COP27 – Just Transition-Washing? [SPA Blog]

By Dr Matthew Scott and Kelli Kennedy, SPA Climate Justice and Social Policy (CUSP) policy group.

Now that the dust has settled from COP27, held in Egypt this November, it is worth reflecting on what lessons we can learn from what has been termed the ‘implementation’ COP. Overall, COP27 has been deemed by many to be a mixed bag, with some major wins such as the agreement over a loss and damage fund sitting uneasily next to the general failure to translate the imperative to keep warming below 1.5C into action. The unsettled feeling about where to place the success (or lack thereof) of this COP extends directly to how the UK can look towards climate justice and action, particularly in the light of the cost of living crisis.

One of our founding members Kelli Kennedy attended COP27, ready to listen to and appraise all the innovations, policy ideas and movements to achieve a just transition. However, by the second week of COP, the very term ‘just transition’ flirted with becoming more of a buzzword than a foundation for policy action. One audience member at a panel event coined this ‘just transition-washing’.

In search of how a just transition could look in the UK – greenwashed or otherwise – Kelli attended the event Just Transitions in a Time of Rising Costs at the Denmark pavilion which sought to address these concerns, particularly from a union and business perspective. There, and in others by industry and corporations, was a focus on upskilling and creating a green economy, some stating workers fuel new business and therefore, in theory, improve their own lives through better employment.

Skills for retrofit

In the UK, nowhere has this theme been more pronounced than in the debate concerning the retrofit of our inefficient housing stock. One estimate suggests that domestic and non-domestic heating accounts for approximately 37% of total UK carbon emissions, around 13-14% of which can be attributed to domestic space heating. The main driver of these emissions is the UK’s incumbent fossil gas dependence, with four fifths of UK households using mains gas to fuel their central heating systems.

Following the dramatic increase of wholesale energy prices from mid-2021, instigated by strong gas demand in 2021 as global economies emerged from Covid-19 lockdowns and supercharged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy is now unaffordable for at least 6.7mn UK households. To make matters worse, a not insignificant amount of domestic heat leaks out through poorly insulated walls, roofs, and windows; as one recent study (among countless others) notes, “the energy efficiency of the UK’s residential buildings ranks the lowest amongst EU countries.” The upshot is that people are paying increasingly more for heat that warms only the planet, not their homes.

Several organisations have therefore argued that retrofitting the UK’s leaky housing stock with insulation and low-carbon heating systems is a national infrastructure priority, as well as a climate and social justice imperative. But it is clear that this cannot take place without significant upskilling of the national workforce.

The industry training board for the construction sector in England, the CITB, has noted that there are major shortfalls in the industry in a high number of specific trades. Most notably, they estimate that the industry needs to increase by 350,000 FTE workers over the next decade to deliver the volume of retrofit needed to reach Net Zero by 2050. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) argue that an exponential rise in new workers, especially project managers, retrofit coordinators, plumbers, and HVAC installers, is required to meet energy efficiency targets in buildings, and Energy Systems Catapult have recently identified three central workforce training obstacles: a lack of consistent curriculum design, a shortage of skilled tutors, and a dearth of policies to stimulate demand for upskilling and accreditation.

At the same time, the UK’s oil and gas sector needs to effectively be wound down, with potential opportunities for workers in this sector to retrain in offshore renewables, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen. However, the CCC’s latest analysis points to multiple policy gaps in this area, including the development of a strategic framework for a fair transition for workers and the UK government’s comprehension of where precisely the skills gaps lie. Most fatally of all, the role of industry and business remains unclear, with the CCC arguing that “credible commitments that go beyond Spending Review cycles will be critical in signalling to businesses and workers that these markets will be profitable and employable in the longer-term.”

A Danish approach?

Back in the Danish pavilion, examples were given where businesses took at least partial risk and responsibility of upskilling workers, with a Danish trade union representative speaking to the ‘virtually non-existent’ unemployment rates, meaning businesses were forced to headhunt and create environments to lure workers to their companies and towards green jobs.

However, answers remain unclear as to how to relate this to the UK economy, especially around retrofitting and energy efficiency. Unless the political and economic landscape was already in a place to facilitate a worker-centric reskilling or green economy plan, the natural default position across many COP events was that a reversion to capitalistic ideals of growth and investor profit would be the key that unlocked a green economy.

In particular, corporations at COP27 argued for incentivising investors and companies towards climate-friendly options, arguing it would redirect our existing systems rather than overhauling them. With this, society spends and creates workers, workers better themselves with their own time and money, and risks are carried primarily by the individual, even during a cost of living crisis.

CO(R)P27: where does this leave us?

With the tension of wider economic restructuring versus worker-led reskilling within existing systems, it’s unclear whether the UK will naturally move towards a justice-informed ‘just transition’. As with retrofitting, centring communities and just outcomes, such as affordable, sustainable energy, has to be a part of the priorities – not just retrofitting our current economic and corporate ‘business as usual’ approach towards a greener future.

Dr Matthew Scott is a Senior Research and Policy Officer at National Energy Action, and Kelli Kennedy is a PhD researcher in the School for Business and Society at the University of York. Both are founding members of the SPA Climate Justice and Social Policy (CUSP) policy group.

Kelli Kennedy was sent as an observer to COP27 by the University of Sheffield.