It’s time the government moved from lofty climate change ambitions to action

Sue Ferns

Achieving net zero, whether by 2050 or hopefully sooner, will require a huge amount of change. How we travel, how we generate electricity, how we heat our homes and even what we eat will all have to change if we are to respond properly to the magnitude of the climate crisis. This is all understood on some level by most people, yet the specifics of managing this change have been largely absent from government policy. We have many high-level targets and ambitions, but so far a lack of concrete policy proposals.

It is this policy gap that the green jobs taskforce, on which I sit, was established to fill in relation to one of the most seismic changes of all: what will happen to jobs as we strive for net zero. This is an area that should be close to Labour’s heart and one where it has a genuine opportunity to influence the policy agenda. The taskforce, which reports today, is made up of industry figures, experts and trade unions, and was commissioned by the government earlier this year to suggest policies to help manage the impact of net zero on the UK workforce.

The narrative around decarbonisation used to be that it existed in a trade-off with employment, especially industrial jobs. You could have one or the other, but not both. This was always a false narrative and in recent years the story has shifted to the point where the opportunities that decarbonisation brings for creating good jobs are widely recognised. But this does not mean that there are not challenges. While many jobs will be created, it is still the case that many will be lost in high-carbon industries. And the task of matching the skills of the existing workforce and young workers to these new jobs is a daunting one.

Prospect and other unions have long argued for the need for a just transition to be at the heart of our move to decarbonise the economy. We have worked with employers to secure employment for our members working in carbon-intensive industries as jobs have been phased out, for example helping workers move from coal generation to renewables within EDF Energy. But there has always been a need for a wider strategy on just transition – such as the Scottish government’s just transition commission, which we have contributed to. Labour has also noticed this policy vacuum, and recently established a working group with unions to help advance its own thinking in this area.

The UK has a poor historical record of handling industrial transition and, as Labour well knows, the experience of former coal-mining communities across the UK is a testament to the immense economic and social damage that can be caused by a failure to properly manage this process of change. With many of these communities now key electoral battle grounds, the importance for both the government and opposition to demonstrate that they understand and have solutions for the challenges posed by the transition to net zero is heightened even further.

So I am pleased that the green jobs taskforce not only uses the language of just transition, but recommends the establishment of a new national body to help shape this change and ensure that no worker or community is left behind in the race for net zero. That recommendation is one of many that we on the task force have made to the government, including establishing a ‘green carers launchpad’, making sure that the curriculum reflects the green skills we will need in the future, and publishing a comprehensive net zero strategy ahead of November’s COP26 summit.

It is now up to government to act on these recommendations and put in place the policy framework that will allow us to maximise the opportunities that greening our economy will bring. Likewise, it is the responsibility of the Labour Party as the official opposition to hold the government’s feet to the fire and ensure lofty ambition actually translates into action.

I truly believe that as a country we can do things differently this time. But that will only work if the government brings businesses, workers, experts and educators together behind a real strategy focused on creating good green jobs across the country and helping workers to gain the skills needed to access them. It is time that government finally moved from targets to action.

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