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20 October 2021

The UK will need to show it can deliver “good, green jobs”, not just talk about them

The UK’s Net Zero Strategy promises to boost employment while bringing down emissions. Does the government have a plan to achieve both?

By Philippa Nuttall

Jobs, jobs, jobs. The Net Zero Strategy published by the UK yesterday (19 October) set out its “world leading” ambition ahead of COP26, which starts in Glasgow at the end of next week. The report is littered with claims about how many jobs the move from a fossil fuel-based economy will create. The narrative is appealing, but in a country with a growing gig economy and around one million people on zero-hours contracts, the UK government will need to show it can deliver on its promise of “hundreds of thousands of new high skilled, high wage green jobs”.

“Our strategy for net zero is to lead the world in ending our contribution to climate change, while turning this mission into the greatest opportunity for jobs and prosperity for our country since the industrial revolution,” enthuses Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the foreword to the strategy, which contains 249 references to jobs in the 368-page document. By 2050, “everywhere you look, in every part of our United Kingdom, there will be jobs. Good jobs, green jobs, well-paid jobs, levelling up our country while squashing down our carbon emissions.”

The strategy builds on the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, published by the government in November 2020, which set out a menu of options for technologies that need to be nurtured and that will, over time, make a greater or lesser commitment to decarbonising the UK. Since last year, the report says that over £26bn of government capital investment has been mobilised, which will support 190,000 jobs by 2025, and 440,000 jobs by 2030, and leveraged up to £90bn of private investment by 2030. The jobs that will be created are across a range of sectors, from the energy industry to construction and transport.

Marrying the task of creating jobs while decarbonising the economy, shutting down some industries and kickstarting others, is the holy grail of climate action. “The impact of the transition to net zero on the UK’s labour market could be significant,” acknowledges the report. One estimate suggests up to 20 per cent of the workforce could see demand for their skills affected, either positively or negatively. Negative impacts will be most apparent in areas that are still significantly reliant on the fossil fuel industry, such as Aberdeen in Scotland.

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The Scottish government has put such concerns at the centre of its climate action plans with the creation of an independent Just Transition Commission in 2019. Its aim is to help create “a more cohesive and resilient economy that improves the opportunities, life chances and wellbeing of every citizen in our country” through “decent work and quality jobs”, with input from communities, businesses, unions and workers. The government recently extended the commission’s mandate for a further four years.

For Samantha Smith, director of the Just Transition Centre at the International Trade Union Confederation, such an approach should be at the heart of every government’s climate action plan. Speaking at a New Statesman event on Wednesday, she underlined that all jobs created as part of the energy transition should be “decent jobs” as defined by the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation. Under this, all work should subscribe to the need for “social dialogue, social protection, rights at work and employment”, and environmental protection aims should go hand in hand with a focus on eradicating poverty. Removing gender inequalities, increasing diversity and inclusion, and human rights should also be key tenets of climate action and job creation, said Smith.

The UK’s Net Zero Strategy is certainly not blind to many of these issues. The government insists the low-carbon transition “should be fair and affordable and not negatively impact disadvantaged groups”, and pledges to “champion increased gender representation”. It also references energy poverty and the need to upgrade poor-performing buildings, leading to warmer, healthier homes and lower energy bills. However, given the current energy crisis, rising household bills and the government’s general lack of support for those finding it increasingly necessary to choose between heating and eating, plus criticisms over its lack of financing to help householders decarbonise their homes, questions will be asked about its genuine commitment to “good jobs”.

“There are tonnes of jobs that can come out of the transition and a lot of opportunities for workers everywhere,” agreed Smith. “But there is not enough focus on decent jobs.”

[See also: The UK home decarbonisation debate: heat pumps versus hydrogen]

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