UK must learn from past mistakes to ensure 'just transition' to net zero

Industry experts have emphasised the need for the UK to balance the positives and opportunities associated with sustainable investment with the inequality risks presented by the broader transition to net zero.

Speaking at the PLSA ESG 2021 conference, Trade Union Congress (TUC) head of rights, international, social and economics, Kate Bell, warned that the transition to net zero would need to be "done fairly" and be mindful of the impact on workers.

Bell also noted that Britain has a “textbook example” of how not to do this, in the form of the UK's exit from the coal industry in the 80s.

“We saw that done in a way that was extremely damaging to communities”, she emphasised, stating that this closure had left workers "levelled down", with many in these communities still reporting wages that are, on average, 10 per cent lower than the rest of UK.

She clarified, however, this "wasn't inevitable" and that the UK could have transitioned from coal and built back better with new cleaner industries and support for people in place to access those jobs.

In light of this, Bell argued that whilst the transition to net zero will result in a change in industries, this change must treat workers “fairly and make sure they have good opportunities”.

“We think the best way to do that is to ensure workers are given a voice in the process, so that this process of transition isn’t something that’s done to people but that’s done with them," she said.

She also highlighted this as an opportunity to address existing inequalities, pointing out that jobs in traditionally more carbon intensive sectors have typically excluded women and black workers.

“So as we think about the new and good jobs we want those jobs to turn into, we need to think about who has access, and who gets to take up what we hope are new and good quality job opportunities,” she stated.

However, Bell warned that there are also global equalities to consider, noting that the costs are likely to fall “most heavily” on the global south.

"It’s important that as we seek to change our economy, we’re not simply exporting our carbon intensive forms of production to parts of the global south and we’re not asking people to transition in ways we wouldn’t expect in our own country," she stated.

This was echoed by Confederation of British Industry (CBI) chief UK policy director, Matthew Fell, who added: “We absolutely need to do more on an international basis, otherwise there is a risk of the UK being ahead of the game and leading the world by example, but actually we’re just advantaging ourselves.

"We think there is a once in a generation opportunity to do things differently right now, coming off the back of Covid, Brexit, the net zero imperative, the pace of technology change, many things that throw the cards up in the air.

"We think this is a real opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of 2008 for example, where we just about fixed the financial crisis, but ended up with a decade plus of really low productivity that fed some of the regional and social inequalities we’re now living with still to this day."

Adding to this, Make My Money Matter co-founder, Richard Curtis, emphasised that whilst there is often focus on divestment, one of the "most exciting things" is the "opportunity and positivity of investing in successful and sustainable industries at home and abroad".

He continued: "This is a movement of trying to get justice for people with pensions, which is wonderful for this generation because I find all the young people around me are quite interested in politics, they’re relatively interested in charities, but the thing they are most interested in is what they can do in their everyday lives, and pensions are in fact the most powerful tool that most individuals have to influence the state of the world."

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