New report shows UK ‘poorly prepared’ to reach net-zero carbon economy

The UK Government must take urgent action to deliver a ‘just transition’ for workers as the country shifts towards a greener economy, according to a new study.

Coined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the notion of a just transition concerns the range of social interventions required to secure livelihoods as countries seek to secure a net-zero carbon economy.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that more than 3.3million people, or just over 10% of the workforce, are currently employed in manufacturing or mining, energy and water supply across the UK.

With a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – and large swathes of UK industry still dependent on non-renewable energy – the report by David Coats, Visiting Professor at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures (CSWEF), sets out a number of key recommendations.

His research examined how industrial change has been handled in coal-fired electricity generation and steel manufacturing, setting those experiences in the frame of technology, globalisation and the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation in the UK is contrasted with the approach adopted in the same sectors in Canada, Germany, Sweden and Austria.

Professor Coats’ recommendations, developed to be consistent with the ILO notion of ‘just transition’ include:

  • Establishing a new Just Transition Commission to encourage a national dialogue between government, employers and unions to ensure ILO standards are met.
  • Encouraging dialogue between workers, employers and unions at sectoral level to ensure the practical application of the ILO’s principles
  • Implementing a comprehensive framework for the involvement of workers and their representatives in processes of workplace change (learning from the experience of works councils in Germany).
  • Imposing obligations on listed companies to produce narrative reports of their human capital management policies, with specific reference to the impact of technology, carbon reduction and the integration of markets and supply chains.
  • The devolution of power and resources to policymakers at regional and local level.

Professor Coats said:

“The UK is poorly prepared to achieve a just transition to a net-zero carbon economy.

“Action is needed to ensure that workers have a voice in the process and a stake in the outcome. The risk of doing nothing is that the UK will experience a ‘slow-motion traffic accident’, where the inequalities produced by the last 40 years of industrial change are widened and deepened.

“There is a compelling case for a revival of the practical social partnership commonplace in other parts of Europe – which we can find in embryonic form in the policies being pursued by the Scottish and Welsh governments.”

The Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures is at the forefront of analytical and policy research on work and employment futures.

Paul Brook is an Associate Professor of Sociology of Work and Employment and Co-Director of the CSWEF at the University of Leicester. He said:

“This report is the latest important contribution by a CSWEF member to public policy debate on building a fairer economy for all based on sustainable, high quality employment.

“David’s work comes to stark conclusions regarding key institutional gaps in the current political economy that need addressing to achieve a just transition. The report is powerful and reflects the empirically grounded, contextualised, and comparative tradition of research at CSWEF.”

The report ‘A Just Transition? Managing the challenges of technology, trade, climate change and COVID-19’ was commissioned by the Alex Ferry Foundation, Community and Prospect.