Trade unions and civil society are pushing for ambitious climate action in Scotland

On 16 November 2017, hundreds of workers from the Scottish manufacturing firm BiFab marched to the Holyrood parliament building in Edinburgh to call on the Scottish government to protect 1,400 jobs after the company faced going into administration. On 21 October 2020, the Scottish government withdrew a £30 million financial guarantee to make offshore wind jackets at BiFab, in a move that will result in the loss of 450 jobs. (Steven Scott Taylor/Alamy Live News)

As Glasgow prepares to host COP26, the UN climate summit in November 2021, Scotland will take centre stage in the global power struggle surrounding if and how the world takes urgent action to halt rising temperatures and accelerating environmental destruction. On one hand are the high-carbon corporations (just 100 multinationals are estimated to be the source of 71 per cent of emissions between 1988 and 2015) and governments who seem content to tinker around the edges of the current economic system, despite it having led to temperatures now on average over 1.2˚C over pre-industrial levels. On the other hand is a growing alliance of nations, civil society organisations, academics, activists and forward-thinking business leaders who are demanding transformative change to secure a sustainable future for people and planet.

The stakes are incredibly high. COP26 was supposed to happen in 2020 as this year is the year when countries will present their emission reductions targets (also known as National Determined Contributions, or NDCs) based on the Paris Agreement pledges made in 2015. If the world is to “reach net-zero emissions as soon as possible”, which is one of the stated aims of COP26, this meeting will need to harness extraordinary climate ambition to create and sustain unprecedented climate action.

For the Scottish labour movement, led by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), COP26 offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that Scotland’s world-leading emissions targets put a just transition for workers and communities at the centre of all policies, investments and implementation.

Scotland has already committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, five years ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom, which became the first major economy to write its net-zero emissions target into law. But for unions and civil society, the COP is a means to “exert real pressure from below to change the narrative,” writes Francis Stuart, a policy officer at the STUC, in a February 2020 article for the Poverty Alliance, with a raft of interlocking policy ideas ranging from equitable emission reduction targets (both within nations and internationally) to universal public services and a global living wage.

When it comes to turning just transition talk into action, what happens now to North Sea oil and gas workers is of crucial importance. The total revenue of oil and gas produced in Scotland in 2018 was an estimated £24.8 billion. In 2014, it employed 41,300 workers directly with an estimated 463,900 indirect jobs. By 2018, this declined to 30,400 direct and 259,900 indirect jobs. Due to Covid-19’s impact, in March 2020 direct employment plummeted further to 23,000, with no exact figures yet published of how many indirect jobs Scotland’s North Sea oil currently supports.

Scotland’s devolved government (the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood can pass laws on devolved matters such as education, housing and issues pertaining to day-to-day life in Scotland, while the UK Parliament at Westminster can pass laws on so-called ‘reserved matters’ of UK-wide or international significance, such as offshore licensing and taxation) describes the industry as “integral to a sustainable, secure and inclusive energy transition”. Although job precarity and frequent redundancies are built into the boom-bust cycle under which the industry operates, things took a dramatic turn for the worst this year with the double blow of 20-year-low oil prices and the devastating fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic.

In March 2020 alone, 3,500 people lost their jobs in the offshore industry, while a September 2020 survey of 1,383 oil and gas offshore workers (representing 4.5 per cent of the current workforce) conducted by environmental campaign groups Platform London, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Scotland (FoES) showed that 42.8 per cent of offshore workers have been furloughed or made redundant since March.

In April, the sector’s trade body, Oil and Gas UK, warned that up to 30,000 industry jobs could be lost over the next 18 months. And if, as some analysts are predicting, the collapse in demand for oil and gas seen this year due to global Covid lockdowns becomes a catalyst for the terminal decline of fossil fuel industries, then now is the time to implement the social, environmental and labour policies that will ensure that the transition to renewable energy leaves no-one behind.

Campaigner Gabrielle Jeliazkov from Platform London spearheaded the survey and report titled Offshore: Oil and gas workers’ views on industry conditions and the energy transition which was published on 29 September. It found that 91 per cent of respondents had not heard of the concept of just transition, demonstrating just how far there is to go before it becomes a society-wide process. But Jeliazkov tells Equal Times that even if they don’t know the term, workers are intimately familiar with the impacts. As such, any truly just transition must be worker-led: “Oil and gas communities need to steer the way so that we can avoid repeating the disaster that was the phase-out of coal. Workers’ demands must guide policy, they have the lived experience and right to plan their futures. Anything less will not deliver a just transition.”

