LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION – PART 3

In this penultimate part of his extended article Mike Downham looks at different forms of local food production. Production and local democracy are fundamental to radical change. Tomorrows final instalment explores demands and organisation.

I’ll consider local food production under four headings: allotments, school gardens, community gardens, and farms.

Allotments

Allotments have a long and mostly successful history. In 1908 the Small Holdings and Allotments Act placed a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments, according to demand. Originally a plot was defined as 250 square metres, based on the area needed to produce enough vegetables for a family of four. With the escalation of land prices and the erosion of local authority funding by central government, local authorities, desperate to sell land they owned, fell behind with provision. This led to waiting times of as long as 10 years in some places. Length of waiting list became a criterion for additional provision, but with the loophole that there was no statutory timescale within which local authorities were expected to meet their obligation to increase provision. By 2007 most local authorities had responded to unmet demand by simply halving the size of plots. Communities responded by trying to persuade private landowners to lease land to associations of local residents. Their efforts often failed, or leases were grudgingly granted with conditions slanted to suit the changing whims of landlords. Private sites are now common but the people working them often experience insecurity of tenure.

Individual plots are relatively affordable, at around £50 a year, paid to the site Association, who pays the landowner. Though plots are worked individually, sites are in practice usually strongly collective in the sharing of knowledge, skills, implements, plants and seeds. For many plot-holders they are an important place of belonging. 

For some people, particularly those living on their own or without children, a 250 metre plot is too big, and plots are often halved. Others, who have developed the knowledge and skills needed to produce reliably good crops of vegetables and fruit on every inch of their plots, would like to expand. “I just wish my plot was bigger” they say.

School gardens

School children love to garden. Without necessarily articulating it they recognise that growing veg and fruit isn’t just play but an opportunity to contribute their work to necessary production. Even nursery children can contribute significantly, their small fingers well-suited to sowing seeds, planting out seedlings and fine weeding. You have to be 5 or 6 before you can wheel a barrow, usually best if you have a partner to help you not to cowp your load of muck before you get to your destination. Digging straight trenches in gangs works well with older children. All ages like watering and love harvesting. Even weeding, notoriously unpopular, turns out to be satisfying if the task of clearing a specific area is shared between the right number of hands or hoes.

The learning opportunities in all this are enormous – I’ve heard primary teachers say they can teach everything on the curriculum while children are working in a veg garden – plants, wildlife, habitats, ecosystems, climate, weather, maths, history, the meaning of work … and of course food.

But there are certain conditions for making school gardens a success which these days often don’t exist. The first of these is that the garden has to be significantly productive. Too often school gardens are side-lined to an area which is too small, may be shaded and impoverished by trees, bushes or hedges, and may be badly drained. 

Secondly, there needs to be a teacher or a parent who has gardening knowledge and skills, and the time available to plan and work the garden with the children. There’s often no teacher in the school with the necessary skills and knowledge, and anyway their timetable may not give them enough time or flexibility to devote to learning in the garden. Parents sometimes or grand parents often come to the rescue, but they are increasingly unlikely to be able to give enough time now that two or more jobs per family is the norm, the grandparents preoccupied with caring for the pre-school children.

Thirdly, the whole educational experience in relation to food only has an impact if children have the opportunity to prepare and eat the food they’ve helped to grow, as experienced by children growing up on farms or in families with allotments or veg gardens at home.  Most larger primary schools have their own kitchens where the school meals are prepared. Many of these schools have school gardens, but few if any of these gardens yield enough produce to contribute significantly to meals in the school.

Secondary schools contract out the preparation of their meals, so students who don’t have the privilege of living in families which produce vegetables are one further step removed from the experience of preparing food from vegetables they’ve helped to grow. 

Image: Pete Cannell CC0

Community Gardens

The current community gardening movement in Scotland began in the late 60s with a renewed interest in green spaces in cities. As health and social issues for working class people have escalated during the neoliberal period, so has the number of urban community gardens.

Though there is much diversity in the design and aims of these gardens, the main driver has been social or therapeutic, rather than scale of production. In terms of physical and mental health, community adhesion and organisation, and as habitats for wildlife, community gardens have become important for a large number of communities.

Among the many benefits of community gardens, the therapeutic opportunity they offer to people with mental health issues stands out as a priority. At this moment there’s a conjuncture between on the one hand a new wave, precipitated by lockdown, in the epidemic of mental health issues spawned by neoliberalism 40 years ago and inflamed over the last ten of those years by austerity; and on the other hand the dialectic response to that epidemic now emerging in the revolutionary form of tearing up 60 years of psychiatry. Community gardens have the potential to play an important part in the new multidisciplinary mental health service.

But most community gardens are not productive to a significant scale. One reason for this is that they are generally sited on land whose fertility and soil structure have been compromised by previous industrial use. They are physically hard to work, and fertility isn’t easy to restore unless there is a farm or stable nearby. As with education, the health and social benefits of growing fruit and vegetables are enhanced if production is significant in relation to use by the number of people involved 

Farms

By ‘farm’ I mean any area of land for commercial food production too large to be farmed by hand, whatever its acreage. Defining a farm according to its acreage isn’t helpful because production methods depend on what is being produced, which in turn depends on the quality of the particular piece of land. It’s perfectly possible to raise a cow, a few sheep or goats, or hens on an acre of poor land without mechanisation or draft animal power, but very difficult to grow vegetables or fruit by hand on an acre of good land, unless it’s in a walled garden or covered by greenhouses or polytunnels. The term ‘market garden’, which attempted to capture 1-10 acres of land good enough for the production of vegetables and fruit, was never well-defined and has fallen out of use. With the escalation of land commodification, if you google ‘smallholdings’ you are offered for sale at extortionate prices every manner of land which can just about get away with not being called a garden along with a house. In the Highlands and Islands we also have crofts, which, despite their importance to remote communities and in relation to the radical legislation governing their land tenure, I’ll leave to one side because they aren’t able to contribute significantly to food production for urban populations by virtue of their location.

Farms, so defined, will play a highly significant part in a radical GND. Scotland is particularly well provided with land and climate suitable for growing vegetables, fruit and cereals in the east and for raising cattle and sheep in the west. Much of this land is close enough to the centres of population to supply locally, and the quantity of food production land is adequate for the size of Scotland’s population. There are not many countries in the world which are in this fortunate position. In this context agricultural skills and knowledge have remained strong despite industrialisation. Exceptional skills in low-cost field-scale vegetable production have developed in the face of low profitability, absence of subsidies (in contrast to other agricultural products) and increasingly fickle weather as a result of global warming.

