The north of England could benefit from decarbonisation – but the government must avoid the mistakes of the past

Wind turbines next to Drax power station in Selby, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The Northern Powerhouse, quite literally, powers the country. Between 2005 and 2014, the region produced an impressive 48 per cent of all renewable electricity in the UK; it’s home to the largest number of coal and gas power stations in England, too.

When it comes to energy policy, however, communities in the North are no strangers to challenge. And the challenge of decarbonisation is one which will need to be dealt with thoughtfully by the national government.

Climate change is the single biggest threat facing our planet. Decarbonisation is therefore a vital and urgent part of the action needed to mitigate the effects of global warming. However, it is clear that steps must be taken to protect the livelihoods of those people who work in carbon-based energy, because decarbonisation stands to have a profound impact on the landscape of the Northern energy sector and the people and communities it supports.

Last week, IPPR published a report which estimates that – as we move to a future in which we see a transition from carbon based to clean energy – 46,000 new green jobs could be created in the north of England by 2030. However, 28,000 carbon-based jobs could also be lost in this time.

It is imperative that the government recognises and prepares for the risk of job losses by ensuring a ‘just transition’ for workers in carbon-based industries. This involves securing the future and livelihoods of people and communities whose jobs are at risk, by supporting workers to access new green, high quality jobs.

Of course, this just transition is particularly important when we consider that the jobs losses in manufacturing and coal in the 1970s and ‘80s devastated whole communities. The impact has been particularly long-lasting because of a lack of policy support. In fact, in 2014, one in seven adults of working age in coalfield regions were out of work, well above the UK average.

As many northern communities continue to the feel the lasting effects of these jobs losses and closures, the transition to a low carbon economy cannot be allowed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

To avoid these mistakes, there are three key policy areas which the government must urgently address. In IPPR’s upcoming energy skills report in March 2019, we will be exploring each of these issues in more detail and provide in-depth policy recommendations for each; but the nature of the challenges must urgently be recognised and discussed here and now.

Firstly, the government’s Clean Growth Strategy and broader Industrial Strategy is not ambitious enough and needs to provide greater long-term certainty to renewable developers. Without this certainty, the opportunities for job creation will not be realised in the first place.

Secondly, the concept of a just transition must be embedded in the heart of decarbonisation policy. While the Scottish government has set up a Just Transition Commission to consider and mitigate the negative impacts of decarbonisation, the UK government does not mention it once in either its Industrial Strategy or Clean Growth Strategy. This must be urgently rectified.

Thirdly, the skills system is currently ill-equipped to provide retraining for workers in carbon-based generation who do not have skills that are readily transferable. In fact, according to IPPR’s Skills 2030 report from 2017, the adult skills budget is set to be cut in half between 2010 and 2020. This trajectory must be reversed and skills training must be better aligned with the demands of local economies.

The inadequate skills system is also problematic in the context of Brexit, where freedom of movement, and hence employment, of EU workers could be restricted. If renewable developers cannot acquire the skills they need in the UK, there is a risk that they will not invest here.

The North has the proud history, the capability, and the potential to continue to power the country far into the future. But this will only happen if the government takes the critical policy action needed to ensure that the transition to a low carbon economy is one which works for the people and communities who, quite literally, power the powerhouse.

Joshua Emden is a research fellow at IPPR. He tweets @joshemden.


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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.