Aberdeen is in a challenging position when it comes to thinking about the future. We know very well that reductions in carbon dioxide emissions are required if we are to avoid significant harm on a global scale. This entails, among other actions, reducing the role that oil, gas and coal have in providing us with electricity, fuel and heat. Even if you don’t buy into the scientific basis for climate change, it is at least true that fossil fuels are finite and that we will sooner or later need to renew our energy systems. But making these changes at a global and national level can be tough for regions like north-east Scotland, places that rely significantly on these very same fossil fuels and other carbon-intensive activities for their economic and employment base.
There are scores of cautionary tales – both in the UK and globally – of what can happen to a region when the resource on which it relies is no longer economically viable to extract or when society’s needs have moved on. What is clear from all of these is that we need to plan early, and plan carefully, if we are to avoid the worst of these effects in the north-east.
However, Aberdeen does have one huge resource which we can draw on to help us make this transition – the sea. I am currently halfway through an Early Career Grant project funded by the Regional Studies Association, which is looking at two regions in Japan which have faced – and continue to face – challenges around keeping everyone in work and maintaining social wellbeing as they move beyond fossil fuels. Like Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, both of these areas are coastal regions who have been exploring new and innovative ways of using the sea to respond to employment, economic and energy challenges. When I talk at Aberdeen Climate Action’s second Climate Café in early December, I’ll use these two examples as a starting point for us to think about what we might be able to do with the North Sea, and how that might help us in our daily lives.
The first case study I’ve been working with is Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture. Under Iwaki is the massive Joban Coalfield, which until the 1960s and 70s produced significant amounts of coal for Japan. What is so impressive about Iwaki is that even as Japan’s energy systems moved on to oil and nuclear power, the vast majority of coal workers were able to find other jobs and the regional economy diversified. One of the very interesting things they did to help this process was build a brand-new power station, designed specifically to run on the low-energy coal that came out the Joban Field. This kept coal operations going for a bit longer, and eased the drop-off the region faced with the mines closed. This was supported by other initiatives including attracting other industries to the region by developing the port area, building their tourism sector, and – bizarre but true – opening a Hawaiian-themed resort which to this day remains a big draw.
Now I am categorically not suggesting we build coal-fired power stations in Scotland (!), but the Joban Joint Power Company’s power station was a really good example of being pragmatic and making the best use of what you have along the way. I’ve said this before, but Scotland will require oil and gas for a little while yet, so why not make the most efficient use of the North Sea rather than prospecting for oil and gas elsewhere? What is also important to note is that the regional government in Iwaki did a lot to facilitate diversification. They saw what was coming and merged a number of administrative districts, so that they could better plan for the decline of coal. The trade unions, regional government and national government worked together on a feasible plan for closure of the mines, rather than prolonging at all costs. And the organisational structure of the Joban Coal Mine Company ensured benefit remained within the region rather than flowing elsewhere. Today, the region is thriving and the adjacent Pacific Ocean is host to some of Japan’s newest and most powerful offshore wind turbines – something we too are seeing develop in north-east Scotland.
The second case is a bit more complicated. At the lower end of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido are Iburi and Sorachi Subprefectures. In Sorachi – especially Yubari City – like in Iwaki they mined coal until the 1990s. Meanwhile on the coast in Iburi – particularly the cities of Muroran and Tomakomai – steelworks, petrochemical refining and heavy industry were aggressively developed during the post-war years, taking advantage of the shipping links connecting Iburi to the rest of Japan and beyond. Since then, Tomakomai has done okay (more about that in a second), but Yubari and Muroran have struggled as coal, steel works and other carbon-intensive industries have moved away (albeit not for climate reasons) and not been replaced. Things even got so bad in Yubari that the city essentially went bankrupt in 2007.
So why is it that Iwaki was able to imagine a more sustainable future, whereas the south of Hokkaido has struggled? There are a few factors at play. One, prior to coal-mining, Iwaki had a rich resource base of lovely scenery, fertile farmlands and seas full of delicious fish. Southern Hokkaido, on the other hand, had virtually nothing. It was cold, life was harsh, and so after coal and its associated investment disappeared there wasn’t much to fall back on. Two, Iwaki is just a couple of hours by express train from Tokyo, which gives them access to central government expertise and to a market of 20 million potential day-visitors. The south of Hokkaido, meanwhile, is a two-hour flight and a lengthy Scotrail-esque train ride away. Three, whereas everyone in Iwaki pushed in the same direction to imagine a solution, in Hokkaido the issue of industrial development and the future became a political football, whereby different factions would oppose outcomes for the sake of opposing them.
It’s worth noting, though, that off the coast of Tomakomai the Japan CCS Company, under the guidance of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, is trialling a potentially crucial climate change mitigation technology – carbon dioxide capture and storage. This involves capturing carbon dioxide from emitting sources (in their case part of the oil refinery), transporting it and injecting into geological formations deep underground. Our geology in the North Sea is suitable for this too, and we’ve come close to deploying it a couple of times. Could this be something we in Aberdeen want to think about as a way of using all our subsea know-how to help fight climate change?
I don’t want to scare everyone, but when a Japanese professor friend of mine came to visit Aberdeen earlier this year and I told him about what’s happening with the North Sea over a few whiskies, he said it sounds more like Yubari than Iwaki. Yikes. But the key point to take away from all of this is that it’s not just the technologies that matter, but rather how we organise ourselves to use them. The North Sea is full of potential solutions to our climate challenges, but what I’ve learned in Japan shows that it needs us on land to work out how to use these in a way that can sustain wellbeing and bring environmental benefit to the north-east and beyond.
Dr Leslie Mabon’s research in Japan on post-coal regional governance and just transitions is funded by the Regional Studies Association through their Early Career Grant scheme.