Special session on just transitions at RSA Annual Conference 2018

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As per the title, I am running a session at the Regional Studies Association Annual Conference 2018, in Lugano, Switzerland from 3-6 June 2018. Deadline for abstract submissions is 23 February 2018, through the RSA website. Details of the session are as follows, any questions please do get in touch!

SS24. Just Transitions for Carbon-Intensive Regions

Session organiser(s)

Leslie Mabon, Robert Gordon University, Scotland (l.j.mabon@rgu.ac.uk)

This session assesses the implications of climate change and sustainability challenges for cities and regions heavily reliant on carbon-intensive industries for an employment and economic base. Cities and regions are increasingly seen as sites for solutions to contemporary environmental issues, as evidenced by the IPCC commissioning a Special Report on Climate Change and Cities, and the creation of Sustainable Development Goal 11 specifically to address sustainable cities and communities. Yet this notion of ‘sustainable’ cities and regions may be problematic for areas that remain dependent on fossil fuel extraction (e.g. coal, oil, and gas) and high-emitting industries (e.g. steelworks and petrochemicals) for not only employment and economic benefit, but also identity and sense of being. Trade unions, national- and regional governments and academics are hence showing increasing interest in understanding what ‘just transitions’ mean at the city and region level. When understood in this way, the aim of a just transition at the regional level is to ensure locations – and the workers within them – traditionally dependent on carbon-intensive activities are not left behind in the move to clean energy and a sustainable economy.

This session contributes to this field by explicitly considering the role of actors at the urban and regional scale in facilitating a just transition. Both empirical and theoretical contributions addressing any aspect of just transitions thinking are welcome. Topics to address may include (but are in no way limited to):

-the relationship between governmental, private sector and civil society organisations in governing a regional just transition;

-the role of urban planning and built environment configuration in enacting a just transition;

-lessons for just transition planning and governance that may be learned from analogous regional changes (e.g. deindustrialisation, coal mining closures);

-the role of more ethically challenging energy-related technologies (e.g. coal seam gasification, shale gas, carbon dioxide capture and storage) in facilitating a gentler transition away from fossil fuels and high-emitting industries;

-pathways to balancing social and economic development goals with climate and sustainability issues for regions involved in extractive activity or high-emission industry in low and middle-income countries.

-the interface between just transitions thinking at a global level, and at an urban and regional level;

The envisaged format will be oral presentation, but with a strong emphasis on facilitated panel- and roundtable discussion. Depending on the nature and volume of contributions, publication of a special issue featuring the presented papers, or production of a co-authored article involving all contributors, will be considered.

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Responding to climate change in a carbon-intensive coastal region?

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.

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Oil and gas are part of daily life in Aberdeen – as on RGU campus

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.

North Japan Ma

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.

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Old coal-mining buildings, Uchigo, Iwaki

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.

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View out to offshore wind turbines from Naraha Township, Fukushima Prefecture

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.

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Muroran, Hokkaido

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?

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Carbon capture and storage information point, Tomakomai City Hall

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.

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Climate change in coastal communities stage 2: Scotland

Recently, we had the pleasure of the second bilateral visit for our Scotland-Vietnam collaboration on climate change in coastal communities, funded by the British Academy International Partnership and Mobility scheme and also supported by an Official Development Assistance grant from the Scottish Funding Council. On this occasion it was the turn of the Institute of Human Geography in the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences to do the traveling, as my Co-PI Dr Nguyen Song Tung and her colleagues Dr Pham Thi Tram and Nguyen Thi Kim Dung came to Aberdeen for a week to continue our fieldwork and research development activities.

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Left-right: Prof Stephen Vertigans, Dr Leslie Mabon, Dr Linda Smith, Dr Nguyen Song Tung, Beate Houette, Nguyen Thi Kim Dung, Dr Natascha Mueller-Hirth, Dr Chris Yuill, Dr Pham Thi Tram

Since the visit to Hanoi back in May, as PI for the Scotland side I have been working to draw themes out of our data that can connect up two nations facing very different climate change challenges. Across the RGU and IHGeo teams, we have come to understand that Nam Dinh Province and Aberdeenshire, whilst very different in absolute terms, are both coastal regions at the mouth of major rivers where climate change has the potential to negatively affect livelihoods. Having done interviews in Xuan Thuy National Park, the significance of ecosystem health in guarding against the worst effects of climate change and sustaining societal wellbeing has also come to the fore. With a bit of preparation and a slice of good fortune, as I’ll now explain we managed to collect a highly comparable dataset in Aberdeenshire over the course of the week.