Yet a staggering 80% of food is imported (that’s a UK-wide figure – I’m not aware of a separate figure for Scotland but there’s no reason to think it would be much different). The chief reason for this mismatch is of course the global commodification of food. What determines the food we eat isn’t where it comes from, how healthy it is, or the impacts of its production and distribution on carbon emissions and biodiversity, but how profitable it is to the big food corporations.  

But the other big reason we don’t eat more food produced in Scotland is the price of land. If people had affordable access to land, we could have more allotments, more community gardens sited on good growing land, not the left-over, infertile land which nobody wants, and bigger and better school gardens. 

And if affordable land was available we could have more farms producing for the local market, with lots of new job opportunities – a range of jobs all of which would be satisfying because they have a close connection to a product essential to society, and which would include jobs to suit people with different physical and mental abilities . We could have farms of 1 to 5 acres for people who want to have a go at producing food commercially for the first time, whether young people looking to make farming their career, or people who have lost their jobs or never had one, or retirees, or people ready to  expand from a successful allotment or community garden. We could have community-run 10-acre farms acting as local food hubs, providing training, advice, start-off tools, seeds and plants for a local network of allotments, community gardens, school gardens and small farms, as well as producing for the local market. We could have larger farms for secondary schools and colleges, as common in the days before land prices exploded. 

In the final part of this article to be published on 13th June Mike looks the kinds of demands we can raise and how we organise . If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.

LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION – PART 2

The second part of Mike Downham’s four part series in which he looks at the extent to which local food production features in different versions of the Green New Deal. You can read the introduction here.

Green New Deals

One of the demand formulations now gathering widespread support is for a Green New Deal. There are many versions of GNDs, but they have in common huge expenditure by states, decarbonisation, new jobs and, to a greater or lesser extent, urgency. Until recently GND movements tended to focus tightly on renewable energy. Proposals then began to embrace additional approaches to decarbonising energy, particularly through improved heat efficiency of buildings and public transport initiatives.

But now something new has come into sight – the idea that a GND should not be focussed exclusively on energy but should cover every sector of society. The International Panel on Climate Change, in its October 2018 Report responding to the Paris Agreement’s readiness to settle for a 2.0⁰C rise in global temperature, said that “rapid, far-reaching , and unprecedented change in all aspects of society” were necessary to limit warming to a 1.5⁰C rise. But their definition of ‘all aspects of society’ included only “land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, cities” – a limited definition of society inevitable given the political influence the IPCC is subject to.

A few months later, in February 2019, Senator Markey and Representative Ocasio-Cortez proposed a more radical GND for the US, which includes job security for all, along with “providing high-quality health care; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature”. But the way this was presented exposed them to dismissive right-wing attacks that these non-energy proposals were just ‘socialist add-ons’.  

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Later last year, in November, A Planet to Win – Why We Need a Green New Deal by Aronoff, Battistoni, Cohen and Riofrancos was published in response to the Markey / Ocasio-Cortez initiative. I was among those who had an opportunity to meet with three of the authors at a ScotE3 zoom meeting on 15th May (see report on this website). They have developed the idea of a trans-sector GND extensively. Just as the root causes of global warming go beyond energy policy to the whole capitalist system steered by the market, they argue for a GND which addresses energy, jobs, housing, transport, recreation, nature conservation, education, and health and social care services. They explain that these aren’t just add-ons, but practically essential to reduce emissions, in three ways. 

By shifting more people from carbon-emitting jobs into carbon neutral jobs, which include education, health and social care services, overall emissions will be reduced. 

Secondly, as a GND can only be effective with intervention and massive investment by the state, market control over what is produced will necessarily be replaced by regulation. Without the distortion of profit, the ‘good life’ will be more closely aligned with the rationales of low resource use, low carbon emissions and well-being, rather than with status based on consumption of what the market tells us to buy.  As the authors of Planet to Win give as an example, people will prefer to spend their money on dancing classes than on another ipad. This shift will leave large numbers of workers without jobs – those who are currently employed by companies selling products which emit carbon, either in their manufacture or their use. In the context of a cross-sectoral GND these workers can readily be offered carbon-saving or carbon neutral jobs, accompanied by whatever training they need.

Thirdly, a just transition from fossil fuels can only be achieved through public ownership under local  democratic control. Local control cannot be truly democratic and effective without removing inequality and poverty. Job guarantees for all workers are a pre-requisite for reduction of poverty and inequality, so we will need a flexible and responsive employment sector. Any job whose purpose is to improve the quality of life, and which does not emit carbon, will be understood as a climate job.

A Planet to Win came out just one month before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The book’s recommendations are extraordinarily timely. They might have looked far-fetched at the point of publication, but now here they are – proposals which we can immediately move forward with and  develop. That they are available at this point is a bonus for the climate movement, which has no time to lose.

The pandemic has not only ripped off the protective blanket from the capitalist system, revealing the bankruptcy of its ideology for all to see. It has also presented us with new opportunities for organising. But before I move on to discuss those opportunities, what is it that at this moment is so important about local food production?

Local food production as part of a Green New Deal

Few would disagree with the importance of local food production, the benefits of which I summarised at the start of this piece.  In contrast, few of the GNDs which have been tabled have dealt with it in any detail. But, if for no other reason, the fact that food production and distribution are estimated to account for at least 30% of global carbon emissions, food has to be given a prominent position in the articulation of any GND.  Furthermore, as agreement grows that GNDs should be trans-sectoral, the argument for putting food at the heart of a GND becomes stronger, given the big but less easy to measure impacts of food on the physical and mental health, security and biodiversity of communities. 

The authors of A Planet to Win acknowledge that food is an important omission from their book, implying that it’s too big a subject to cover in a short book. This perhaps says something about the extent to which American people have become habituated to the commodification of their food. 

The IPCC did not include food in its list of societal factors which we need to address (though it did list land, without saying anything more about it). 

The US Green New Deal recommends access for all to “healthy and affordable food” but is silent on how that might be achieved. 

You could be forgiven for thinking that the EU GND, trotted out again last week by the European Commission in the context of a Just Recovery from the pandemic, does better by giving a whole section to food in its proposals, headed From Farm to Fork. But that section reads, along with its heading, as if written 20 years ago, with nothing more radical than improved labelling.

The Labour Party’s Green New Deal, agreed at its conference in September last year, is broad and radical and has urgency. But the word ‘food’ appears only once in the large document, at the bottom of the list of Universal Basic Services the Party intends to introduce, without any detail about what that ‘service’ would consist of.

All GNDs need to some extent to be country or region specific, while learning from each other about how best to articulate their demands. In Scotland the Green Party’s GND proposals, announced in April 2019, are limited to investing in low carbon industries, restoring our natural environment, giving everyone a warm home, and providing access to cheap, reliable and green transport. Food is not mentioned. 

