Jim Skea: The climate scientist trying to ensure Scotland has a just transition

Wind turbines on the uplands of Kildrummy Estate, Scotland
A view of wind turbines on the uplands of Kildrummy Estate, in Kildrummy, Scotland, Britain, September 7, 2021. Picture taken September 7, 2021. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne
  • Scotland's new first minister will be responsible for delivering on a legislative commitment, made under Nicola Sturgeon, that Scotland's transition from oil and gas will be just and equitable.
  • Professor Jim Skea of Imperial College London, former chair of working group three of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is chairman of Scotland's Just Transition Commission.
  • With Scotland’s oil and gas sector set to generate £7.8 billion this year this commitment is being tested.
  • But Skea says Scotland's creation of a dedicated ministry and a just transition planning framework gives the agenda the necessary political muscle for delivery

March 27 - Once a marker of corporate exceptionalism, net-zero is edging ever closer to becoming a private-sector norm. More than one-third of the world’s largest publicly traded companies have committed to balance their carbon output by 2050 or before.

Cue an avalanche of blueprints for rapid emission reductions. No plan is quite the same, but all share similar characteristics: energy efficiency, renewables, nature-based solutions, and, “smart” low-carbon technologies.

As a globally recognised expert in sustainable energy, Professor Jim Skea of Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy could not be happier. In his book, all serious efforts to achieve the 1.5 Celsius goal of limiting global warming established by the Paris Agreement are welcome.

But does he think such efforts will succeed? Skea can provide chapter and verse on the merits (and demerits) of companies’ respective approaches (he recently co-wrote a paper comparing different global energy futures).

But he points out that wrapped around every technological solution is a social, political and ethical context, which, if ignored, will scupper even the best net-zero strategies.

“Unless you actually get the whole of society in a broad range of social groups behind you, the transition is not actually going to happen, because you will not get the buy-in,” states Skea, who is co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s working group on climate mitigation.

Considering the non-scientific aspects of the fight against climate change may sound like an odd activity for someone who has spent a lifetime in scientific research. Yet, it is a theme that has occupied Skea’s attentions since 2019, when he agreed to chair the Scottish government’s inaugural Just Transition Commission.

Professor Jim Skea of Imperial College London is chairman of Scotland's Just Transition Commission

Set up under Scotland’s now former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, the commission was born out of the Scottish parliament’s ambitious Climate Change Bill. In an echo of the Paris Agreement, the legislation not only sets a net-zero goal (by 2045 in Scotland’s case), but it seeks to realise this goal in a manner that acknowledges “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs”.

Initially set up for a two-year period, and since extended for another three (2021-2024), the commission has a mandate to make “practical, affordable, actionable” recommendations on how best to “maximise the social and economic opportunities”.

On the flipside, it is also tasked with advising government on how to avoid net-zero policies that could potentially lead to increases in poverty, inequality and other forms of socio-economic exclusion.

Its first set of recommendations, published in 2021, included a call for the appointment of a minister charged specifically with delivering Scotland’s just transition. The government’s assent to the suggestion made Scotland the first in the world to appoint such a senior post (albeit alongside responsibilities for employment and “fair work”.

It also published a 48-page planning framework, which is geared towards guiding national policy on the subject. For Skea, it means the just transition agenda has the political muscle and public attention required for the road ahead.

“These (institutional developments) have changed the pace of it really, really considerably because just transition isn't just a theory anymore, or an ideal; it's something that’s got to be delivered in practice,” he argues.

That confidence will be tested in the coming months as a new first minister takes office after today's election. While Skea insists he is “not anticipating any major changes”, he is not naive to the vicissitudes of politics. Any change at the top risks the just transition dropping down the government’s list of priorities. “All these things could be up for grabs.”

A section of the BP Eastern Trough Area Project (ETAP) oil platform is seen in the North Sea, around 100 miles east of Aberdeen in Scotland February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Andy Buchanan/pool

Skea also recognises the difficult political choices that will inevitably come with the shift to a low-carbon economy. Take energy. Back in mid-January, the Scottish government published an updated energy strategy that envisions moving away from oil and gas in favour of renewable energies, particularly onshore wind (for which there is now a target to more than double capacity by 2030 to 20 gigawatts).

A few years ago, such a decision may have been uncontroversial. Once the engine of the country’s economy, Scotland’s North Sea fields, which directly employ more than 71,000 people, have witnessed years of shrinking margins and decreasing private investment.

That all changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which placed a new emphasis on domestic energy security as well as sending international energy prices to record highs. Even now, with international prices readjusting to pre-invasion levels, Scotland’s oil and gas sector is still on course to generate an estimated £7.8 billion this year, marking a 10-year high.

