents, alleged wage theft and reported on-the-job deaths have received public money.
There are lessons to learn for workers in the UK. The first is that, without a state-led economic strategy for decarbonisation, workers risk being left behind in the global fight against climate change. Both IPPR and the TUC are calling for a UK equivalent to Biden’s industrial policies. Without a government-led plan, we could see hundreds of thousands of jobs being offshored.
Of equal importance is the involvement of workers and unions in designing climate policies. The US example demonstrates that industrial policies must be matched by new laws which strengthen workers’ rights and build the power of trade unions. IPPR believes that the UK should go beyond the US and introduce legislation which mandates that workers and their unions must be involved at every stage of decarbonisation. Worker-led ‘fair transition agreements’ would ensure that no one currently working in heavily polluting sectors is forced to sacrifice their pay, conditions or position as a result of decarbonisation.
Ultimately, policies which tackle climate change must be implemented in the interests of the people whose livelihoods will be affected by them. Decarbonisation is going to drive one of the most far-reaching economic shifts of the coming decades, but while deindustrialisation was driven at the expense of workers and their communities, this time, the interests of workers must be of paramount importance. The opportunity to build a fairer, more equal society is too good to miss.