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Forvie National Nature Reserve

First field visit was to Forvie National Nature Reserve, at the mouth of the River Ythan. Like Xuan Thuy National Park, this is part of a wetland area protected by the Ramsar Convention. Both Forvie and Xuan Thuy are fragile areas, where managers are having to work hard to protect biodiversity from human threats. From my perspective, the biggest problem is trying to get overseas visitors to take you seriously when you try to explain that one of the main threats to the Sites of Special Scientific Interest adjacent to Forvie is Donald Trump and his golf course… Anyhow, during our visit to Forvie, we were fortunate to be accompanied by Reserve Manager Annabel Drysdale, some glorious sunshine, and a squadron of 150-odd seals.

The following day we were joined by Finlay Bennet of Marine Scotland Science, who came to talk about his group’s work in relation to climate change and their interest in adaptive management. Over the course of an hour and a half he delivered a session more structured, educational and downright interesting than anything I could ever hope to do, with a strong applied focus that fits well with IHGeo’s own remit. We learned about the origins of adaptive management, its value and role in decision-making under situations of high uncertainty with a strong value dimension, and its potential applications. One of the overriding messages was that – as is so often the case in environmental governance – it is often easier to see when things aren’t going well, or when people aren’t doing adaptive management, than when they are. The fact I can remember all of the content of the session without referring to my notes speaks volumes about the manner in which it was delivered. Finlay, if you’re reading and ever feel like switching jobs, you know where I am.

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Finlay Bennet of Marine Scotland Science discussing adaptive management

The third and final piece of fieldwork had us moving around within the confine of Aberdeen City. Countryside Officer Ian Talboys guided us round the Seaton Park Wetland Project, a new wetland established in 2016 in response to drainage challenges arising from flooding and ongoing precipitation. It serves the triple purpose of flood mitigation via retention and drainage, biodiversity protection, and social benefit. Perhaps less fortunately for Tung, Dung and Tram, the site visit turned out to be significantly colder, windier and wetter than the 35 degree heat of Hanoi they had left. Happily we stumbled across a small stall which, as well as selling vegetables from nearby allotments, was also dispensing hot tea and coffee. Warmed up, we then made our way over to Marischal College, where Aberdeen City Council planner Alison Leslie talked us through the progress that’s been made on Aberdeen Adapts – Aberdeen City’s climate change adaptation plan. This was an excellent way to end the week, not least because by interviewing a regional climate adaptation planner we mirrored exactly the very first interview we did in Nam Dinh Province, where we all piled into the meeting room of the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development and questioned the province’s climate adaptation governors.

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Meeting with Alison Leslie of Aberdeen Adapts/Aberdeen City Council

In-between times, we also managed to squeeze in a full-day seminar to introduce our collaborators to some of the research we do at RGU, hold a half-day paper writing workshop (the output of which will be submitted for peer review by the end of this month), and have a session on upcoming funding calls we are going to apply to as a next step. All this, plus the field visits, may go some way to explaining why I slept until 2pm on the Saturday.

I want to finish this post by extending a huge thanks to our colleagues from IHGeo. They coped admirably with freezing temperatures, lost luggage, local accents, jet-lag, Scottish university canteen food and many other things. This year has been very important in terms of building a base and getting to know one another, and from our side at least we have come to realise Dr Tung and her team are great people to work with. We miss them already! I look forward to continuing the discussion online to draw out the findings from this specific project, which still has a couple of months to run, and hopefully developing our collaboration into the future.

Thanks are extended to the British Academy for funding our Scotland-Vietnam collaborative project on climate change and coastal communities through an International Partnership and Mobility grant; and to the Scottish Funding Council for providing support to allow us to undertake more in-depth fieldwork and capacity-building within the project through Official Development Assistance funding.

And as a bonus…a ‘same but different’ series, showing us doing the same things in Vietnam and Scotland!

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Outside the regional government offices

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Field visit to a Ramsar site

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Coffee break during fieldwork

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Institute canteen food

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Interviewing regional climate adaptation planners

Posted in British Academy International Partnership and Mobility 2016-17 | Leave a comment

Fieldwork report: RSE-MOST Scotland-Taiwan research project

Written by Leslie and originally posted on Urban Green Adaptation Diary

At the end of July, we had the first scheduled visit and fieldwork round for our Royal Society of Edinburgh-Ministry of Science and Technology Joint Research Project titled “spatial relationship of heat hazard and socio-economic characteristics in urban neighbourhoods – the role of green infrastructure.” Wan-yu traveled to Scotland with the aims of (a) meeting the rest of the Scottish research group and getting to know more about their research activities; (b) interviewing key people and organisations involved in green infrastructure and climate adaptation in Scotland; and (c) getting out and about to visit some of the green infrastructure work that’s been taking place in our case study city of Glasgow.

