“Those who will be hit by the shift to net zero must not be left behind”
Plaid Cymru's economy spokesperson, Luke Fletcher MS, writes for the Sunday Times
When we talk about a green transition, we have to talk about the need for a green economy. But this can’t mean just closing down polluting industries - we must ensure that this period of transitioning our economy is a just one. Luke Fletcher MS, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for the economy in the Senedd, talks decarbonisation and Wales’ workforce.
Back in the summer, the Prime Minister cracked what he later said was a “joke” about Thatcher giving the UK an “early start” on the green agenda by decimating the coal industry. His comments were rightly criticised. The aftershock of the mass pit closures and the resulting unemployment is still being felt by present-day Wales. His comment was less slap-stick and more a slap in the face for thousands of people across Wales.
That an industry can be closed with no back up plan for where the workers will go, is bad enough; that it happened en masse across whole areas of Wales was shattering, and that the impact in terms of economy, social disadvantage and ill health are still being felt to this day is scandalous.
But the sentiment expressed gives me concern – that such devastation can be retrospectively justified because of the present day need for decarbonisation, without any acknowledgement of the workforce left behind.
What does this mean for our present day industries?
Wales has a higher share of energy intensive industries, such as steel manufacturing, petroleum refining, and cement manufacturing. One in five workers are also in climate critical sectors such as manufacturing, construction, transport and energy. This has led Wales Trades Union Congress (Wales TUC) to call for a “just transition” to a green economy.
Their fear, which I share, is that the mistakes of past industrial changes could be repeated. There is also a real concern that without significant work to decarbonise existing industries, energy intensive jobs and emissions may simply be exported overseas where costs are less, and labour and environmental standards may be lower.
Net zero for the UK must improve the global position too.
Net zero for Wales cannot mean another wave of mass unemployment.
To realise our green ambitions, and to truly deliver a green economic recovery, we need to invest in the green workforce to deliver for climate and nature. Those who will be hit by the shift to net zero must not be left behind.
There is also much potential for new jobs to be created to deliver the massive expansion needed in our renewable energy sector, for low-carbon social housing, and for the recovery of nature. We need to upskill our energy workforce, our housing workforce, our transport workforce, and beyond, to deliver green jobs for green outcomes.
We can only deliver the expansion needed if we have the workforce in place to actually implement solutions. The reskilling of workers in high-carbon industries to the industries of the future must happen now.
Climate change is a global issue, but all governments be empowered to tackle the crisis head on. This is no less true for the Welsh Government, and we must consider the fact that our aims will fall short if we can’t take full advantage of our vast natural resources. Powers over the Crown Estate in Wales are still held in Westminster, while the Crown Estate is already devolved to Scotland.
The Crown Estate’s control over our seabed, let alone large tracts of land, means that Wales could easily lose out on the “green goldrush” from which Scotland is currently benefitting. Some estimates show that the UK Government could raise up to nine billion pounds over the next decade alone from the auctioning of seabed plots to windfarm developers, and the revenues would proceed directly to the UK Government’s Treasury. Our lack of control over our own natural resources is hampering our response to climate change, and this means that Wales is missing out on the green economic rents of our own natural resources while allowing vast sums to flow into the coffers of Westminster.
Devolving the Crown Estates’ Welsh territorial assets would bring our natural resources and their rents closer to home, align them with Welsh decision-making and priorities, and provide us with the means to use our resources to invest in our green future.
The pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to change the way our economy works, and, given the climate emergency, this recovery must be green. The scale of the challenge is both a daunting one, and the reason that the challenge must be accepted in the first place.
Because Wales is rich in renewable energy resources, if we plan now for a clean energy revolution, it could make Wales a world-leader.