In contrast the Commonweal GND proposals for Scotland, put out in November last year (the same month as the publication of a Planet to Win) include a wordy 17-page paper on food. This, along with all the Commonweal GND proposals, is about long-term strategy. The proposals do not articulate the urgent demands which we need to make at this moment if we are to limit global warming effectively. They also do not address the imbalance of power which confronts us. Notably, the paper on food says “It’s easy for food to become a class battleground, and we need better ways to talk about it”. But we don’t – a class battleground is precisely where we need to muster if we are to change food policy in Scotland, because the current confused policy is a reflexion of the class struggle, as is global warming. Once we’ve won that battle the Commonweal proposals will come into their own as contributions to the public debate about our collective strategy. To give them the respect they deserve, the Commonweal proposals were put together before the coronavirus pandemic, which has changed everything. 

The climate movement in Scotland needs to make urgent demands, addressing them not only to the Scottish Government but also to workers, including the many who have lost their jobs, or will soon loose them as a result of the coronavirus epidemic and  the simultaneous collapse of the North Sea oil and gas industry. Rapid change will only be achieved through the combined agency of the state and of workers. But we have to be clear first about what changes we are going to demand as part of a radical GND. As there’s been little discussion so far about demands in relation to food, here are some suggestions for starting that discussion. The suggestions are all about the production of food locally. Production and local democracy are fundamental to radical change. 

In Part 3 to be published on 12th June Mike looks in more detail at different forms of local food production. If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.

LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION IN A TRANSECTORAL GREEN NEW DEAL FOR SCOTLAND – PART 1

Over the next four days we publish a series of articles by Mike Downham on local food production in the context of a just transition to a sustainable zero carbon economy

The local food story so far

Growing veg wasn’t in my family, and from what I can remember I never had any contact with anyone who grew veg when I was growing up in London. But from some instinct – perhaps because it’s not so long for most of us since there were farmers in our families – as soon as I had a garden, I wanted to try growing something I could eat. As I liked to eat purple sprouting broccoli and strawberries, I chose to concentrate on those – it was only a small patch in front of a terraced house in central Newcastle. Thinking I’d better do something about fertility, and with no farms nearby to beg or buy muck from, I collected some buckets of waste from the local slaughterhouse. This raised some eyebrows in the terrace, but my reputation was restored when the neighbours saw the size of the broccoli plants and the strawberries.

Having been overpaid by the NHS for 20 years I was privileged to be able to move on from that front garden to an allotment, then a subsistence smallholding, then a commercial farm with a Community Supported Agriculture scheme.

It’s not surprising that people, on their own or getting together with others, have been producing food in their urban neighbourhoods for a long time – it makes so much sense at so many levels. Theoretically the benefits embrace physical health, mental health, biodiversity, food security, food sovereignty, reduction of carbon emissions and political organisation. On top of theory, both the work of producing food and the eating of it are a lot of fun, especially if done collectively. Wherever working class people can get hold of land, in backyards, allotments, unused corner sites, reclaimed industrial sites, school grounds, or, if they can’t find land, in window-boxes and pots on doorsteps, they will grow vegetables and fruit, run hens for eggs, and when they have a bit more elbow room even raise a goat or a cow or two for milk, or animals for meat.

Historical surges in this activity, successfully driven by states because they were so popular, include the UK County Council smallholdings made available for servicemen returning from the first World War; the UK Dig for Victory campaign in the second World War; and urban food production in the Cuban Revolution. These surges did not last for long once war or the threat of war had subsided. In 2006 there was a resurgence of local food production driven by the Transition Towns movement across 43 Countries, mostly in the Global North. But this initiative soon petered out because it did not seriously challenge the powerlessness of communities, particularly in relation to land tenure, even when producers and consumers came together in cooperatives.

Across the Global South, and in the less industrialised parts of the Global North, small farmers producing for local markets are under increasing pressure from one set of capitalists who want to buy their land to farm it intensively or sell it on, and another set who want to sell them chemicals, seeds and machinery as must-haves for ‘modernisation’. Despite this, 70% of the world’s food supply still comes from small farms, and there’s a strong international movement of small farmers fighting to hang onto their land and achieve food sovereignty – the right to choose what food they produce, and how they produce it, in local partnership with the people who eat it. Via Campesina represents 200 million producers across 81 countries.

Image from Local Food Initiative CC BY 2.0

The new opportunity

The conjuncture of the coronavirus pandemic with the rising global movement for climate jobs as the basis of an effective strategy to limit global warming, and with the discreditation of capitalism by its evident inability to deal effectively with these two emergencies, has the potential to change the balance of power between labour and capital.  Demands which were unrealistic a few months ago have become realistically achievable. As consciousness of new possibilities grows, organisations have started to formulate demands, or to push more urgently through coalitions for demands they had already formulated.

In Part 2 to be published on 11th June Mike looks at the extent to which food production is integrated into proposals for a Green New Deal. If you’d rather read the full text of the article you can find it here.

Scotland, Norway, Climate Jobs and Covid 19

The economies of Norway and Scotland have both been shaped by 50 years of exploitation of North Sea oil and gas. Both countries have governments that talk about tackling the climate crisis while remaining wedded to the further extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea basin.  There is however, a sharp divide between the two countries.  After 50 years Norway has the biggest Sovereign wealth fund in the world.  Scotland in contrast has no such fund and UK governments since the 70’s have pursued taxation policies that have resulted in massive net subsidies to the oil industry.  Right now job losses are taking place in the Scottish sector as companies respond to the overproduction of oil and the drop in price – in the worst-case scenario this could mean (including the multiplier effect) up to a quarter of a million jobs lost in Scotland out of a total workforce of 2.6m.

On the 24th May we were fortunate to hear from Andreas Ytterstad who is part of the Norwegian Climate Jobs Campaign – Bridge to the Future.  You can watch a video of Andreas’ introduction below.  This was followed by a very lively discussion in the course of which participants shared questions, ideas and links to resources.  It’s hard to do justice to such a rich discussion but in the rest of this post we have sketched a summary of the issues raised and included links to further reading and useful resources. 

Summary of the discussion

Andreas and others argued that state intervention and public control is essential for just transition. The door we’ve been pushing against is now slightly open – for example the growing scepticism in the Finance Department of even the right-wing Norwegian Government about further investment in oil extraction. All governments are now under huge financial pressure from increased expenditure and reduced receipts in the Covid-19 pandemic. This is an entirely new situation – we can push for things we couldn’t realistically push for before. Oil companies have no interest in funding transition, especially as they are led by men coming to the end of their working lives, not up for taking risks.

