By John Thorne, Environmental Officer at Glasgow School of Art
The move from a fossil fuel based economy to a clean energy economy will mean major changes within our economy and society – we think for the better. To ensure none are left behind we will need to make a “Just Transition”. Workers, unions, and their communities will be equal partners in ensuring that workers are retrained and re-employed. To achieve this, government and industry must join together to ensure benefits to the economy and environment are maximised, redistributing subsidies and changing tax regimes to create long-lasting, secure jobs that create clean energy.
Big Oil is Big Business: it employs 156,000 people in Scotland, 450,000 across the UK and brought in £6.5Bn in taxes to the UK Government in 2012. 40Bn barrels have been extracted from the North Sea over the last 50 years and the next 40 years could see another 24Bn.
But oil production peaked in 1999, and recent work by Carbon Tracker shows that for any chance to keep below 2°c of global warming we need to leave the majority of oil and gas where it is.
In addition, the oil price is volatile. Open to manipulation by foreign interests the oil price has fallen from a high of $140 in 2008 to $35 in 2016; jobs created by fossil fuel corporations can disappear overnight – the two effects combining to destabilise our country.
Oil is a commodity presently vital for our economy. But its supply, our ability to burn it, and the foreign control of prices means that it is rapidly becoming a fuel of the past.
A transition from a fossil fuel economy to energy alternatives is required. This transition needs to be managed, dismantling the £2.6Bn subsidy the UK oil industry receives annually and repositioning state interventions to support more wave, wind, tidal and solar power generation.
The WWF charity says that another way is possible. Scotland could, with the political will, be almost entirely powered by renewables by 2030. Scottish Green MSPs estimate that those 156,000 fossil fuel jobs could turn into 217,000 new green economy jobs through the transition. Jobs that are inherently more stable than old economy jobs.
Energy efficiency will be critical to support greater use of renewables; continuing development of more efficient lighting and heating systems, transport transformed by rail electrification & moving freight on to rail, continued improvements in aviation engine efficiencies – and a reduction in miles flows, and by a greater take-up of cycling. Insulation of domestic premises could reach nearly 100% by 2050. FoE estimate that this shift to energy efficiency and a switch to renewables will reduce UK carbon emissions to the UK target of 9 GTCO2e by 2050.
For this transition to be Just we need to see Scottish industry take full advantage of the change, ensuring that the market is supported to deliver clean, reliable energy. This will mean further intervention into the fossil fuel industry, managing extraction rates and creating more innovative businesses to take advantage of new opportunities to offer new ways of generating energy.
It will mean upgrading railways and electricity grids, more shipbuilding to service marine energy sites, and research to expand natural and synthetic alternatives to oil and its by-products. It will mean new near-urban forests to supply local biomass power plants, and areas previously on the margins of Scottish society suddenly rise to prominence when their wave and tidal potential is realised.
Managed well, engineers that worked on oil rigs will be retrained to work on renewable energy projects. It also means that businesses must clear up the mess left by fossil fuel industries to ensure that communities move forward with clean air, water and soil.
Renewable energy means more jobs, and profits can be kept by local communities as local schemes generate power for their own homes and industry.
The transition will involve government, industry, academia and unions working alongside communities and workers. The prize is energy whose supply is plentiful, at a price set by a local market and whose future is in the hands of Scotland.