Green jobs: high on ambition

One of the most important tools to secure workers a seat at the green economy table has been the Just Transition Partnership. Formed in 2016 by the STUC and FoES with other members including various Scottish trade unions and environmental organisations, the Partnership meets regularly to discuss how best to frame just transition in the areas it works on, as well as lobbying the Scottish government. It also offers a chance for the organisations to discuss their individual foci, while bringing other allies into the discussion on specific topics.

In September 2018, thanks to pressure from the Just Transition Partnership, a national taskforce was announced to advise how to decarbonise Scotland’s economy in a fair manner. The Just Transition Commission (JTC), headed by Professor Jim Skea, has 12 members with backgrounds ranging from climate science to business, unions, academia and environmentalism. In the lead-up to presenting its final report to the Scottish government early next year, taskforce members have met regularly while undertaking community engagement.

On 27 February 2020 the Commission published an interim report, which appealed for the Scottish government to use COP26 as an opportunity to promote its just transition approach. The report also called on the government to take decisive action before the publication of the final report. So far, Holyrood seems to be listening. For example, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the government announced a £2 billion Low Carbon Fund to deliver Scotland’s transition to net zero, as well as a £100 million Green Jobs Fund to create 100,000 decent jobs over the next decade.

However, one theme that seems to repeat itself is that the Scottish government goes further after pressure from trade unions and civil society. From the outset of the Commission, the STUC and its allies reiterated the importance of meaningful engagement with workers and unions.

For example, Platform London addressed the JTC during one of its regular meetings in late spring 2020. About this session, Skea told Equal Times: “One of the messages we got was that people that were working for the [oil and gas] industry are very keen to move into a world where there is more security around their job.”

To keep up the pressure on the Commission, Platform, Greenpeace and FoES are planning a nationwide series of workshops to enable “energy workers to draft policy demands for a transition that works for them”. Whether these findings will further guide the JTC’s findings remains to be seen but speaking to Equal Times in September Skea said that the Commission “will be looking at it with a lot of interest”.

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As a party to COP it will be the UK government that submits its NDCs to the international climate negotiations process, not Scotland. However, Scotland’s Climate Change Act is effectively Scotland’s pledge towards the UK’s aims, and here it has shown much greater ambition. The UK’s 2019 Amendment (focusing on its 2050 target) to its 2008 Climate Change Act, for example, does not reference just transition while Scotland’s does, thanks to the lobbying efforts of trade unions and civil society. And while the UK has committed itself to net-zero emissions by 2050, Scotland has set into law emission reduction targets of 70 per cent by 2030 and net-zero by 2045.

BiFab: a lost opportunity marked by “political failure”

Scotland has been widely lauded for its successes to date, including trebling renewable electricity generation over the last decade. But so far this transition has not come with the promised jobs. Office of National Statistics data shows that despite earlier promises of 130,000 low-carbon and renewable energy jobs by 2020, between 2014-2018 green jobs actually fell from 23,400 to 23,100.

“Scotland has succeeded in terms of generating power from onshore wind energy, but the opportunities in terms of providing jobs for Scotland and the UK supply chain have been pretty dismal,” says Dave Moxham, the deputy general secretary of the STUC. Moxham, who also sits on the Just Transition Commission, says: “What is required is a transition plan that marries up the decline of offshore oil production with the predicted exponential growth of offshore wind.”

Environmentalists and unions have united behind Scottish companies in their attempts to make a green transition, but their ambition is not always matched with political will. One example is Burntisland Fabrications (BiFab), a Fife-based company that previously focused on the superstructures of oil rigs, but now also makes jackets for offshore wind turbines, as well as working on the decommissioning of oil rigs.

On 21 October 2020, the Scottish government withdrew a £30 million financial guarantee to make offshore wind jackets at BiFab, in a move that will result in the loss of 450 jobs. According to the Scottish government, EU state aid rules (restrictions to ensure that government resources are not used to distort competition between member states, an issue which has become a major sticking point in the Brexit negotiations) means they cannot guarantee work to a specific company. The GMB and Unite unions are demanding that the government makes the legal advice on which this decision rests public.

GMB Scotland secretary Gary Smith and Unite Scotland secretary Pat Rafferty described the collapse of BiFab as a “political failure” and said in a joint statement: “It looks like the Scottish government ministers have walked away from our best chance of building a meaningful offshore wind manufacturing sector, and in doing so has extinguished the hopes of communities in Fife and Lewis who were banking their future prosperity on it.” In late October 2020, the Just Transition Commission wrote to the Scottish government to do all it can to guarantee BiFab’s future.