There was a lot of discussion about Climate Jobs, what they are and their relative importance in the overall economy.  Speakers noted the importance of studies by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign and the Green European Foundation in establishing a rigorous case for climate jobs.  Andreas noted that even if the current target number is too small it could act as the battering ram to break through to State acceptance of Climate Jobs and Just Transition.  He argued the need to win acceptance of the idea but that by itself it was insufficient.  The campaign also requires the agency of workers as active participants to ensure that ideas become implemented. Offshore workers’ skills will be important in new housing, energy efficiency retrofit of buildings and public transport. We are going to need huge numbers of Climate Jobs across all sectors, not just the energy sector. An aerospace worker added that there is also huge need for Climate Jobs arising from redundancies in the Aerospace industry.

Andreas noted that regional variation is important in planning and achieving Just transition. It will be most difficult in communities, which have grown and are now entirely dependent on oil.  Aberdeen is similar to Norwegian examples, but less remote and therefore more easily incorporated into a national plan. In the meantime we should support even defensive actions by these communities. One speaker noted that in England, Sheffield and County Durham for example, are both developing their own Climate Jobs / Just Transition plans. In both Norway and Scotland (and England) there’s potential for local and regional state authorities to join the Climate Jobs movement.  There were questions and contributions on the role of local authorities from contributors in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Other questions raised in discussion included:

How to fund the transition? Without a national investment bank how can manufacturing of renewables and other socially useful products for climate jobs be financed?

What are these green jobs?

Who will create them?

Who will fund these new jobs/businesses?

What is the response from Norwegian oil workers to transition jobs?

Will the jobs be from the private sector, or subsidised by national/regional governments, or state/regional publicly owned and financed?  Responses to this included ‘That’s fundamental  – I think the devil is not just in the detail of when or how much but also who will own it!  In Aberdeen the oil and local political establishment have ignored and then when they had to, slowly started to talk about transition but mainly to manage it and make sure they were still in control of transition!  What about pushing for transition without them in control?  Where all could the money be taken from.’

What does anyone think of case of Uruguay?  

More links and further reading

Andreas Ytterstad writing on climate jobs for the Open Democracy website

Scottish Government Energy Strategy

Aberdeen City Council consultation and net zero vision

Sea Change Report – the case for transition from North Sea Oil and Gas

In Scotland the Common Weal “Our Common Home Plan” outlines a way in which a six of passive measures to REDUCE energy requirements in buildings AND improve well-being. 

Call to Action

Read the call to action on global climate jobs

Covid19 and Oil Extractivism

In recent weeks we’ve published a number of articles on the impact of the drop in global oil prices on employment in North Sea oil and gas and on the urgent need to protect workers in the midst of the pandemic and seize the opportunity to organise for a rapid and just transition to renewables. Simon Pirani, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies spoke at our 10th May public meeting.

You can watch the video of Simon’s talk here:

As background to the talk and for more information on the North Sea Oil and Gas industry you might also like to read the report on taxation and subsidies to the oil companies operating on the North Sea that we published in February.

If you’d like to look at Simon’s slides without watching the full video you can see them here:

We have a small number of Simon’s book available at the reduced price of £11 (postage extra). Email triple.e.scot@gmail.com if you’d like a copy.

A transition to renewables is coming but will it be a just transition

James Masson is a university student who is also involved with environmental activism. Coming from the North East of Scotland Just Transition is of particular interest to him.  We are really pleased that he’s given us permission to republish this article on Just Transition, which was written as a journalism project.

In recent years, climate change has become a key issue and we are only starting to realise the full impact that it could have on our lives. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth report stated in 2013 that they are 95% confident that climate change is being caused by humans burning greenhouse gases. More recently the UN Chief called climate change an existential threat to humanity. In light of the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is bad for the planet and therefore all life on Earth it seems obvious to suggest we stop burning fossil fuels, and of course we should. However, we cannot forget about all the jobs and money tied up in the fossil fuel industry. 

The North East of Scotland is a region that depends upon the oil and gas sector for much of its wealth. Scottish government stats show that in 2019 the oil and gas sector accounts for £16.2 billion or 9% or Scotland’s economy. The high concentration of fossil fuel jobs within the North East has meant that the employment rate in Aberdeenshire, in 2018, was 82.3% compared to the UK average of 74.8%.

 The North East relies heavily on the existence of the oil and gas sector for its prosperity and therefore we must replace the oil and gas industry with an equally strong industry that will mean the local area isn’t hurt economically. This is a concept that is referred to as a just transition. The aim of a just transition is to ensure that communities reliant on fossil fuel industries are not economically disadvantaged when moving away from fossil fuels and are provided with opportunities to grow economically in other sectors, namely the renewable industry. 

If we want to avoid the worst consequences of climate change a just transition needs to happen very soon. Scotland just like the rest of the world is warming at an alarming rate.

Read the rest of James’ article here.

Overdue! A Just Transition for Scotland’s offshore Oil and Gas workers: Part One

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Taking a battering. Will North Sea oil withstand the coming Covid-19, world recession and Climate change storms?

For over 40 years the North Sea oil and gas industry has been hailed as Scotland’s economic and industrial crowning glory. But economic dips and global price wars have seen the industry drop in both output and workforce over the past decade. And now, the most-deadly of confluences- a Coronavirus pandemic, a global economic recession and a rapidly closing climate crisis- confront the industry with its hastened demise.

In this brief paper we examine the closing economic vice on the industry- a crashing oil price against a sudden and historic decline in petroleum demand- as well as the realities of the urgent need to cut and eliminate carbon emissions in order to offset an impending environmental catastrophe.

But here we will argue that rather than crises spelling the death-knell for workers and their communities, new industries requiring new skills and more jobs should emerge via a Just Transition that can offer workers, their families and communities hope for a secure, bright and clean future.

SAUDI-CALEDONIA

 In his Black Gold Charles More[1] dates the origins of the UK’s North Sea industry to a day in the early 1960’s when a Dutch family’s garden caught fire. Initially investigating for wartime explosives, the authorities eventually discovered that the fire was from an out-burst of gas from hydrocarbon bearing seams that ran west out to the North Sea- towards the UK.  Initially, interest in North Sea hydrocarbons was restricted to natural gas- as a cheaper and cleaner option to town coking-oven gas- but with the founding of a Department of Energy with a sovereign security of supply remit, oil, which was found in equally abundant reserves, became a growing area of interest.

