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Jim Skea: If change is forced on people there’s a real risk that it isn’t going to happen

Photo credit: World Meteorological Organisation

Jim Skea: If change is forced on people there’s a real risk that it isn’t going to happen

The closure of Scotland’s coalmines forty years ago provides a stark lesson in how not to handle climate change. The scars of the 80s are still felt today, with the Coalfields Regeneration Trust saying former coalmining communities “continue to experience multiple forms of disadvantage”.

Keeping global warming under two degrees will require big changes – but doing so without regard to inequalities or the communities that will be most affected by transition will ultimately threaten our ability to achieve net zero.

“Fairness and climate ambition must go hand in hand,” reads the final report of Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, chaired by Professor Jim Skea. “We are in no doubt that climate action can bring multiple benefits, including quality green jobs and improved social inclusion. But past experience leaves us in no doubt that for these benefits to be realised, we must plan and be prepared to take decisive action.”

Skea led that Commission between 2019 and 2021, tasked with “advising on a net zero economy that is fair for all”. Now he has been invited back to chair its successor which will scrutinise the Scottish Government as it seeks to deliver just transition.

He tells Holyrood he is encouraged by what he has seen so far – particularly the appointment of Richard Lochhead as just transition minister. “With an issue like just transition it touches on so many other policy areas, it gets everywhere. And that’s really one of the challenges and why you need a coordinating minister and coordinating mechanisms to actually make it happen,” Skea says.

The remit and membership of the Commission 2.0 is still being worked out, but one of its first tasks will be to scrutinise a series of sector-specific plans. Skea, who was born in Broughty Ferry and went to Edinburgh University, is well aware of the challenges. “If you count off the sectors, there’s quite a lot to be done, even for the length of a parliamentary term which is how long the new Just Transition Commission has been set up for. We are going to be very busy and I think some of the activities are definitely going to have to overlap, we can’t tick them off one by one. It is going to need a bit of multitasking to get the job done.”

There’s all sorts of other things that need to be done. How you pay for that, and how you encourage people to make their contribution to that payment, is going to be one of the big challenges

A plan for energy is first in the queue and it’s a prime example of why transition to net zero must be just. It will need to cover how the government plans to end reliance on oil and gas, including how to support North Sea workers into other jobs, as well as reducing demand. While good progress has been made in decarbonising electricity, Skea says this was an “easier box to tick” than other areas, like heating.

He says: “One of the dominant areas is probably going to have to be the use of heat pumps in buildings, electric heat pumps, but that involves changes because they produce water at a lower temperature than a gas-fired boiler, which means to keep your home warm you need to insulate it better so there’s all sorts of other things that need to be done. How you pay for that, and how you encourage people to make their contribution to that payment, is going to be one of the big challenges.”

The Scottish Government recently published its strategy for decarbonising heating, which it estimates will cost £33bn. Homeowners will be expected to pick up some of the tab. Skea says just transition is necessary because “it’s principled, but it’s also pragmatic”.

“You look at the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) in France,” he says. “If change is forced on people against their wishes, if they’re not actually part of it and feel in control of it, then there’s a real risk that it isn’t going to happen. The transition bit won’t happen, never mind the just bit.”

While there is clearly appetite from the public to tackle climate change, the depth of that support will be challenged as more of the burden falls to them.

It will also require people who currently work in carbon-heavy sectors to think about retraining. The good news here, Skea says, is plenty of workers will already have the right skills for the green economy and it will simply require removing barriers. “For example, if you’re a diver on a North Sea oil rig you cannot use that qualification to be a diver on an offshore renewables platform. You need to get recertification and training to do it.

“Now, everybody tells us that that training is not terribly useful because it’s grandmother-sucking-eggs kind of training, so one of the ideas we’ve got is this idea of skills passports that would allow skills that people have acquired in one sector to move over to another sector in an easier way.”