Previously, BiFab faced administration in late 2017. Then, hundreds of BiFab workers, backed by Unite and GMB, occupied three sites and staged a work-in before marching on to the Scottish Parliament in a bid to save 1,400 jobs. In response, Scotland’s government bought a stake in BiFab, but the problems continued. Orders dried up again in 2019, so the Just Transition Partnership and social movements around it joined workers for more protests, including outside the French energy supplier EDF.

“EDF was going to ship all 54 jackets for an offshore wind farm – just 15 miles from the BiFab yard – from Indonesia,” explained Stuart of the STUC in September. After pressure exerted by environmentalists and unions, BiFab was granted a deal to build eight of the 54 jackets. However, it was this deal that collapsed on 21 October. The future of BiFab will again be decided by the Scottish government, which has left workers and local communities feeling betrayed and “absolutely furious”.

What’s more, another contract for 84 turbine jackets for an offshore windfarm project just a few kilometres away from two BiFab yards, has been won by a Chinese company, leading GMB Scotland organiser Hazel Nolan to declare: “Scraps off the table from our own offshore wind sector is bad enough but when billion pound fabrication contracts are wholly completed abroad and then shipped to the waters off Scotland, you know that any credible prospects for a green economic recovery are sailing by.”

In the UK, unions want to change Contracts for Difference, which is a UK scheme to supports renewable energy generation, to ensure that locally made content is included. A similar battleground for Scottish unions surrounds Crown Estate powers.

Crown Estate Scotland, a devolved authority that manages public land and sea, will issue leases for new offshore wind farms in late 2020 for the first time in over a decade. This provides an opportunity for Scotland to meet its just transition ambitions by responding to recommendations in STUC’s report Scotland’s renewable job crisis and Covid-19, published in June 2020. The report sets out how Scotland’s expansion into renewables has so far failed to create new jobs: instead multinational companies tend to dominate the Scottish renewables sector, using supply chains that rely on poor quality, largely overseas jobs.

The STUC continues to lobby the Scottish government about utilising its Crown Estate powers. One success to come out of meetings with Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, is that companies must now write a supply chain statement to declare where parts and components are made. However, Stuart says the guidance needs to be strengthened and enforced to ensure that the majority are built in Scotland.

Stringent regulation and public ownership

For Jeliazkov of Platform London, the September worker survey illustrated the dangers faced by offshore workers. “BP’s recent announcement that they are moving into renewables is frightening. Precarity, poor conditions and low pay will follow wherever BP or Shell go.” Jeliazkov says that more stringent regulation is the bare minimum to improve the situation, ideally with public ownership, demands echoed by the STUC and FoES.

Jeliazkov raises another regulatory issue: “One of the biggest problems for workers moving into offshore wind is having to repeat the same training they did for offshore oil. Almost every worker asks: ‘why should I spend thousands more pounds getting certificates such as embarking/disembarking from boats?’” On this point, Stuart of STUC says: “A lack of sectoral bargaining agreements means you have different conditions and training requirements. We need a more planned approach and are campaigning for just transition sectoral plans.” Technically, sectoral bargaining is a UK-controlled competency, but Stuart says there is room for creativity for the Scottish government, for instance only funding companies that recognise union bargaining agreements.

And speaking of training, the Offshore report revealed that 81.7 per cent of North Sea oil and gas workers said they would consider moving to a job outside of the industry, but if given the option to retrain more than half would be interested in renewables and offshore wind.

Another recommendation from the JTC interim report is that all training initiatives announced by the government – such as the £100 million post-covid package for young people (which is separate from the Green Jobs Fund) – should prioritise low and zero-carbon work.

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The Just Transition Partnership is also calling for a publicly owned energy company, which the Scottish government has agreed to establish by 2021. However, “they need more ambition,” according to Ryan Morrison a campaigner at FoES. “The aim is a retail and supply company. Instead we need a well-capitalised public energy company that could support offshore wind and renewables projects, support local supply chains and at the same time reduce energy prices to tackle Scotland’s fuel poverty.”

Trade unions and environmentalists have spelled out the small print they would like to see accompany headline changes, from public investment to public control to re-regulation. In response, Professor Skea says that the JTC does not want to produce “bland” high level recommendations that give no guidance. “We must keep the recommendations actionable, but we recognise our limitations. We cannot get into the intricacies of making detailed recommendations about how specific regulations can be structured. It does create the issue of what happens after March 2021 [when the final JTC report is published] and that is going to be very much up to the new government that is elected next year after the [May 2021 Scottish] elections.”

