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Worker engagement is critical to achieving net zero

By David Powell on May 30, 2023

Man wearing a filtering mask, sanding by hand a large wind turbine blade in a factory.

New analysis says that net zero transition will affect millions of jobs. Trust in transition is therefore essential, and that’s where public engagement comes in.

The Climate Change Committee just released a report that tells us, in heavy detail and via lots of persuasive numbers, something that’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention: getting to Net Zero in the UK is going to affect a lot of people’s jobs.  

Maybe it’s less than you thought – one in five jobs will see some kind of change, and the vast majority of those will still be around but in some way net-zero-ified. But it still sounds like a heck of a lot of actual people to me – over twice the population of Wales.

The other crucial part of the story is that these changes won’t fall evenly within the UK: as I found in 2019, some local authorities are home to far more firmly high-carbon jobs than others. This particularly affects the East Midlands, West Midlands, and Yorkshire and the Humber, making this story as relevant to levelling-up as net zero.  

In a way though, we’ve heard this kind of top-down story plenty of times before.  There’s another way of looking at this: bottom-up engagement with people. The rubber really hits the road in terms of whether any of these numbers actually end up meaning anything at all, where the messy reality of people’s lives comes in. 

 Listening, engaging empathetically and widely, and giving places and sectors the time, cash and power they need to get decent outcomes: these take time and they are difficult. It requires money and local capacity, because often we’re talking about the end result being compensating people for jobs that simply can’t be smoothly replaced like for like, or as the CCC notes investing in the regeneration of places like Aberdeen where high carbon industry is woven into the fabric of the whole city.   

But mostly it’s hard because it’s about trust, and as our Britain Talks Climate research found, trust is in very short supply. Many people have little faith that governments of any hue are a net force for good in their lives. They feel that the UK has a pretty dismal track record in delivering economic transitions that are, in practice, just. 

So what should we do instead? In 2018 Climate Outreach spent time talking with communities in the Canadian province of Alberta, where entire communities have been directly dependent on oil and gas for employment for generations.  We found great pride in the contribution that these fuels have made to the prosperity and identity not just of Alberta but the whole nation, and a desire for this to be recognised and valued. 

The story we heard about what activists call ‘fossil fuels’ is one enmeshed with local culture and identity. There’s certainly an awareness that the world is transitioning and this is to an extent necessary, and climate concern was definitely present – but pride in a local, shared heritage trumps it pretty much every time. We found a sincere willingness to have conversations about what might come next for the province, but based on dialogue, not hectoring. 

This kind of listening and dialogue works, although it’s important that there’s a headline objective, and that everyone believes that agreeing a way forward will actually change things. An often cited example of this is the negotiated settlement in 2018 between the Spanish government and its coal unions – driven by unambiguity that the coal mines would close, but with the space to build consensus between workers, communities and those with the money on how to deal positively with the impacts.  Trust follows evidence of action, not the other way round: one of the lessons from various climate assemblies, including the UK’s, is that participants need to feel that they aren’t just talking shops.  

The benefits of getting this critical part of the process right would be huge. The greatest positive messengers for the broader pros of climate action are ‘normal people’ who’ve themselves benefited from it.  The new army of heat pump installers, retrofitters, sustainable farmers and the like alluded to by the CCC’s analysis could be powerful advocates for getting on with net zero among people who trust them – both at work, and in their personal lives. 

All of this underlines the case for a concerted focus on public engagement to be at the heart of the government’s net zero programme. And for this work to really focus on people, places and jobs that currently feel like they stand to lose from the net zero transition. That all helps build that wider, ‘common sense’ drumbeat of both concern and demand behind action that helps turn best-case economic forecasts into living, breathing reality.

 

This piece was originally published in BusinessGreen on 25 May 2023. 

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By David Powell

David leads our advocacy work, championing public engagement and effective climate communications with policy makers, politicians and those who influence them.

David has nearly two decades of experience as a campaigner, communicator, researcher and strategist on environment and climate change. He’s worked as Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation and senior campaigner on economics and resources at Friends of the Earth. He has a MA in English Literature, an MSc in Environmental Strategy, and a Graduate Diploma in Economics. He’s particularly interested in the intersection between systems change and individual psychology, and how to build campaigns that harness the deeply held concerns we all have about the climate crisis.

Outside of work he hosts the climate psychology podcast, Your Brain on Climate, and until 2022 was co-host of Sustainababble. He is also the chair of Somerset Wildlands, and spends whatever time there is left running and playing the sax.

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