Scotland’s Just Transition Commission: Guiding a Green Recovery and Seizing the Climate Opportunity
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In September 2018, the Government of Scotland established a Just Transition Commission to recommend how to maximize the economic and social opportunities of decarbonization and mitigate risks from the transition. The Commission’s final report is due in January 2021, but based on a process of inclusive dialogue, it has already released several reports, including advice for the COVID-19 pandemic recovery. The Commission’s work to date stands out for its stakeholder engagement and how it connected the just transition with broader policy priorities, from the concept of “fair work” to peatland restoration and reforestation. Looking ahead, however, it is unclear whether the Commission will stay active beyond its initial two-year mandate, or whether there will be sufficient resources to implement its recommendations.
Scotland has ambitious climate goals, including net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. As of April 2019, Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions were 49% below 1990 levels, with progress in decarbonizing the power sector contributing most of the emissions reductions. In October 2019, the country adopted the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act with some of the world’s most ambitious climate targets: a 75% emission reduction by 2030 from 1990 levels, and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. In September 2020, the Scottish Government announced a Green New Deal for Scotland, which would create a £3 billion ($3.9 billion) package of investments from the Scottish National Investment Bank in order to attract green finance to Scotland.
Scotland also has a large oil and gas sector that has struggled in recent years, an aging workforce, and an economy that increasingly requires high-skilled labor. The oil and gas sector, which represented about 5% of Scotland’s GDP in 2019, has faced challenges in recent years due to declining oil and gas prices, with the impact felt particularly in North East Scotland. This region had the strongest growth in the country in 1998–2008, 3.7% per year, but declined to only 0.6% per year in 2010–2017. Economic growth overall has been subdued, due in part to the oil and gas sector’s difficulties, as well as Brexit, slow population growth and weak growth in household incomes. In February 2020, the Scottish Fiscal Commission had forecast annual GDP growth of 1.0 to 1.2% for 2020–2024, but due to COVID-19, the economy contracted in 2020 and may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.
In Scotland, the net job gain between 2018 and 2028 is expected to be only 85,000, with more than half of openings requiring some higher education. Overall, the greatest job growth is expected in private sector services and construction, while manufacturing, the public sector, agriculture and mining are projected to lose jobs. This means that a just transition may require helping workers gain new skills and shift among industries.
Policies, Actions and Results
Even before the Climate Change Act, the Scottish government faced growing calls for a just transition as it pursued its climate goals. In September 2018, it established the Just Transition Commission (JTC) to advise on transitioning all sectors of the Scottish economy to become net-zero emissions and more inclusive (including through the implementation of the new climate law). Launched in January 2019, the Commission is slated to release its final report by January 2021, ahead of the parliamentary election and COP26 in Glasgow. The Commission is working in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s recovery efforts.
The Commission was asked to provide practical, independent and affordable recommendations on how to apply the ILO Just Transition Principles to Scotland’s forward-looking workforce development and industry-specific transitions, including the oil and gas industry. This includes recommendations on how to:
- Maximize the economic and social opportunities offered by the transition to a net-zero economy by 2045.
- Build on Scotland’s existing strengths and assets.
- Understand and mitigate risks relating to regional cohesion, equalities, poverty (including fuel poverty) and a sustainable and inclusive labor market.
The Commission will report to the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Communities, and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work, and Culture. The 12 members of the Commission represent varying interests, perspectives and expertise on the challenges related to a just transition, including academia, unions, industry (including oil, gas and renewable energy, chemical processes, waste recycling and farming) and climate and environmental NGOs. The Commission members are remunerated and supported by a secretariat.
The Commission first released Just Transition: Comparative Perspectives in August 2020 with theoretical discussion and case studies from Canada, Germany, Peru, Norway and the United States, with Norway and Peru seen as the most relevant to the Scottish situation because of their significant oil and forestry industries, respectively, which Scotland shares.
The Commission was tasked to work in an open and transparent manner and to engage meaningfully with workers, communities, NGOs, businesses, climate-related public institutions (such as the UK’s Climate Change Committee) and other relevant bodies. To inform its recommendations, it conducted site visits and series of meetings with unions, communities and various industries. In June 2020, an online consultation called for input from the widest possible range of individuals, representative bodies, public bodies and businesses. By the end of 2020, written responses from 268 stakeholders had been posted online.