But Morrison says that this pivotal moment is the time for great ambition: “This needs to be about a massive industrial transformation, where the government aligns every lever, all investment and every power at its disposal to take this forward.”

Towards a transition that’s fair for all

Despite the challenges, Scotland has made progress. “Scotland has stretched the concept of just transition. In many countries it is about how you get out of coal. Instead, we are already looking at broader issues, such as what happens to oil and gas, and the consumption side of the economy. We are picking up retrofitting homes, investment in energy efficiency and low-carbon heat supplies for homes,” Professor Skea says.

One area of uncertainty is Brexit, which is the ‘elephant in the room’ for the Commission. “Manifestly Brexit has huge implications,” says Skea, “but it is a bit like Scottish weather and midges [small flying insects with irritating bites]: it’s there in the background. For Scotland, a big question is how are powers that come back from Brussels resettled and divided between the parts of the UK.”

And while the UK has been lauded for its climate ambition – it was the first major economy to sign up to the Paris Agreement – there is a growing chasm between Scotland and Westminster. As well as reigniting calls for Scottish independence, Brexit is an English-backed, London-centred project underwritten by climate deniers, alongside those with interests in private healthcare and hedge funds.

Despite claiming to be a ‘green Tory’, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet is populated with climate deniers, while during his leadership campaign he received a £25,000 donation from powerful climate sceptics. Given that his administration has been so willing to breach international law over Brexit, there are danger signs that the UK, led by Johnson, could in the future abandon its climate change commitments. The inconsistencies in his approach can be evidenced by his recent pledge to make the UK a “world leader in clean wind energy” by 2030. Yet during the same week, his government failed to use its powers to blocka new deep coal mine in Cumbria, which would be the UK’s first such mine in 30 years.

All these moving parts in the UK mean a great deal of uncertainty for Scotland as its climate action depends on three levels of competencies: the EU, the UK and Scotland. The Scottish government, led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party, has shown its great willingness to diverge from Westminster, for example, in its handling of Covid-19.

In contrast to Brexit, the pandemic has taken centre stage in the Commission’s work, including its Green Recovery Report, published July 2020. One recommendation is that Scotland should spend the £500m that has been allocated for public transport, including buying electric buses for the Glasgow COP. Competition rules mean the JTC cannot advise what bus building company to contract. However, Unite the Union welcomed the recommendation as potentially good news for Falkirk-based bus builders Alexander Dennis, which has a partnership with the Netherlands-based green mobility leaders BYD Europe to build electric vehicles. It has been forced to make redundancies after Covid-19 reduced demand overnight, but winning a contract to build buses for the COP could turn its fortunes around.

Investing in electric buses would support jobs from manufacturing to driving. It could spur on a switch from fossil fuels to renewables, as transport constitutes the largest proportion of Scotland’s carbon footprint. Good public transport is also a place where social, environmental and economic justice meet, explains Ellie Harrison. She is chair of Get Glasgow Moving, (GGM) a campaign for decent public transport in the city where less than half of its households have cars, according to the last census.

“Those on lower incomes, women, young and elderly people disproportionately rely on public transport and suffer from the city’s terrible public transport system. It is not just the fragmented nature [of the transport system], it is the cost and the unreliability of services. The poverty premium is really apparent,” Harrison explains. GGM is organising to change this. Its calls include public ownership and control as a means towards a fair shift from fossils to renewable power, including a publicly owned bus company for Greater Glasgow.

“If they spend £500m on a bus fleet it must remain in public ownership” says Harrison. “Since devolution, Scotland has been wasting public money on private bus companies. This must stop. We need complete control to deliver the public transport system we need to shift vast numbers of people out of cars and into public transport before 2030.”

Aiming further, GGM together with Glasgow Trade Council and other organisations, including Scottish Youth Climate Strike, have formed a coalition called Free Our City to call for free public transport, using the COP to pressure the government to put its money where its mouth is. The coalition is a microcosm of how just transition unites social and environmental struggles.

Moxham says the STUC is supportive of GGM, describing bus manufacturing, alongside renewables like offshore wind, as emblematic of decent work. “These two issues go to the heart of the just transition approach. With the right commitment from government, with buy-in from unions and environmentalists, they shine good spotlights on where the potential is. If companies like Alexander Dennis or BiFab no longer exist in five years, then you have failed. If these are both working facilities into the green transition, then we are on the road to success.”

This story was supported by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung as part of a series of articles on trade unions and the just transition.

[NOTE: the information about BiFab has been updated to reflect the Scottish government’s recent decision to withdraw £30 million in funding to the firm.]

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