Scotland definitely has a nice story to tell in that we’ve talked the talk – I think Just Transition Commission 2 is about walking the walk

Skea, who received a CBE for his work in sustainable energy, points to plenty of similarities between oil and gas and emerging technologies in renewables, hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. Indeed, he is more concerned about skills gaps in the retrofit programme. “The improvement of houses has now gone beyond putting a few extra centimetres of insulation in the loft. We’re looking for much more challenging, deeper retrofits, and I think there will be apprentice-level skills that need to be developed to take that through.”

Looming over both retraining and home improvements is the broad question of, who pays? It is a question troubling not just Scotland, but the world. The just transition agenda was one of the themes of COP24 three years ago, and since then Scotland has been leading the way.

“Scotland definitely has a nice story to tell in that we’ve talked the talk – I think Just Transition Commission 2 is about walking the walk – but we have done a lot there and there’s been a huge amount of interest in what’s being done in Scotland,” says Skea. Indeed, even within the UK, he says the Committee on Climate Change (of which he is a founding member) is “constantly pointing at Scotland and telling the UK government it should do more the Scottish way.”

But a big part of COP26 will be about the $100bn climate finance commitment to help developing countries both with their transition to net zero and resilience measures. Despite recent pledges, most notably from President Joe Biden who said the US would double its contribution, that $100bn target is set to be missed. It’s becoming a big trust issue for poorer nations, who do not want existing global inequalities to be exacerbated by transition.

While Skea is chair of the IPCC working group looking at limiting emissions, he also warns that much of the financing provided so far is too focused on this part of fighting climate change. He says: “Frankly, if you’re in a drought stricken sub-Saharan African country or in some of the low-lying countries in the South Pacific or the Caribbean, then this issue of getting money for resilience and adapting to the impacts of climate change is a priority.

“The world is going to warm up more than it is at the moment, that’s certain regardless of how much we do on emission reductions. We can already see the impacts of climate change, even with the current level of warming.

“So, this question of adaptation and resilience is also important – it’s not just the headline emission reductions, which I have to say tends to dominate, maybe over-dominate, in developed countries.”

Meanwhile, these tricky discussions are happening at a time where economies are recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. The first Just Transition Commission published its own report on a green recovery in summer 2020.

“A point we made was that Scotland, like every other society, has existing injustices in it … [but] you can actually use just transition while you’re thinking about these kinds of issues. Let’s look at how you address these existing inequalities, as well as worrying about new inequalities that you might be creating.”

The pursuit of a wellbeing economy and not relying on traditional measures of success (such as GDP growth) fed into this work, as did the fair work agenda and labour market changes.

But Skea believes there are other things to be learnt from the pandemic too, particularly in terms of balancing the free market and government intervention. “In the pandemic we’ve seen a shift to planning which has been essential. Given the speed of change that we need to make to deal with climate change, net zero by 2045 – this is less than 25 years away now, less than a generation – I think to get change going at that speed will also need more planned approaches while taking account of the way that you can use market devices to do it in the most efficient way.”

There’s a lot to be getting on with and not much time to do it. But Skea emphasises the need to think optimistically. “It’s quite an important point, from the other bit of my life on the IPCC, to say we should not get over-distracted by ‘what if we fail’, because even if we don’t succeed in reaching all these targets, the extra effort you make will still make a difference and prevent a situation from getting worse than it otherwise would have been.”

As for Scotland’s just transition specifically?

“As far as I know, Scotland is the only country in the world that has a just transition minister to try to pull it all together. Obviously, that doesn’t make just transition happen by itself, but it’s created the opportunities, the levers are there to be pulled to actually make it happen. It’s up to us now, it’s up to the Scottish Government, it’s up to the new Just Transition Commission, to press it forward and take advantage of these opportunities.

“But [also] remembering it’s not all just up to us. We called our report A National Mission for a Fairer, Greener Scotland. The national mission message was it’s not just government that can do it – it’s community groups, it’s citizens, it’s businesses, it’s trade unions, it’s everybody that needs to be engaged in it.

“The fact the Scottish Government then took the title of our report and used it for their programme for government that came out in September, we were very flattered. You can see our agenda’s being taken seriously.”

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