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The weather was pleasant for the first two days of our mission, which gave us an ideal opportunity to experience some of Glasgow’s green spaces. On the first day, a walk through Glasgow Green introduced Wan-yu to the unique way in which Scottish people behave during periods of high temperature. It also gave Leslie an opportunity to teach his collaborator the phrase ‘taps aff’ and explain why human factors make heat a problem for Scotland. Rather more earnestly, on the second day we headed out to look at greenspaces providing a range of ecosystem services. In the morning we stopped off at Barrowfield Community Park, a multifunctional greenspace project in the east of the city which was established a couple of years ago on an area of derelict land.

We then headed north and east to study the Greater Clyde Valley Green Network Partnership‘s Seven Lochs Wetland Park. This is an impressive attempt to connect up a series of existing greenspaces which lie within Glasgow and it surrounding area. Such is the size and extent of the network that it is easy to forget this is an ‘urban’ greenspace, yet much of the network is easily accessible by public transport from the city centre. We looked in particular at Hogganfield Park, which combines recreation with biodiversity conservation, and Garnqueen – where Glenboig Village Park and Gartcosh Local Nature Reserve have been established on the sites of brickworks and steelworks respectively.

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On Wednesday it was a journey north to Aberdeen for a project meeting with Prof Richard Laing and Dr Marianthi Leon of the Visualisation Group in the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment. After a fruitful and constructive discussion on how we can tie up the different strands of our work for the return visit to Taipei this winter, we met with Leslie’s very capable student Anastasia – who has been working on use of new media to assess greenspace quality and accessibility in Glasgow. A meeting with Vice-Principal for Research Prof Paul Hagan – and a chance encounter with Donella Beaton, RGU’s Head of Business Development – rounded off the day.

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From Thursday through to Monday, we then embarked on an intensive campaign of interviews to understand the role of green infrastructure in urban heat and climate adaptation more broadly. This encompassed the Greater Glasgow area and also the regional and national-level context within which green infrastructure planning in Scotland happens. As such, we travelled to Edinburgh to meet with Adaptation Scotland (squeezing in a meeting with Dr Rachel Harkness of Edinburgh College of Art in the process – she’ll be working with Leslie on the qualitative aspects of the project); and to Stirling for a discussion with Greenspace Scotland. In Glasgow itself, we caught up with Prof Rohinton Emmanuel of Glasgow Caledonian University; the GCV Green Network; Climate Ready Clyde; and Glasgow City Council.

The next big milestone in the project will be the return visit of the Scottish research team to Taipei in early 2018, when Wan-yu and her group will introduce us to the Taiwanese research context. In the interim, though, there is plenty to be getting on with digesting and processing the findings from our Glasgow fieldwork!

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Japan’s first large-scale CCS demonstration: the social side

This post summarises another paper out this month. This is an investigation into the social dimensions of the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project, Japan’s first large-scale carbon capture and storage project.

What is the key point of this paper?

The key point of this paper is that carbon capture and storage – a potentially crucial low-carbon energy technology – is being implemented in Tomakomai City in Hokkaido, northern Japan to seemingly broad consent from the local community. This is important because although carbon capture and storage may be very important for Japan’s energy future, elsewhere in the world CCS projects have been cancelled or delayed due to public concern. To get to this point, however, the project developers have had to work very hard and in close collaboration with the local authorities and independent scientists to show the community that the project is viable and that they have adequate monitoring and contingency procedures in place. Our study is one of the first scientific papers in the world to look at the Tomakomai project, and as far as we know the first piece of empirical social science research to be published looking specifically at Tomakomai.

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Tomakomai fishing port

What is carbon capture and storage?

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves trapping the carbon dioxide emissions from coal- or gas-fired power stations or industrial sources like steel, cement and chemical works. This carbon dioxide is then transported, usually by pipeline or ship, and injected into geological structures such as depleted oil and gas reservoirs deep underground. In Tomakomai, carbon dioxide is captured from a facility within an oil refinery to the east of the city. It is then injected, via two wells drilled from onshore, into storage sites several kilometres offshore and more than a kilometre below the seabed.