Given that context, the political backlash to the government’s energy transition plans has come swift and sharp. Describing the policy as a “slap in the face”, Liam Kerr, the Scottish Conservative shadow secretary for net zero, lambasted the government for threatening to “destroy the lives” of North Sea workers and push thousands into early retirement.

Skea takes the reaction as proof that Scotland’s just transition is entering the “tough phase” that inevitably comes with implementation. Too often politicians hide from this tricky reality, he states. Instead, they prefer to present just transition schemes such as retraining and job redeployment as a “kind of magical dust you can sprinkle on difficult mitigation actions”.

The promise of green jobs illustrates the difficulties. The Scottish Green Party calculates that Scotland will have 200,000 people employed in the green economy by 2035. If a government-commissioned survey is to be believed, the number of Scots in “new or emerging green jobs” already totals 100,000 (equivalent to 4.3% of the country’s current workforce). Yet, who will hold these additional jobs in the future? Current trends bode ill. The total of current green jobs held by those in professional or associate professional occupations stands at just shy of 45,000. The figure for workers in caring, service, leisure, sales, or other service occupations? Zero.

Part of the commission’s role is holding the government’s feet to the fire on tricky issues such as these. In a recent letter to Scotland’s Minister for Just Transition, Richard Lochhead MSP, Skea lays out 10 areas where improvements in the government’s recent energy policy could be made, including a detailed assessment of current energy-related inequalities, an equity-focused analysis to clarify “who is vulnerable to negative impacts and what these are”, and more details on the “vanguard role” proposed for public finance in the energy sector’s transformation.

“We are a bit disappointed with the lack of specificity in the draft energy sector plan,” Skea states. “People need to have certainty about what direction we're going in, if they're going to invest in kit, for example, or in (improving) their own training and skills.”

The commission anticipates adopting a similar approach in response to other “skeleton” just transition plans in the pipeline. These will cover transport, land use and agriculture, and buildings and construction, and are expected to be published in the coming weeks.

Skea welcomes the fact that Scotland’s approach extends beyond the initial focus on the energy sector. “In so many countries, it has been about how you phase down or phase out the coal industry.”

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings Patrick Harvie and ng homes chief executive John Devine visit "ng homes" to look at the housing association's work to implement zero carbon heating at its properties in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, August 17, 2022. Jeff J Mitchell/Pool via REUTERS

Equally, he hopes just transition policy discussions will consider demand-side aspects of the issue. He gives the shift towards electric transportation, which, while beneficial in terms of climate mitigation, bring “a big set of issues” for certain vulnerable populations, such as households that cannot afford the up-front cost of an electric vehicle and rural communities without access to charging infrastructure.

Domestic insulation and energy efficiency present a similar dilemma. While Scotland has done “quite well” in terms of retrofitting its social housing stock, Skea argues that there is a real danger that rents may increase unsustainably as housing associations seek to balance their books.

One question is whether wealthy home owners should receive state support to implement energy efficiency measures. As Skea points out: “There is an equity argument that these people should be paying for a bit of the benefits that they’re going to get in the future.”

The examples illustrate not only the complexity of just transition policy, but also its context-specific nature – which may be why Skea is hesitant about holding up Scotland’s evolving strategy as a prototype for others to follow.

“People like that we’ve actually thought it through, prioritised, and put some institutional structure around it, which means the agenda can be advanced (but) that’s about as far as the lessons go.”

It is germane advice for businesses as well, he insists. He points to the example of Perth-based energy company, SSE. A participating member of Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, SSE is one of the first companies in the world to publish a formal Just Transition Strategy.

Skea thinks the specifics of the strategy (built round a 20-point framework) are less important than the time and resources invested in thinking it through. “Whether it sits beside a (carbon) transition plan or is embedded within a transition plan, it’s the fact that (SSE) has thought about it at all that for me is the major factor.”

Skea admits to feeling both pride and nervousness when it comes to Scotland’s performance to date: pride that the country has enthusiastically championed the cause of just transition; nervousness that now it needs to deliver.

The A82 road leads to Buachaille Etive Mor, Scotland, Britain March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

This article is part of the latest issue of The Ethical Corporation Magazine, which is about a just transition. You can download the digital pdf of the magazine here.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Ethical Corporation Magazine, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Oliver Balch is an independent journalist and writer, specialising on business’s role in society. He has been a regular contributor to The Ethical Corporation since 2004. He also writes for a range of UK and international media. Oliver holds a PhD in Anthropology / Latin American Studies from Cambridge University.