Time for Change

Labour has swept to power on a wave of disillusionment and anger at the Conservative Party. It’s an opportunity to fix much that has been broken in this country, to build a fairer society, and also to take urgent action on the existential threat of climate breakdown, which is already causing destruction around the world, hitting those who have done least to cause the crisis hardest.

We need to invest in the future

For decades the level of public investment in the UK has been significantly lower than that of comparable countries. The Labour government has promised to deliver tangible improvements to people’s lives; to repair the damage to public services caused by austerity; and to get the UK back on track to address the climate crisis. These are all essential, but if public spending continues to be constrained to austerity levels, it is hard to see how these aspirations can succeed.

We need a workforce for the climate emergency

Any credible strategy to tackle the climate crisis needs to also be a jobs strategy, as set out for example in the Campaign against Climate Change’s 2021 report, Climate Jobs: Building a Workforce for the Climate Emergency. There are jobs to be created around the country - in insulating homes and installing heat pumps, in public transport, in renewable energy, in shifting to a zero waste economy, repairing, reusing and recycling. And in the rural economy, where farming is already being hit by climate breakdown.

The climate crisis demands that we need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels and no new oil and gas exploration or infrastructure. Jobs in North Sea oil extraction have already halved in the past decade, a trend which will inevitably continue as reserves decline. A just transition plan, shifting to renewable energy that can give this country genuine energy security, is not just needed for the climate, it is essential to protect these workers and communities.

We need a ban and a plan - and a mass movement for a worker-led transition

A CACCTU response to Unite’s “No Ban Without a Plan” campaign.

Launched on 17th of May, Unite’s No Ban Without a Plan campaign aims “to ensure that a future Labour government drops its planned ban on new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, until a genuine programme for the just transition of work is operational”. 

As an organisation campaigning for climate justice, our response to this is unequivocal. 

We stand in full solidarity with militant action to ensure that the transition away from oil and gas is one that is fair to workers and their communities: protecting incomes, providing good new jobs on at least equivalent terms and conditions, and guaranteeing furlough where there are unavoidable gaps in employment or where a worker needs to retrain. 

Equally, we stand in solidarity with the millions of workers, worldwide and in the UK, whose livelihoods, homes and lives are threatened or have already been destroyed by the climate impacts of fossil fuel burning. A ban on new licences, as part of a phase-out of fossil fuel extraction, is therefore non-negotiable; it is not a bargaining chip, a 'concession' to be granted or withdrawn, but an existential necessity for all of us.

On the positive side, the campaign hints at movement in Unite’s position on oil and gas - a recognition that a transition away from fossil fuels is both necessary and inevitable, and can, with the right policies and investment, be achieved without mass job losses. A move towards identifying and bargaining around the terms of such a transition certainly looks like a step forward.

However, we have serious concerns about the rhetoric framing the campaign. We also feel that it misrepresents the situation in the North Sea in some significant ways:

1. A ban on new licences, as promised in Labour’s election manifesto, will not in itself make a significant difference to continuing extraction. It usually takes more than ten years from licence issue for a field to start production, and they have said they do not intend to revoke the large number of licences already issued. These include the vast Rosebank field, whose reserves, if burned, would generate more than the combined annual emissions of the 28 poorest countries. This is not a particularly strong climate policy, nor is it in any way an immediate threat to jobs. 

2. North Sea oil and gas are already in sharp decline. The Scottish Herald reported last November that 200,000 jobs supported by the North Sea oil and gas sector had been lost over the last decade. The real threat to jobs is not having a transition plan for the energy sector and its workforce.

3. As regards ‘energy security’, even the UK government acknowledges that 80% of oil from new fields such as Rosebank would be traded on international markets, making very little difference to prices or to the proportion of oil products used in the UK that come from UK waters. The amount of oil from new licences sent to UK refineries would account for less than 1% of the fuels used in the UK in 2030.

As for the language used, we believe it plays too readily into the populist demonisation of climate action as an authoritarian assault on workers’ freedoms and standards of living, which ignores both the threat climate breakdown presents to workers and their own agency in shaping a transition.

Port Talbot and the future of steel

The recent decision by TATA to close down its two blast furnaces at Port Talbot steel works over the coming year, with loss of around 2,800 jobs, is a devastating blow to both the workers and to their wider community. 

What is happening in Port Tabot is precisely the “cliff edge” of sudden mass redundancies, the threat of which is often ruthlessly weaponised to create opposition to climate action 

But despite the rhetoric about decarbonisation, TATA’s decision to shut down the blast furnaces ahead of starting production with an electric arc furnace is based purely on financial not climate considerations. 

Their decision not to install the additional technologies needed for low carbon primary steel production (as opposed to recycling) is not a decarbonisation plan, but a business plan.

In contrast to this disaster, a worker-led, socially just transition plan would determine the most effective way to decarbonise across the economy, whilst meeting the immense labour needs of new or growing sectors vital to the transition. 

It would do this whilst fully protecting the pay and conditions of all workers affected by technological transitions, whether work is currently available for them or not, as well as during any re-training.

The level of coordination and planning required across numerous sectors is not possible within the context of private companies vying for markets, but implies a need for public ownership of key industries, with full worker participation in planning, and delivery overseen by a public National Climate Service.

Below is a motion of support for the TATA steelworkers written for urgent adoption by union branches, regions and trades councils.