What were the findings, and what is new or significant about them?

Our main finding is that it is evidence of good monitoring processes, and the developer going slow and taking a precautionary approach, that seems to have kept the community on-side. In other words, rather than just giving an outright assurance that the captured carbon dioxide is securely stored, in Tomakomai the local authority and scientists from the Marine Ecology Research Institute have put a lot of effort into explaining to the community why they can make these claims and how they will know should carbon dioxide for any reason find its way to the seabed.

These findings are especially interesting because the Tomakomai project could be considered a ‘difficult’ case for progressing carbon dioxide storage. It is next to a big community (175,000 people), with a lot of pride in local fisheries, in a country where there is recent experience of the relationship between energy, seismic activity and the sea. Our findings also tell us that history matters. Carbon dioxide storage under the seabed in Tomakomai follows on from a long history of activity in Tomakomai Bay which has interacted with the area’s fisheries, such as paper manufacturing and industrial development. All of this offshore activity in the past shapes how people feel about a new project happening in the present.

The lesson for carbon capture and storage projects globally is that project operators have to be prepared to understand the local context, and that if they want to replicate what Tomakomai has achieved so far there may be a need to monitor to a standard that is considered socially appropriate above and beyond what is ‘scientifically’ required.

Why is this research important?

As above, CCS may have an important role to play in Japan fulfilling its climate change obligations. Under the Paris Agreement, Japan has committed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 26% by 2030 compared to 2013 levels – yet the country still relies heavily on coal-fired electricity generation. More widely, though, our paper also indicates that for any big infrastructure project offshore, community relations to the sea can be complex. Developing an in-depth understanding of the relationship between society and the sea is thus important in determining whether a development is appropriate for an area or not.

How was the research conducted?

Between 2014 and 2016, we interviewed people with an interest the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project – project operators, local government, regional government, NGOs, fishers, port authorities and so on. These interviews took place not only in Tomakomai, but also across Hokkaido and Japan more widely to find out what people who might be able to shape societal opinion thought about the project. Furthermore, we visited the libraries in Tomakomai City and for all Hokkaido (located in Sapporo). There we looked at old newspapers and historical reports, to understand the history of infrastructure development and environmental change in the sea off Tomakomai.

It is worth noting the interdisciplinary nature of the research team – environmental sociology, marine biology and geology. Jun accompanied me to Tomakomai for some of the fieldwork, doing the interviews alongside me and helping to dig out useful material in the archives. Maybe at some point in the future I will go out in a boat by way of return!

Who funded the research?

The research was funded by a grant from the UK CCS Research Centre International Research Collaboration Fund, held between RGU and the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth. Initial pilot interviews were done via a Japan Foundation Fellowship, and further analysis and writing up of the archive data was possible thanks to a Regional Studies Association Early Career Grant.

Mabon, L, Kita, J and Xue Z (2017) ‘Challenges for social impact assessment in coastal regions: a case study of the Tomakomai CCS Demonstration Project’ Marine Policy DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2017.06.015

You can read the full paper here. Email l.j.mabon@rgu.ac.uk if you can’t get access.

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View from Tomakomai City Hall towards the refinery, CO2 capture plant and storage site

Posted in New Publications, UKCCSRC International Collaboration 2016 | Leave a comment

Five years of trial coastal fishing in Fukushima: what is the situation?

The aim of this post is to summarise a new paper that myself and Prof Midori Kawabe have had published on coastal fisheries in Fukushima, five years after trial operations started post-disaster.

What is the key point of this paper?

The main message we want to get across is that five years after fishing resumed in Fukushima following the nuclear accident, local communities are still working hard to restore pride in their region’s marine produce.

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Fishing boat, Onahama port, Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture

What were the findings, and what is new or significant about them?

We found that citizens themselves have been very important in promoting and moving forwards fishing in Fukushima. Some citizens have set up their own groups to do independent monitoring of the radiation in fish, to provide an independent ‘double check’ to the data produced by the national and regional government. But what is especially significant is that most of these citizens are driven not only by a desire to understand food safety, but also to restore pride to local fishing through actions like organising tasting events and taking to social media to engage with scientists and citizens internationally. When we spoke to people within the fishing communities themselves, they were of course eager to understand radiation better, but more than anything else they were proud of the fishing heritage in their ports and villages.

