Reflections on a just transition

| 17th December 2018
What are the UK's prospects for a just transition towards a sustainable future and environmental justice?


In the week that the first oil from the Clair Ridge field west of Shetland was produced, DeSmog UK completed our series on the ‘Just Transition’ — exploring how Scotland could shift wholesale from fossil fuels into green and renewable energy, and in doing so create new jobs and a new future.

Working as an environmental journalist is sometimes like a walking nightmare. As we survey the global response to the IPCC’s shocking report - that we only have 12 years left to limit a temperature rise to 1.5°C - the oil giant BP declares it hopes to be able to get 640 million barrels of oil from the Clair Ridge, with production expected to peak at 120,00 barrels a day.

Despite this, and without exception, the media in Scotland reported the new field as an unquestionable good, faithfully reciting BP’s press releases.

Radical alternatives

But rather than descend into despondency it’s time to look at the radical alternatives and opportunities that face us.

We commissioned a talented writer and photographer to team up and document the potential for deep change as we face the reality of climate breakdown.

Christopher Silver and Alan McCredie have spent a few weeks travelling across Scotland to interview workers and communities embedded in the fossil fuel industry, and question them about their future.

Their work has a historical depth, looking back for examples and models of radical change, and forward to the potential for a green future for Scottish energy.

This series starts from the basis of understanding that current lifestyles are dependent on oil and plastic, and that we are all to some degree complicit and integrated into the present system. It looks at how the UK can achieve the immediate, transformative and radical changes to the economy and society necessary to address the climate crisis. And it addresses this transformation through the perspectives of the communities that will be most affected.

Kingdom of Coal

In part one, The Kingdom of Coal, we examine the prospects for the future. Silver writes: “Since winning power in Scotland in 2007, the SNP has self-consciously sought to position itself as a leader on climate change. After 10 years of working within the limits of its devolved powers in office and setting world-leading emissions reduction targets, the current SNP government recently announced a Just Transition Commission headed by Professor Jim Skea.

“The potential for an unprecedented step-change, preserving jobs and skills, aligned with calls for a global 'Green New Deal', could open the next, and indeed final, chapter on Scotland’s centuries-long relationship with carbon capital.”

Surveying the region of Fife, pockmarked with abandoned mines and desolate ex-mining commmunities the stark evidence is of a model for how NOT to do energy transition. When Thatcher’s government pulled the plug on the mining industry, in what was an explicitly political choice, and it left many towns facing mass unemployment with no alternatives.

The ongoing issue of the Mossmorran plant at Cowdenbeath flaring stands as a beacon to Scotland’s unregulated post-industrial landscape that blurs the rural and industrial and often treats communities with contempt.

The scale of the challenge to create a viable just transition process is immense. As Silver notes:

“For Scotland to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement, it can only emit a total of 300 million tonnes more carbon dioxide – meaning it has to cut emissions by at least ten percent every year. Whichever way you look at it, this will be the greatest challenge faced by Scottish industry for a generation.”

Aberdeen: City of Oil

In the second part of our series we looked at Aberdeen, the country’s energy capital. While the amount of profits from North Sea oil is a phenomenon in itself, dig a little deeper and the reality is one of exploitation. How can it be that in Aberdeen, the city of oil, there are foodbanks?

Jake Molloy, the Aberdeen based Regional Organiser for National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) said: “All the work that’s getting done on renewables, and in decommissioning, is being done by vessels which carry Filipino, Malaysian crews, exploited on slave labour rates.

“The North Sea has become a dumping ground, literally a dumping ground, for workers to be exploited on appalling rates, in appalling conditions….” 

Last year, this quiet controversy over the use of foreign-flagged vessels, some with crews on as little as £2.70 an hour, was brought dramatically to the fore. In a debacle that lasted for over a year, the 12-man crew of the Malaviya Seven was left stranded without pay in Aberdeen Harbour, after its Indian owner GOL went into liquidation.

The vessel had been chartered by BP and had previously been hired by other big oil companies such as Dana Oil, the Wood Group and Premier Oil. The exploitation and poverty is not confined to sections of the industry.

Poverty in the city has moved higher up the agenda — “oil rich Aberdeen” now has more foodbanks than any other Scottish city and there is a 17 year gap in life expectancy between the most deprived and most affluent communities in the city.

This is the story of a city in transition, without enough thought, planning or attention to how this can be done justly for its residents.

Centuries of Shale 

In part three we looked at the sprawling Grangemouth plant and its role at the very heart of Scotland’s gas and oil industry, and in the final section we looked at the history of hydro in the highlands.

Amongst all of the obstacles to the change we need - a chronic lack of ambition, bedded-in vested interests, a worldview that still clings to North sea oil as a ‘liberator’ and lack of funds and lack of political levers of power - there is still hope.

Looking back at the experience of the extraordinary transformations that took place through the development of hydro power in the 1950s is inspirational

Under the strategic vision of Tom Johnstone, Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, by 1965, 54 main power stations and 78 dams had been built, providing a total generating capacity of over 1,000 megawatts. As Silver writes:

“To put this in perspective, that amounts to roughly the same capacity as one of Scotland’s two large nuclear power stations today. To achieve this, 300 kilometres of rock tunnel had to be excavated and a similar length of aqueducts and pipelines constructed. In addition, 32,000 kilometres of electricity network would be required to distribute the electricity throughout the north of Scotland.”

This baseload energy system has actually given Scotland a strategic advantage that has allowed it to make great strides in developing its own climate change targets.

New opportunities

Nor is hydro at full capacity. Wind pump storage technology has meant that power plants like Ben Cruachan have increased their capacity and unlocked one of the deficiencies of wind power, that it cannot be ‘stored’.

Three huge opportunities seem to present themselves from our research. All of them are predicated from us having the scale of ambition witnessed by the hydro pioneers in the 1950s and 60s.  

First, the opportunity for decommissioning the north sea oil industry and transitioning into offshore wind is an opportunity for coastal towns and job creations but it needs investment and coordination on a scale that is currently absent.

Second, the opportunity for municipal district heating systems - of the kind pioneered by the Glasgow firm Star Renewables and currently being installed in towns and cities across Norway -  would be a huge jobs boost in construction and give our urban hubs a jump start in the energy transition process.

Community renewables

Third, the opportunity for community renewables is laid out. As Silver writes: “In comparison to 150 megawatt Sloy, the new Arrochar Community Hydro Scheme, opened in May 2018 provides a relatively modest 125 kilowatts. But Duncan, who is Chairman of the Arrochar and Tarbet Community Development Trust, remains enthused about its potential as a community asset.”

“Up a steep hillside above the shore of Loch Long, not far from where her older big sister sits at Sloy, the scheme, which runs a turbine off a fast-flowing burn, lies just a matter of metres away from power lines that link into the national grid. It is projected to generate £76,000 each year, and its 402,000 kilowatt hours will provide enough power to meet the equivalent demand from 130 medium use households annually.”

Small-scale decentralised community owned schemes can be at the heart of the transition process, offering resilience and keeping resources within a local economy.

Fourth, the potential for the promised Scottish Energy Company to be a publicly owned green energy company could be the game-changer offering affordable energy to those suffering fuel poverty and a clean energy future.  

All of this requires a change of mindset, a step-change in levels of ambition and an ability to do joined-up thinking and ‘big scale’ strategic infrastructure development that is a challenge to a small devolved nation. But it is possible, and we now know there is no alternative.

This Author 

Mike Small is a freelance writer, activist and publisher working along the fault line of Social Ecology and self-determination. He is the Deputy Editor of DeSmog UK and the Editor of Bella Caledonia. You can read the full Just Transition series here.   

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