COP26: Skills agenda ‘critical’ for just transition to net zero

An international declaration signed by the UK government at COP26 commits to a socially just transition – which must have the skills agenda at its heart, the conference has heard.

The Just Transition Declaration recognises the need to ensure that “no one is left behind in the transition to a net zero and climate resilient future”, particularly in communities dependent on high-carbon industries.

The declaration’s 15 signatories, among them the UK, USA, Canada and much of the EU, “intend to support communities and regions that are particularly vulnerable to the economic, employment and social effects of a global transition away from carbon-intensive activity” and support affected workers transition to new jobs.

The signatories further pledge to “decent, formalised, and sustainable work”, for new and transitioning sectors, “coupled with effective support for reskilling and training, as well as adequate, inclusive, and sustainable social protection for those in need.

The text reflects the International Labour Organization’s earlier guidelines on a just transition.

“A just transition is about maximizing economic and social gains, while effectively managing the risks in the economic, technological and social transformation,” said the body’s director Vic van Vuuren. 

“There is clear evidence that there will be more gains for the economy and people than losses. This declaration will help ensure that comprehensive and coherent policy frameworks are implemented so that no-one is disadvantaged by the transition to greener economies,” he continued.

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Van Vuuren’s comments were reflected at an event hosted by the Aldersgate Group this morning.

Its executive director Nick Molho said that the potential for job creation on the route to net zero is “significant” – with National Grid estimating that 400,000 people will need to be recruited to get the country there. In particular, the old and neglected industrial heartlands “could stand to benefit from it”, he said, citing the example of how a former lignite power plant site, “has now become a low-carbon industrial cluster”.

However, “you can’t escape that the nature of some jobs will change” over the next 30 years. Around 10% of jobs – or 3m workers – will see demand for their skills grow. But at the same time, another 3m will see their skills become less relevant to the decarbonising economy.

“So we need to really think about this now” to ensure the UK has the skills to ensure industries can keep operating. This means putting in place such basic building blocks as instilling climate change awareness in schools – which the Department for Education says it is addressing – and building capabilities in project management and communications needed for collaborations between industries, such as waste providing fuel for cement manufacturing, for example.

Skills in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – are also in high demand, he added, though there is already a shortfall in graduates. But action is also needed for lifelong learning, said Molho, through the provision of more modular, short-term courses that are more compatible with family life.

“There is of course a financial aspect to this,” he added, suggesting that a “well rounded approach” would provide funding for employees to take time off for training.

More broadly, “skills do not sit in a silo”, so a “supportive policy framework” is needed to drive demand across supply chains, such as has worked so successfully for the renewable sector, he added. “We now need to repeat that” across industry, transport and other sectors, said Molho.