Before that consultation, in February 2020, the Commission published an Interim Report, highlighting areas that require immediate action to be on track with national climate change targets. The report called for three elements to lay the foundation for a just transition:
- Clean transition plans, jointly developed and owned by the government, industry, trade unions, consumer groups and other relevant stakeholders, with a roadmap of actions and specific investments in infrastructure and skills development;
- Proactive and ongoing dialogue to understand society’s expectations relating to the transition, inform individuals about their roles and inform the companies about the impact of the transition as well as emerging economic opportunities;
- An equity-focused approach to all climate policies, so that the benefits are shared widely and the costs do not unfairly burden those least able to pay, or those whose livelihoods are at risk.
The report highlights challenges, including a lack of awareness among workers about the strategic plans prepared with oil and gas companies, a lack of engagement of local communities and equity concerns in the transport and health sectors. The Commission warned that if climate action is unfair (or perceived as such), the government could face backlash like the gilets jaunes protests in France.
The report also highlighted four areas of opportunity:
- Making climate policy more inclusive by mainstreaming the concept of “fair work,” placing equity at the heart of the Climate Change Plan update, investing in research on the transition, creating a Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan and establishing a Citizens Assembly on climate change.
- Placing the climate emergency at the heart of spending decisions.
- Accelerating the transition to sustainable practices in heating, infrastructure, agriculture and the oil and gas industry, through measures including expanding energy efficiency retrofits and fuel poverty programs while increasing building energy efficiency standards, and collaborating with the oil and gas industry to research cost-effective deployment of technologies such as carbon capture and hydrogen fuels.
- Promoting a just transition at COP26.
Upon request from the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, in July 2020 the Commission also published Advice for a Green Recovery through a just transition lens. It called for aligning COVID-19 recovery plans with the net-zero target, since those investments and policy decisions will have long-term impacts. The Commission warns against emissions lock-in and urged the government to make decisions consistent with its ambitions on just transition, for instance by linking aid to companies’ commitments to transition planning and by including economic and social justice considerations in recovery plans.
The publication identified four “hot spots” that merit particular attention: youth; public transport; the oil and gas sector; and rural sectors and regions. Recommendations include to: boost investment in efficient home heating; expand, improve and electrify bus services; keep oil and gas workers employed through a decommissioning program and accelerated deployment of low-carbon energy technologies; support rural economies by investing in nature, especially tree-planting and peatland restoration and by helping Scotland’s nature; align skills development — for people of all ages — with the net-zero transition; and give a clear sense of direction and attach conditions to funding to avoid “locking in” emissions.
The JTC’s Interim Report and Advice for a Green Recovery were welcomed by the Scottish Trade Union Congress and many sectoral unions, including Sustrans Scotland, Unison and Unite Unions. Many of them built on the JTC’s advice to strengthen their demands. Some of the JTC’s recommendations are reflected in the Government’s 2020–21 Programme measures, announced in September 2020. The plans include a £1.6 billion ($2.07 billion) investment to improve building efficiency and tackle fuel poverty; a £100 million ($129.5 million) Green Job Fund; £60 million ($77.7 million) to help industrial and manufacturing sectors decarbonize and diversify; the expansion of public apprenticeship and undergraduate schemes to boost youth employment in nature-based jobs; and £70 million ($90 million) to improve waste collection infrastructure, improve recycling and achieve a circular economy.
- Economy-wide, long-term approach: The Commission looks far beyond just transitioning oil and gas workers. The analysis and recommendations take a wide-ranging approach to leveraging Scotland’s assets and strengths to respond to economic trends and realize ambitious climate targets, from improving home heating efficiency, to prioritizing “Fair Work,” to restoring peatlands.
- Whole-of-government support: The Just Transition Commission’s remit cuts across cabinet portfolios and connects with their existing work, and built on previous efforts including the Oil and Gas Just Transition Training Fund.
Inclusive engagement: The Commission’s meetings and consultation mobilize a wide and diverse range of stakeholders to inform its recommendations. This engagement has fostered debate among unions, industries and the government about their priorities for a just transition.
Challenges and Gaps
- Uncertainty about the future of the Commission: The Commission’s original two-year mandate would end in early 2021. A coalition of trade unions and environmental organizations, as well as Labour environment spokeswoman Claudia Beamish, have asked the Scottish government to extend the mandate and give it a statutory footing (independent status) so that it can guide the longer-term transition of workers and local economies. It is not clear where funding for the Commission or transition measures would come from in the longer-term, which is compounded by the economic uncertainties of Brexit.
- Room for improvement in connecting with the public: The Commission doesn’t receive much media coverage, and its reports could improve their analysis on roles of non-governmental actors such as the private sector, civil society or NGOs.