Notes on just transition talk at ATUC: Wed 25 July 2018

On Wednesday 25 July, I had the opportunity to talk to Aberdeen Trades Union Council about a just transition, and what it might mean for Aberdeen and the north-east. With the entire country baking in scorching heat that had caught the attention of the media and policymakers alike, it was a good time to be talking about how we might balance climate change imperatives with the need to transition the workforce and economy of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to a more sustainable and/or low-carbon base.

At the venue – Edmonton Oilers t-shirt getting another airing to illustrate how oil shapes culture, identity and society!

The presentation I gave was an adaptation of the one I’ve given on a few previous occasions, setting out the increasingly precarious situation of jobs and working conditions related to the North Sea, and also what I perceive as a few of the barriers to thinking past oil and gas at present (continuing high salaries, defensiveness/reluctance towards discussing what’s coming next, ongoing political currency of North Sea oil etc etc). As a stimulus for discussion about what pathway we might go down next, I then gave an overview of the findings from my Regional Studies Association project, where I looked at fossil fuel transitions in Iwaki and southern Hokkaido regions of Japan.

My attempt to sketch out three different – yet somehow related – problems faced by the north-east which need to be considered in a just transition for NE Scotland.

I’d like to summarise a few of the points that came out of the subsequent discussion:

  • There is perhaps a need for more recognition of the breath of occupations (and salaries) that are encompassed by ‘the oil industry.’ I recently read an interesting critical take on the idea of just transitions, which essentially argued that climate obligations can’t be delayed in order to allow carbon-intensive regions to transition gently. Although I don’t disagree with that view given the severity of the climate situation, it does indicate that we need to think a bit more about which kinds of workers within the sector will need the most support as high-emitting industries close down. Linked to this is also the question of where the responsibility lies for financing a just transition;


  • Related to the above, it’s worth remembering that there can be uneven levels of income, affluence and social capital within and between communities. The nature of the extractive industries (e.g. high-salaried work) has the potential to intensify these inequalities. When it comes to thinking about grass-roots initiatives such as community energy, it is therefore worth considering how the communities who might be most in need of such interventions are well supported by local and national government and by practitioner-academics. In other words, working with potentially marginalised communities and sectors as they navigate the complex funding, legislative and policy landscape which can stand in the way of getting initiatives off the ground;


  • Whilst we shouldn’t ignore the very harmful ecological and social effects that the extractive industries have had globally, it is perhaps helpful to draw a distinction between oil and gas operators as institutions, and the individuals that work within them. Building good interpersonal relations with key individuals in different sectors can be a useful precursor to creating conditions for consensus, and for building dialogue on what the most appropriate pathway is for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to follow from now into the future;


  • Who is setting the terms of the debate? The flip-side of the above is that when it comes to discussions over energy and environmental policy and the governance of public space at both a local and national level, private sector operators from the fossil fuel industries do still carry a lot of clout. Indeed, whilst large-scale on- and offshore wind is great from a climate mitigation point of view, it’s worth considering who the organisations are driving these projects, and how this might perpetuate relationships of dependency. In this regard, there are some interesting discussions emerging around public ownership of wind;


  • I am often guilty of painting a rather bleak picture of the future for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, but it’s worth remembering there are lots of skill sets that could be tapped into. For instance, this is a bit of a crass analogy, but engineers are capable of doing far more than building oil rigs. Rather, the whole way engineers approach and think about problems is distinct and could be applied to a number of contexts. What we really do need, though, is a proper skills audit of what is in the oil and gas industries and the low-carbon sectors that this might match up to;


  • Lastly, there is perhaps separate – yet also related – issue pertaining to climate vulnerability. As above, it has been illustrated globally that extractive industry activity has the potential to enhance existing inequalities and dependencies within communities. In turn, this means that when it comes to coping with the impacts of a changing climate (flooding, heat, extreme weather etc), there is even more potential for already marginalised sections of society to be at risk. Thus far, the discussion around just transitions in Aberdeen has been focused very much on climate change mitigation (especially carbon dioxide emission reduction), but perhaps we need to think a bit more about how a just transition for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire can encompass adaptation actions? Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire Councils both have very capable people working on climate and sustainability issues so we have a good starting point in this regard. The challenge is perhaps finding ways to link up all the different pieces of this very complex narrative, to imagine a transition for the north-east that is not only low-carbon, but also socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.


Last of all, thanks very much to ATUC for inviting me, and to everyone who attended/ participated for a brilliant discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and hope this captures some of the key discussion points! Always open to input or suggestions:


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