We also found that the social and cultural effects of a disaster can be just as harmful as the physical and economic consequences. There are still problems caused by the place name association with ‘Fukushima.’ When I speak to my colleagues or give a public lecture here in Scotland and start by saying that I’ve been to Fukushima, people expect that I’m going to talk about the nuclear power station. But Fukushima Prefecture is half the size of Belgium and has a population of 2 million people. So there is still a lot of work to be done to raise people’s understanding of what ‘Fukushima’ is, and of the harm that can be done by assuming Fukushima Prefecture and the Fukushima Dai’Ichi Nuclear Power Plant are the same thing.

Why is this research important?

This month – June 2017 – is exactly five years since coastal fishing resumed on a trial basis in Fukushima Prefecture after the nuclear accident. Over that time, more and more fish species have been released for consumption as scientific knowledge improves and the radiation subsides. At the same time, though, there has been and continues to be a huge effort to manage the social side of marine radiation. This doesn’t mean just understanding and respecting citizens’ concerns, but also bringing fishers, scientists and governors together to decide on the most appropriate pathway for the restarting of fisheries in Fukushima. Although the causes of the Fukushima nuclear accident are clearly unique, large-scale environmental changes on our seas and coasts are going to become more and more common with climate change, so it is important that we understand how these kinds of changes affect society.

How was the research conducted?

Since mid-2014, along with my co-author Professor Midori Kawabe from Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, I’ve been interviewing people connected to fishing in Fukushima. We have focused our attention on Iwaki District in the south of Fukushima, and have been talking to fishers, fisheries managers, scientists, academics, politicians and citizens. Over that time, I have been to Fukushima Prefecture three times, and am just about to go again next week. We’ve also been reviewing documentation on risk management and risk communication produced by the national, regional and local governments, as well as by the fisheries cooperatives themselves.

Who funded the research?

The research was funded by a Fellowship I received from the Japan Foundation.

Mabon L and Kawabe M (2017) ‘Making sense of post-disaster Fukushima fisheries: a scalar approach’ Environmental Science and Policy 75: 173-183

You can view the full paper here. If you do not have access, please let me know via l.j.mabon@rgu.ac.uk and I will mail you a copy.

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Hisanohama port, Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture

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Why I saw north-east Scotland turning blue, and why the ‘day job’ now has to be a just transition

As soon as Donald Trump won Michigan in the US presidential race late last year, I had a feeling large parts of north-east Scotland were going to fall to the Tories at the next election. I just didn’t expect ‘the next election’ at which this happened would be seven months later.

For those not familiar with the context, at the UK elections earlier this week, the Conservative party – who for decades had been virtually wiped out in Scotland – took twelve seats off the pro-independence Scottish National Party. Six of those gains were in the north-east, within Aberdeen City, surrounding Aberdeenshire, and also up towards Banffshire and Moray and down to Angus. This left the north-east corner of Scotland as a big blue blob (with a tiny speck of yellow where the SNP held Aberdeen North) among a mixed pattern of red, yellow, darker yellow and other bits of blue in the rest of Scotland. This gave a clear visual indication that something interesting had indeed happened in the region.

What had made me think the north-east was going to so uniformly fall to the Conservatives? Quite simply, it was the presence of a big population, largely dependent on a dying carbon-intensive industry, yet very much marginalised in mainstream debates in the run-up to the election. I saw how successfully Trump had campaigned in automobile- and coal-producing regions, and realised there would be potential to create a very similar narrative in north-east Scotland should one want to. In case you think I’m making that up, I have the screenshots to prove it.

 

It didn’t happen quite like that, of course. I don’t recall anybody knocking at my door promising to Make Aberdeen Great Again. Nor do I remember seeing any of our British politicians standing in a boiler suit in front of crowds of oil workers promising to open up the rigs. And in some ways, that perhaps made things worse. Because – with a few exceptions I’ll come to later – none of the parties standing for election in the north-east really seemed to be addressing a fundamental issue which is of major concern to the local population. Namely, what can be done to redress the job losses, rising food bank use and decline of our urban environments that are being hastened in Aberdeen and its surroundings by the dwindling productivity of the North Sea and continually low global oil prices.

And, more than that, nobody outside of the north-east really seemed to care either. The decline of the region is quiet and slow. We haven’t had camera crews coming like the ones that used to visit UKIP-leaning marginalised communities in east England. There are as yet no Channel 5 documentaries about life on the wild streets of Rosemount. All of this fits with the sense I’ve been getting when I’ve been doing fieldwork over the last few years – that north-east Scotland has given plenty to the rest of the country over the last fifty years through not only oil, but also fishing, the hosting of defence bases, and more recently renewable energy infrastructure. But now that we need something back, nobody is listening. Science-based fisheries regulations are hard to swallow when your earnings are being squeezed. Climate policy drawn up by someone in Edinburgh on the basis of a report complied in Switzerland is of limited value if it means you get a wind turbine stuck up behind your house.