Then following a humbling miners’ strike in 1972, followed by the Yom Kippur war and subsequent OPEC oil embargo and price shock, gears were shifted to put UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) oil production (and nuclear power)- on high priority as energy security hedges. Subsequently a Labour government priority became the setting up of a British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) alongside a similar gas enterprise- British Gas, to ensure the fullest exploration and extraction of North Sea assets.

In late February Scot.E3 released a hitherto unpublished paper which in great detail explained how an intricate range of taxation vehicles and regulations had encouraged oil companies into the North Sea basin by ensuring that blocs would be virtually given away by the device of zero-valuing proven oil and gas deposits whilst also ensuring that capitalisation would be subsidised, investment risk deferred to the tax payer- along with future decommissioning liabilities.

The exploitation of offshore oil resources however, failed to realise any power-generation security of supply in that the oil from the first drillings (Aramco Montrose field developed 1967, BP Forties field developed 1969 and the huge Shell Brent field developed 1971-76) all proved to have oil totally unsuitable for burning in power stations. But nevertheless, UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) oil was able to provide up to 70% of crude for the purpose of refining into transport fuels. But the reserves were substantial.

And overnight the east of Scotland ports were transformed into oil and gas bonanza towns. Texans, Uzbekis and Arabs with exploration drilling skills flocked in- to be followed by newly recruited oil and gas workers with substantial numbers from the declining Scottish shipbuilding industry.  And here it is worth noting that at its peak at the time of the millennium, total UKCS employment was around 600,000.

For Scotland, the offshore waters that proved to be the most fruitful were in the Central North Sea sector where at its peak, over 50% of all N Sea offshore activity took place- the more remote North N Sea and West of Scotland sectors being later in development. And with continued tension between the big OPEC producers and the ‘west’, up until the early 2000’s the UK Continental Shelf resource looked certain for continuous development- albeit on a slight declining output expectation.

DECLINE AND FALL

Oil, and to a lesser extent, natural gas, is the most necessary commodity on the world market. It is also the most precarious and volatile. Slight fluctuations in global growth, political tensions, commodity markets speculation- and more lately, growing environmental concerns, all influence a vast capital intensive and continually technologically evolving industry.

So with these factors in mind we have to then consider the status of the UKCS oil business as both marginal- in terms of total resource strength- as well in terms of exploration, development and extraction costs. Hence the tax and subsidy fiscal environment that the industry has enjoyed under successive UK governments since 1970 as explained by Juan Carlos Boue. But with a vastly expanding global hydrocarbon resource base, it was inevitable that a tendency to over-production would lead to a continued trend of downward prices- a trend that the high cost UK oil business would find impossible to compete under.

Wars are good for oil- particularly wars in the Middle East global energy hub. So some 20 years of Iraq-Iran, the US/UK- Iraq conflict has been good. But in 2014, OPEC led by Saudi Arabia started an over-production war in order to kill off the burgeoning US shale oil industry- which it virtually did by driving oil prices at one point down to $14 per barrel- only to be followed by an oil price 6 month long depression of a price at around $35-40 per barrel. And it is this historical juncture of 2014 that has since cast a shadow on the future of the UK oil and gas industry.

So it is 2014 we should use as the pivotal point where we see the immediate loss of 75,000 offshore and onshore support jobs, after which there is a marked decline in both employment and investment- as well as a weakening of world oil prices alongside a further expansion in marginal cost producers entering the market. By 2015 total N Sea related job losses were put at 185,000.

graphs for north sea

UKCS Report Sept 2019

The balance of offshore UKCS jobs is elsewhere in the Irish sea and West of Shetland.

The oil price recovery since mid-2014 has been patchy but generally upwards. Contract prices have on occasion held at around $100 per barrel, although more recently, $85 pb has tended to be the average price which has been sufficient to maintain global output at a growing over-capacity level. Once again OPEC has attempted to control over-capacity by throttling out-put in a bid to kill off the higher cost and marginal cost fields. In this endeavour, they have sought the cooperation from Russia- a joint venture that although unstable, was able to drive down prices from the $65 pb at which 2020 opened.

But 2020 opened with the signs of a global economic recession. And now the Covid-19 pandemic.

PRICE CRASH…AND GOING DOWN

2020 began with oil prices at around $65 per barrel- which for most N Sea production requiring a $40-50 as a ‘comfort zone’- looked set to ensure a good rate of return on the more ‘mature’ N Sea infrastructure. Output from the N Sea is divided into two grades; Brent and N Sea Light crude. The Brent grade due to its viscosity and chemical content characteristics is a ‘premium marker’ grade, which along with West Texas Intermediate (WTI) provides the benchmark prices by which world traded oil prices are measured.

By early February 2020 the international oil markets had come to realise that a forthcoming pandemic was about to hit an already faltering global economy- and this, combined with the OPEC-Russia oil price tussle- was about to have a massive impact on the future of whole sections of the oil industry- let alone immediate oil prices.

By mid-February N Sea oil and gas prices were ($ per barrel or unit):

Brent                         32.93

N Sea Light              25.76

Natural gas                1.484

Then by 17th March (at which NYMEX trading was suspended) prices were:

Brent                         28.02

N Sea Light              18.27

Gas                               1.7

And of 20th April:

Brent                         25.93

N Sea Light              15.05

Gas                               1.95

These prices are subject to speculative swings and as such give no certainty to which point the oil and gas prices will level out. But with world oil and petroleum products storage at about 98%, there is clearly little- if any room- left for further production above what is an already collapsing rate of consumption. And it is also clear that world prices for the foreseeable future are likely to remain well below the cost of N Sea production.

But by the morning of 21st April the Financial Times, in a departure from its usual austere and responsible mode, was in full panic flight with a front page screaming about how for the first time ever the commodity markets had turned negative. Overnight the price of premium grade crude oil had been trading at minus $40 dollars per barrel. And elsewhere analysts were suggesting a possible market intervention by producers and traders alike where for the foreseeable future oil has a traded ‘floor’ where a demand-led ‘swing’ of between $10-20 per barrel would be permitted.

However, such a ‘swing price’ would eliminate the higher cost producers such as the US shale sector, the Canadian tar sands, about 35% of OPEC members- and with certainty- the entire North Sea operation.  But in the first stage of the crisis many big drilling and appraisal contractors are already cutting back on their operations with some 40% of forward investment cut overnight and hundreds of workers sacked under force majeure terms with neither redundancy pay nor furloughing support.

If we look at the employment profile of Scottish workers engaged in N sea oil and gas we find around   110,100 overall in the direct production sector. And if we then factor in a c.£45,000 per capita annual income, this translates into £4.95 billion in total earnings of which some c.£3 billion constitutes disposable income into the regional economy per year.

