The practical need to tackle climate change is clear and urgent enough for most of us to immediately understand – but its implementation comes with its own, sometimes rarefied, terminology – the green and blue economies, the circular economy and the 'just transition' among them. 

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions while taking into account “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs” involves the design and delivery of low carbon investment and infrastructure while making all efforts to create decent, fair and high value jobs – in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the current workforce and overall economy.

With this in mind, Glasgow Science Centre (GSC) has adopted Energy, Transport and Travel as the fifth and final theme of its Our World Our Impact climate change programme, which is supported by the Scottish Government and focuses on the challenges and opportunities of a just transition in these sectors as Scotland moves towards net zero by 2045.

If anyone is familiar with the concept, however, it’s Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). He took up the post in 2018 having previously been Director of Energy and Climate Change for the Scottish Government. 

HeraldScotland:

“Just transition is one of these term that often gets bandied around and of course, it means different things to different people. For me though, it’s very straightforward and standing back for a moment from all the detail, the task ahead in getting to net zero emissions is enormous – and it involves change in every corner of society,” he says. 

And while we have to understand the scale of change that we need to accomplish net zero, we also have to understand how fair these changes will be and think actively about what we can do to avoid unfairness in that transition, he explains.

So what is unfairness? “It means not putting costs on people and businesses who can’t afford them. And crucially, also thinking of the jobs involved. 

“We have to manage the societal impacts of that kind of change in such a way that we get the best possible fair outcome at the end of it and remember that there will be a new set of costs that we’re asking the people living and working in this country to bear – so a poor transition would be one in which we levy those costs on people who can’t afford to pay them,” he says.

A native of Glasgow, he lives in the city’s west end, where he has also been working for the past year while pandemic restrictions preclude his weekly commute to London. 

“I’m in a beautiful red sandstone tenement that was built in 1904. It has a gas boiler so soon the heating system will have to be changed and whole building made more energy efficient, which involves spending money. So we have to ask the question: ‘what can we do to make sure that that those costs fall only on those who can afford them?’ And for those who can’t, who picks up the tab? That’s one example of the just transition.”

Another question is what just transition will mean for employ-ment: “There are currently people in Scotland in jobs that will not exist by mid-century in a net zero world so we should be thinking actively now about supporting those people to move into industries that are compatible with that,” he says. 

Despite the challenges ahead, Stark finds much room for optimism. “People are more receptive to this sort of change now and I think one of the reasons is that they can see that climate change is happening: every year there are extreme weather events reported both around the world and here in this country.”

Another positive development, he believes, is that the alternatives to using fossil fuels are becoming deeply appealing in basic economic terms. 

“That’s creating a different kind of discussion. Looking across the whole economy it’s not about the cost of achieving net zero itself; rather it’s about managing these costs so that you spread them across the economy and that you spread the subsequent benefits across the economy. The new, exciting thing is that you don’t need fossil fuels to ensure cheap energy in the future.

“We can conceive now of the changes that need to take place across society and the economy but when you think about the date for net zero, the UK’s is 2050 and Scotland’s 2045.”

These dates though, are actually the same: “For the UK to meet its deadline, Scotland has to get there sooner because it has a greater capacity to store carbon. The reality is that if you buy an asset today that uses fossil fuels, it’s likely you’ll be using it for 15 or 20 years so you have to knock 20 years off those dates to realise the implication of that, which means that by around 2030, we need to stop the sale of assets that use fossil fuels and instead move entirely to zero carbon. And that’s just 10 years away.”

So, Stark says the future means not just doing a bit more of what we’ve done but instead framing change so that by the end of this decade we will have stopped selling petrol and diesel cars, installing gas boilers in homes and stopped selling fossil fuel plant machinery to businesses.

He believes that the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow this year is a critical moment. “Significantly, the smart money now has turned towards net zero, to low carbon and that has not been the case ever until now, which is exciting. 

“Also, the United Nations needs COP26 to work because it’s a demonstration that our global efforts can be rekindled after the pandemic. 

“While we’ve seen a lot of unilateral steps during the pandemic the UN is interested in seeing cooperation between countries and different parts of the world and this is the time to show that is firmly back on the agenda.” 

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‘It is vital to engage the next generation’

ENERGY underpins our modern lifestyles and to help discover how renewable energy technologies can help tackle how it impacts our environment, Glasgow Science Centre (GSC) will soon be sharing learning resources for schools that investigate how we harness this energy from different sources.

GSC launches its Our World Our Impact (OWOI) campaign for Energy, Transport and Travel on Monday, March 29 to include digital marketing and educational packs for schools and community groups about a just transition and is doing so in partnership with the Centre for Energy Policy at the University of Strathclyde which informs and challenges the work of policymakers in energy and related areas.

Jamie Stewart, Depute Director at the university’s Centre for Energy Policy explains: “We focus on looking at the wider economy and the societal impacts of energy and climate change policy – and in particular, how we transition to a net zero world in a just and prosperous way. Fairness is a central element – but there’s also the striving towards a prosperous society in which people have the opportunities to contribute. 

HeraldScotland:

“That means allowing industry and business to continue to operate in a way that both meets climate targets while also contributing to local economies and also to the wider national economy.”

He says the Scottish Government has been providing positive support for ensuring that homes are made more energy efficient but adds: “With the scale of the net zero challenge – and how quickly we need to accomplish it – that will need to be ramped up. 

“In domestic terms, the big challenge is that gas is still predominantly the cheapest way to heat a home, particularly for those that are not so energy efficient –  and that will certainly have to change soon.”

“Partnering with GSC in this is key,” says Stewart.  

“COP26 coming to Glasgow is a hugely high-profile event and ensuring people in Scotland understand what the conference is trying to achieve is really important. 

“The programmes that GSC is running enables people to do this and also appreciate the opportunities it will bring to Glasgow, Scotland and the wider community beyond.  

COP26, he adds, also gives Scotland and the UK a tremendously important stage to show global leadership. “In Scotland, we have a net zero target set for 2045 accompanied by some policy direction with the Scottish Government publishing its Draft Heat in Buildings strategy for example. 

“We’re at a critical stage now, though, where all governments really have to demonstrate what they’re going to do,” he says. 

“Talking with schools and community groups means bringing the widest part of society into the discussion, emphasising that the challenge isn’t just for government, business, or policymakers but  involves everyone, including children who very quickly become young adults who will be soon be making decisions about transport and what kind of homes they  want to live in. It’s vital to engage the next generation.”

COP 26 also gives the stage for Scotland and the UK to show global leadership. In Scotland, we have a net zero target set for 2045 and we’re at that critical stage now, where governments are having to really make key decisions about how we get to that target,” says Stewart.

“Now we have to very much make sure that all of our citizens are behind the plans – and that government policy is aligned to what they will work with, want to be a part of and have the same ambition to deliver,” he concludes.