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Central Aberdeen is filled with new office blocks that developers are struggling to fill

I know all of this for two reasons. One is that for six years now, I’ve been doing research on what the implications of a maturing North Sea might be for daily living in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and further afield like Angus and Moray. The second is that I too am a citizen of Aberdeen. I joke that every single day is like a big piece of participant observation for me, but in seriousness it does give insight into what’s going on. I see what comes through my door before elections. I notice subtle changes in the city centre. I hear what people are talking about.

What I take away from all of this is that there is a great deal of confusion about just who is responsible for managing the north-east’s relationship with the oil industry and, more pointedly, whose fault it is that things have gone so badly wrong. When we asked citizens in focus groups who should take charge of the North Sea from now on in, without fail the answer we got was always ‘the government.’ No more than that, just ‘the government.’ And yet when it comes to oil and society in Aberdeen, there are many different kinds of government. There’s the local government, whose biggest debate over the last few years has been over what to do with some money a local oil magnate was putting up for redevelopment of the city centre. We have the Scottish government, with their renewable energy and climate change targets. We have the United Kingdom government, responsible for things like drilling licences and taxation. All of these feed into a complex picture that informs how oil and gas activity in the North Sea is undertaken, and how that shapes life back onshore.

To muddy the waters further, these levels mix with each other in ways that are not clear. I got leaflets through the door for the recent council election screaming about how national independence referenda were a distraction. People who were not even standing for election were coming to visit towns and villages and appearing on TV. Noticeable is that in among all this confusion, a perception appeared to emerge that the SNP could have been doing more to safeguard oil and gas jobs in the region. I am very careful to call this a perception, because I’m not sure what the SNP could have done about taxation, licencing, carbon pricing and all the other things that are outwith their control. But the key point is that the view seems to be there that is was somehow the fault of Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon, that the problems of Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and beyond were being ignored by the leaders supposed to represent them. The MPs were doing good work on the ground for sure, but this somehow got a bit lost in the overall message.

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Developments such as Triple Kirks have been delayed or cancelled as appetite wanes

Hang on, though. If you want to do something about food bank use, unemployment and workers’ rights, surely the last thing you do is vote Tory? Maybe so, but in all the confusion I talked about above, it’s perhaps not surprising that the people who shout the loudest about how ‘the government’ are doing A Bad Job of Everything will be most likely to win out. And whether through good campaigning or media support or whatever, the Tories were definitely the loudest voice in the north-east. It is telling that – according to the information I got from the BBC news website – Willie Rennie and Nicola Sturgeon came to the north-east once each, and Kezia Dugdale not at all. Ruth Davidson, meanwhile, visited Peterhead, Brechin, Fochabers and Forres. And then, of course, there was Theresa May’s ‘forest’ rally in Deeside. They knew exactly what they were doing. From Aberdeen South, you can’t vote for Saudi Arabia to curb production or the EU to mandate CO2 injection with all oil recovery or BP not to explore new basins, but you can use your vote to kick the people you most closely associate with being ‘in charge’ of mismanaging the North Sea oil industry.

This in many ways is a shame, because the SNP and the Conservatives weren’t the only parties standing. I was very impressed with the attention the Labour candidates had given to more local-level concerns, and was delighted to see my former student Barry Black standing for Labour in Aberdeen West and Kincardineshire (within 10 years he’ll be an elected representative, mark my words). Special mention must also go to Patrick Harvie who, just days before the election, was in the Scottish Parliament pushing the SNP on how their oil recovery goals were incompatible with their climate change targets.

This is not a complete picture. It’s just one angle, based on insights from my own social science research, that might help partially explain why the Tories did so well in the north-east. Here’s a final thought for you. Apparently the people have spoken on a second independence referendum. Getting back to the day job is what Scotland-based politicians now have to do. So as citizens of north-east Scotland, let’s make sure that our Conservative and SNP MPs know that their day job is now to work to deliver a just and equitable transition away from oil and gas for the region. Write to them, get them to ask questions in parliament, hold them to account. After all, it is still at the Westminster level that the decisions about the UK Continental Shelf are made that form the bedrock (sorry) for everything else a just transition requires.

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