If we look at recent job loss events in the Scottish economy (going back some 30 years) we find that losses in coal up to 2000 were 10,100 and steel (Ravenscraig) 14,000, pale by comparison to what could happen in oil and gas losses. By any measure the present situation represents a schism from which point the status quo is irrecoverable. The terminal collapse of UK oil and gas is now a possibility, which for Scotland would be an economic catastrophe.

Oil has no cover of long-term contracts. It is a Just-In-Time commodity which in the past has been robust enough to weather any market storms. But as Goldman Sachs have reported, the free market advocates of the US oil business have just issued an emergency appeal to the Federal Reserve for a $600 billion bail-out.[1] And at the same time Brent has been trading at a mere $21.54 with its sister marker grade, West Texas Intermediate at $14.85- and falling.

The International Energy Agency now reckons that over 1 million oil and gas jobs will go by the second quarter end of 2020.[2]And if it comes to screwing more effort and more oil out of the workforce- then forget it. Since April 2014 to January 2020 North Sea oil workers have contributed to a 16% increase in annual productivity from an offshore workforce cut of 38%. Furthermore, almost punitive working conditions of 17-hour shift on a 7-day week, with a three week onshore/offshore regime have been imposed- what some workers have suspected as being ideal conditions for the cultivation and transmission of the Covid-19 Coronavirus.

Silver lining

The confluence of the Covid-19 pandemic, a protracted global recession and a mounting antipathy to hydrocarbons in what is now widely perceived to be a growing climate crisis make any return to an oil and gas status quo inconceivable. And from this a North Sea high cost marginal offshore industry faces a bleak future. But the principal asset of that industry- its workforce could be easily redirected to a green economy urgently in need of a growing renewable infrastructure.

The North Sea workforce embraces a wide range of skills only found in the most modern production processes of construction, shipbuilding, aerospace and chemical engineering. This young workforce- average age 34 years- could easily be set to task in a new vertically integrated renewables industry where point of power production to plug via a publically owned and accountable energy company could provide Scotland with a secure, safe, secure and equitable future. For that, a Just Transition is crying out.

Brian Parkin 22nd April 2020.

Sources

 Goldman Sachs. Financial Times, 22nd April 2020

IEA. Energy trends April 2020.

Oilprice daily bulletin quoting Bloomberg, New York 20th April 2020.

Charles More Black Gold: Britain and Oil in the 20th century. Bloomsbury, London 2011.

Just Transition and Energy democracy

Sam Mason is a policy officer for the PCS union and active in PCS workers for climate justice.  Sam introduced the latest Scot.E3 online meeting, which looked at Just Transition and Energy Democracy.  Her introduction is available on the Scot.E3 YouTube Channel.

Sam started by reflecting on the pandemic and the talk that Jonathan Neale gave on the 5th April.   She went on to explain the concept of energy democracy, its’ importance to people’s lives and livelihoods and why, when market solutions have failed, public ownership is necessary for its’ realisation.   Later she spoke about how energy democracy is a necessary part of a just transition to a new sustainable economy and is about human rights and human needs nationally and internationally.  

In the discussion participants in the meeting talked about: rebuilding the union movement as part of the campaign for just transition, the role of the state, the impact of the pandemic and global recession on oil process and jobs in the north sea, limits to growth, greenwashing, the role of hydrogen in a sustainable economy and participatory democracy.  These contributions were not recorded.  We’d welcome contributions to this blog on any of these topics whether you were at the meeting or not.

A Green New Deal for Scotland

The Common Home Plan: A Green New Deal for Scotland

Reflections on the plan dubbed ‘This is how we save the world’.

Common Weal’s Green New Deal for Scotland was launched in November 2109.  A costed plan for a transition to a zero carbon economy, it is an important contribution to the debate about just transition.  Previously we’ve published a summary review of the plan by Pete Roche from Nuclear Free Local Authorities and a video of Tiffany Kane from Common Weal https://wp.me/p8FiJr-cE.  In this post Annie Morgan takes a critical look at the plan from an internationalist perspective.  Annie writes:

There is much that is commendable and doable in the Common Home Plan.  However, there is a lack of an international perspective.

‘No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main‘

(John Donne. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624))

Donne’s writings from 400 years ago have a prescience similar to John McGrath’s play ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’, in our theatres again this year. Donne compares people to countries and his writing is a plea for recognition of our inter connectedness.  The poem is an argument against isolationism and has resonance today in terms of climate change (or as some would say, climate chaos, since change may not describe the devastation already occurring). McGrath’s play is testimony to the centuries old exploitation of people, landscape, land and resources that has blighted Scotland.  Therefore the Common Weal collective are quite right to assert that our land isn’t ‘natural’ nor is it ‘well stewarded’ (Page 57).  The proposals for land reform, national planning approach, reforestation regenerative/agroecological methods are excellent.  Careful planning is demonstrated.

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The Cheviot,the Stag and the Black Black Oil Poster Abbey Theatre Dublin 1974 CC BY 2.0

However, there are considerations in the global context that impact on the implementation of the plan.  I explore these below.

In Common Dreams Brian Tokar summarises the problems inherent in the global capitalist economy.  I have added to the list.

  • Metals, mineral extraction and exploitation of mining workers and communities
  • Oil, gas, coal burning is still dominant and in the control of multi national corporations.
  • Food insecurity exacerbated by climate change
  • Neo-liberal doctrine dominance, read privatisation, deregulation and ‘free’ markets.
  • International Monetary Fund/World Bank/World Trade Organisation stranglehold with continued imposition of structural adjustment programmes (now referred to as Extended Credit Facility)
  • Rise of right wing /fascist governments and influence aided even encouraged by global powers

These all demonstrate that the Common Weal assertion that ‘negotiations at an international level’ are unrealistic, sits alongside, but at odds with Asbjørn Wahl’s perspective on a clear policy on energy (the main source of emissions and global warming).  He argues for a move from market oriented ‘green growth’ towards a position ‘anchored in the need to reclaim energy in public ownership and democratic control’.  The Common Weal report, while consistently and rightly calling for Public Ownership, does not consider the required programmatic shift at a global level. Asbjørn calls for the work of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and the Global Climate Jobs Network and allied networks to be recognised.  Allied groups could include environmental agencies, Climate Activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth and others, ScotE3, the Scottish Trade Union Congress and Trade Unions, Common Weal, students and workers. An international solidarity ethos as described by War on Want would recognise the consequences of climate damage particularly for vulnerable groups and working people and that climate chaos is impacting both here in Scotland/UK and worldwide.

Another impact of IMF imposed programmes is that impoverished countries have to compete with each other, leading to massive over production and lowering prices. Thus cheap imports in the Global North clog Landfills after short-term use.  Examples include the clothing industry (Fast Fashion -the Global Rag Trade), plastic toys, household items and trainers.  This inhibits the progress to the circular economy, rightly called for by the Common Weal team.  A walk round any shopping centre/recycle centre/landfill will highlight the slow progress towards halting the throw away mindset.  Communities in the Global South must be supported in their human rights to sustainability.

That business as usual is the predominant response by both governments is the concern. This is illustrated below in consideration of current energy policy.  Peter Roche does a good job of reviewing favourably, the Common Weal Plan for a Green New Deal.   However, I will highlight, some of what may be considered ‘ omissions’.  I have conflated the categories of Buildings, Energy and Electricity into one section on energy.  I further highlight the international context.  I will pay particular attention to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and Carbon Usage and Storage with reference to the Common Weal comment that CCS is unproven at scale, risks leakage and prolongs unnecessary use of hydrocarbons.  This is totally correct but Energy Voice in 27/11/2019 announced ‘Ground Breaking New CCS charter agreed by the Scottish Government and the Oil sector.’  No progress to public ownership there and the oil giants are calling the shots.  We will have to work hard and quickly if we have any chance of reversing this strategy, which lies at the heart of energy policy in Scotland.  More below.

  1. Energy

New models of public ownership are required to combat the corrupting influence of the extremely powerful extractive industries. The Scottish Trade Unions Congress (STUC) will debate Public Ownership at a Conference this May . The Common Home Plan steers clear of prescriptive political solutions.  In doing so there are two problems; firstly, the reality of the political context in Scotland, UK and secondly, the power of multi-national corporations. Brexit compounds this. In addition, the lack of detail in the ‘how to’ increase the role of the public sector is problematic.  The plan rightly advises and gives practical means of public sector borrowing, ‘quantitative easing’, or new money with progressive taxation to repay but does not expand on how to reverse the current ownership arrangement.  Energy policy itself remains largely reserved to Westminster.  Increased self determination and progress to Independence will be necessary to realise a Scottish Green New Deal, a sentiment that is expressed in the Commonweal plan.

The current political reality is found in the on going influence of a neo- liberal outlook (Growth Commission), the limited commitment to public ownership at state/nationalisation level for energy and the lack of a municipalisation strategy for heating /transport.  Thus great ideas around district heating and integrated, connected public transport may be neglected.  The Common Weal plan alongside the ‘Sea Change’ report demonstrates the increased number of climate jobs, which can be created in the transition to a low carbon economy. The time is now to push for strategies to implement a Just Transition.

The current lack of commitment to public ownership, not least in the refusal to take the Caley rail depot in North Glasgow into public ownership, the refusal to support the Bi-fab workers and the chaotic ownerships of energy provision and renewables in Scotland points to a near future lack in public investment.  Pat Rafferty of Unite outlines the ‘ smorgasbord’ of foreign ownership in the energy sector – ironically sometimes European state owned.  The Bi-Fab story highlights the need for government action-EDF (French) awarded the contract to Siapem (Italian) who subcontracted the manufacture of wind farm jackets to Indonesia to be shipped back to Scotland with a small number of jackets to be made in the Methil yard.  This type of globalisation with companies chasing cheap ‘Global South’ labour must end; decommissioning, arduous work on rigs in the North Sea, is undertaken by migrant workers, paid a pittance.

Furthermore the lack of progress to ‘ Green Jobs’ is undermining union confidence and support in a Just transition with unfortunate calls for retention of Hunterston Nuclear facility, continued Oil and Gas extraction, continued subsidies to ‘Defence ‘ (the Arms Trade) and the biggie – Trident.

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The Common Weal plan does an excellent job of costing the transition in a supplementary booklet.  However, I would argue that current subsidies to the Oil and Gas industries, to the Arms Traders, to the Trident obscenity both in financial and moral terms, and in the deployment of blue hydrogen with Carbon Capture Usage and Storage which is underway will  continue to seriously damage the public purse.  Alongside divestment, a challenge to the Oil industry’s dominance in Carbon Capture Usage and Storage is an urgent priority.

Patrick Harvie (Scottish Greens) noted that

 ‘Entrusting Climate Change Policy to the Oil and Gas industry is comparable to entrusting Public Health to the Tobacco Industry‘  (paraphrasing exchange during FM question time (September 2019)).

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (hardly a left wing think tank) predicts £20-£30 billion costs for the scaling up of the new technologies.  Bio energy with CCS is also of concern with Drax in England in the forefront; expensive and likely to drain money from other ecological restoration projects.  The  Common Weal plan conflates the Hydrogen economy into the most environmentally responsible type – Green Hydrogen.  Oilrigs could be used in the manufacturing of green hydrogen by electrolysis using seawater and wind energy.  However grey hydrogen and blue hydrogen; the grey reforming from ‘natural’ gas (methane), and the blue meaning storing the resulting CO2 beneath the North Sea, is the favoured option at Government and Scottish Investment Bank level.  Common Weal note that Scotland is in the forefront of the hydrogen transformation and the Levenmouth project and Orkney green hydrogen developments are welcome.  Fuel cells for transport could play an important role in decarbonisation (Aberdeen buses already using them).  However, the reality is that the St.Fergus operation (Blue Hydrogen/ CCS)  is well underway and scheduled to come online in 2024.  Shell, Total, SSE and Chrysoar have signed up to the ‘agreement’ with the Scottish Government.  Pale blue dot, the Oil and Gas Technology Centre and Peterhead Port Authority are the partners in North East CCUS Enterprise (NECCUS).  The £275 million CCS project underway by Acorn will be scaled up.  Note the cynical use of greenwashing titles and images – Acorn and Pale blue dot;  a tree, the Earth from the Voyager photograph.  Paul Wheelhouse, Scottish Government Energy Minister declared his delight at the Alliance, adding that CCS was essential for Scotland to reach net zero emissions by 2045.

In contrast, Equinor (Norway state) lobbying of the German Government has failed and green over blue has prevailed.  These discussions are absent from the report, yet they are vital – the Commonweal plan aims to encourage responsible trade ( export)  in renewable fuel. Further research on the role of hydrogen and potential for export is required.

2. Food

Our Common Home suggests that Scotland could move towards self-sufficiency in food production needs qualification. Certainly localised and seasonal production in restored soils with good stewardship and land reform can be highly effective in climate mitigation.  However, available arable land, renewable energy usage, peatlands, wetland, rewilding are all to be considered.  Natural Carbon sinks/trees/hemp also require growing space.

Moreover the IMF/World Bank continues their imposition of structural adjustment/cash crops on the majority world, its practice for decades.  If the ‘Global North’ quickly reduces imports without expanding fairer trade and enabling counties globally to be more self sufficient (as they were once and know how to be) there will be increased food insecurity.  Insecurity made worse with crop failures, lower yields, petroleum based fertilisers, geo engineering and so on.  Again this is a call for an interdependent, intersectional, Internationalist understanding.

3.Transport

The transport section of the Common Weal plan has proposals for decarbonisation, city and town planning, to have local facilities and encourage active travel /recharging infrastructure/discouraging air travel and so on.  The call for a National Transport Company is welcome.  However again there is little detail on moving towards public ownership for public transport.  We require increased public transit – reliable, with greater frequency, convenient and integrated for workplace/hospital/education; these details are missing.  Hopefully the proposed National Transport Company would look at details – for example, expanding underground for Glasgow and expanding rail for passenger and freight throughout Scotland.  A move towards fare free transport to impact on individual car use will necessitate a reversal of private ownership.  The recently announced free fares for under 18’s are welcome but will do little to decrease car use.  Democratic ownership as described by Andrew Cumbers is also important. Lothian buses, although Council owned, has not considered drivers conditions sufficiently and Edinburgh remains at the top of congested cities in the UK. (TomTom traffic index January 2020).  Improved communal transit is vital in reducing emissions and a National Transport Strategy vital to impact on car culture, that is, to reduce individual car use.

The other categories around resource use and producer responsibility could be enhanced by a consideration of the Lucas Plan and the democratisation of the economy with bus driver input to developing integrated routes, engineering workers in heating and so on.  I had a very enlightening conversation with a heating engineer who was fixing my central heating, very knowledgeable on renewables, and I was thinking it would be excellent to have workers input in think tanks and climate activism.  Communities also need to be actively engaged in a path towards greener energy.  Common Weal is well placed alongside climate groups to be encouraging community involvement.

War on Want have good examples of communities fighting back against the ‘Free Trade’ doctrine and privatisation agenda. The current pandemic of the Covid virus may impact on the neo liberal trade agenda. It is important that changes in trade are explored from a Global Justice perspective. Examples are the Bolivian Alliance ALBA and La Via Campesina.  It is hope that delegations from the majority world will be able to attend alternative conferences at Cop26 in Glasgow.  We can learn and adapt strategies.

Finally, the above by no means seeks to undermine the good work and intentions of the Common Weal think and action tank and their supporters.  I will finish on a further example of War on Want’s request to consider the ways in which we can lessen the impact on communities in our move towards sustainability in towns, cities and countryside.  The Common Weal plan considers recycling in the sense of failure and rightly calls for a circular economy.  This article asks for awareness on the obstacles to the realisation of this circular and sharing economy within a capitalist, always for profit, paradigm.  Thus, yes, we have to have optimism that a different world is possible while recognising the long ecological revolution it will take (see John Bellamy Foster). This does not imply that we can procrastinate.  The 2020’s is the Climate decade.  Now or never!  Therefore, one last example of the here and now , what we can do while building for the society outlined into Common Home Plan.  Jake Molloy of the RMT Union calls for large recycling hubs for steel, glass, vehicle chassis, brick and concrete.  War on Want call this Urban Mining.  Landfill mining also: electronic waste is full of precious metals – Anthropogenic waste (all the pollution from human activity) can be recycled to reduce raw extraction. Now there is a transition idea – one that would be labour intensive (that’s a good thing -more jobs!).

Finishing with a quote from Arundhati Roy, Indian Activist and writer.

A new world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day , I can here her breathing’.

 

 

 

 

Just Transition Commission Interim Report

The Just Transition Commission began its work in 2019.   Established by Scottish Ministers its remit is to advise on how just transition principles can be applied to climate change action in Scotland.  It is tasked to complete a final report with recommendations for Scottish Ministers by January 2021.  The Commission published an interim report on 26th February 2020.

Commissio interim cover

The interim report has four main themes:

  1. Planning Ahead
  2. Public engagement
  3. Bringing equity to the heart of climate change policies
  4. Opportunities and the need for immediate action

The report notes that since the Commission began its work both the Climate Change (Emission Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act and Scottish National Investment Bank Bill include reference to just transition principles. However, it is critical of a lack of action by the Scottish Government and highlights opportunities that have not been taken.  The closure of the coal-fired power station at Longannet is cited as a case where the local community in Kincardine contest the view of Fife Council and other agencies that the closure was well managed and socially just.

There is a strong emphasis from the Commission on the need for strategic vision that cuts across sectors and for government leadership and direction.   It contends that the task of making strategic progress across sectors

… cannot be left to enterprise agencies or indeed companies themselves. There is a crucial need for Government leadership.

Further, it argues that the Scottish Government shouldn’t wait for its  2021 report before acting, stating that

We firmly believe that all decisions taken by Government in the year ahead need to be made with a view to supporting a just transition for Scotland. We don’t want Government to wait for our final report to begin planning how a just transition will be achieved.

It notes that current planning approaches are insufficiently rigorous and suggests that all Scottish Government funded investments should be prioritised against inclusive, net-zero economy outcomes.  Planning is essential if we are to avoid the kind of unjust transition that has characterised previous major economic transitions.

While arguing for a much more proactive role for the Scottish Government the interim report doesn’t make recommendations for how a state energy company could be used to drive transition. It’s to be hoped that the final report will say more about this.

While it is critical of lack of action and leadership from the Scottish Government, the interim report is weak on the role of public ownership and democratic engagement.  The former is largely neglected while the latter is viewed in terms of  consultation – there’s no real sense that system change is on the agenda.  This is most evident in the way that the report approaches North Sea Oil and Gas.  The  oil industry’s  Vision 2035 and associated roadmap are mentioned without criticism.  The truth is that aiming for the  North Sea to become the ‘first net-zero carbon hydrocarbon basin’  means continuing extraction and carbon capture and storage on a massive scale.

‘Just Transition’ was prominent at COP24 in Katowice – developed by the workers movement and climate activists – it has been partially co-opted by corporations and government agencies.  It’s critical that the climate movement defends the radical core of the concept.  If social justice is not central to transition then it will not be possible to build the scale of social mobilisation that is needed and the risk of a climate catastrophe is magnified.  Here in Scotland we need to put social justice at the heart of our actions as we build the climate movement and mobilise for COP26.  The Just Transition Commission is asking for civil society to submit their views as it works through 2020 and prepares its recommendations for Ministers.  We should do that.  But even more important is raising the level of mobilisation so that the pressure for action becomes irresistible, system change is on the agenda and corporate greenwashing is exposed as a desperate attempt to cling on to business as usual.