It is hardly surprising that most commentary about the world of work over the past year has focused on the impact of the global pandemic. While there appears to be a clear path back to something like normality, the impact on business confidence and the level of unemployment remains supremely uncertain. More troubling, perhaps, Covid-19 has emerged in an environment that was already characterised by extreme uncertainty about the scale and direction of industrial change. Exciting and somewhat terrifying accounts had been produced about the impact of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) on jobs - “47% of American jobs will be automated by the middle 2030s”. Globalisation was said to be responsible for falling living standards and declining levels of industrial employment in developed countries. And in the UK, business was having to contend with the increased barriers to trade with the European Union consequent on Brexit.

The biggest surprise, however, is that all the attention devoted to AI, globalisation and Brexit ignores the greatest challenge of all – achieving the goal of net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 specified in the Paris Agreement. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested in 2018, a successful programme of adaptation will “require unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society”. Every sector of the economy will be affected by the need to reduce carbon emissions; the energy system must be reconfigured around renewables; “dirty” industries will only be able to continue if they make effective use of carbon capture and storage technologies; vehicle transport will need to be electrified and manufacturing industry adapted accordingly; most homes will need to be retrofitted and gas fired domestic heating systems abandoned, replaced by hydrogen or renewables. How we work, where we work and how we live will all be profoundly affected by the climate imperative.

The progress towards net zero is likely to be just as disruptive as the first two industrial revolutions (powered steam and electricity) and more challenging than the deindustrialisation the UK has witnessed since the 1960s. Covid-19 has revealed the deep social and economic inequalities scarring our society and confirmed that the UK has the widest inequalities between regions of any major European economy. At the same time, experience over the last forty years has proved that poorly managed transitions can leave the already disadvantaged in an even worse position, with political consequences that are both unpredictable and seismic in nature when they materialise – Brexit is the most obvious domestic example, the British analogue of the rise of populism and nationalism across the developed world.

So far, electorates have largely endorsed the science of climate change and accepted that governments should take the necessary action. But public understanding of what is necessary almost certainly falls short of the reality. The risk, of course, is that climate friendly policies will meet rising resistance if there is no scope for citizen and worker involvement in the process of change. People must see that they are participants in the progress towards net zero, not simply the victims of initiatives over which they have no control. In other words, democracy, including a higher level of democracy in the workplace, is essential in delivering the net zero targets of the Paris Agreement.

An optimist might say that the UK government is alert to the dangers, having announced a Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and established a Green Jobs Taskforce in a context where policy is focused on levelling up the performance of disadvantaged regions to the level of the most prosperous. A more dispassionate assessment would welcome the ambition but observe that current policy and practice is falling short, most notably on the engagement of workers and their representatives. For example, the International Labour Organisation, the UN agency responsible for fixing global labour standards, has produced guidelines for ensuring a just transition. These principles have been conspicuous by their absence in the UK’s conversation about the climate imperative.

The ILO’s broad goals for a just transition ought to invite little disagreement across the political spectrum: full employment, decent levels of social protection (for the unemployed, the old and the sick), decent workplace standards and rights for workers to organise, speak up (individually and collectively) and receive a reasoned response from their employers. The precise means to achieving these goals will vary from one country to another but they all require a strong national consensus involving government, citizens, business and trade unions. Policy will need to be integrated across several domains if a just transition is to be achieved: industrial policy, regional policy, education and skills policy, the social security system, labour market regulation and industrial relations institutions all need to be driving in the same direction if the net zero target is to be achieved by 2050.

As I describe in my recent report for Prospect, Community and the Alex Ferry Foundation, other countries have made more progress than the UK in developing a sophisticated approach to a just transition rooted in the principles of social dialogue*. In Canada, the government established a national taskforce (chaired by the president of the Canadian Labour Congress) to prepare a plan for the closure of the remaining coal mines and coal fired power stations. In Germany, a detailed blueprint has been developed with a similar intention that clearly delineates the role of trade unions, employers, regional and national government. Sweden and Austria are both making rapid progress in preparing their steel industries for a net zero CO2 world by using hydrogen rather than coke to reduce iron ore. A comprehensive strategy document was published by the Swedish employers’ association in 2013 and in Austria both national and regional governments are supporting innovative projects to produce clean steel – programmes that are endorsed by the trade unions too.

So far as the UK is concerned, however, coal fired power stations are being forced off the electricity grid by market forces and the treatment of the workforce is left not just to individual employers but to managers on individual sites. There is no national strategy and no national dialogue. The situation in steel is similar. A government consultation on a clean steel fund took place in 2019 but no announcements have yet been made. It is likely, therefore, that the UK industry will be a decade behind some of its European competitors in preparing for the transition to net zero.

Most seriously, perhaps, the UK simply lacks the institutions needed to achieve a just transition. Regional governance institutions are weak (note the contrast with Canada and Germany) and decisions taken in Whitehall may be poorly matched to the realities of life beyond London and the greater south east of England. The absence of any national institutions bringing together government, employers and unions makes it much harder to achieve the consensus on a strategic response identified by the ILO as essential if a climate adaptation programme is to be seen as legitimate. Trade unions and employers rarely have national discussions about the future of an industry and in most workplaces trade unions or other worker voice institutions are conspicuous by their absence.

A sceptic might say that proposals to fill this institutional gap simply promise a better yesterday and amount to nothing more than a desire to create arrangements that had crumbled by the end of the 1970s – strong and responsible unions, strong and responsible employers’ associations and a government that supported both. The case to the contrary is more compelling: how is a just transition to be secured unless workers have a voice in the process and how can “voice” be anything more than window dressing unless it is articulated by effective and legitimate institutions.


David Coats is the director of Workmatters Consulting and a visiting professor at the Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures, University of Leicester


 *A Just Transition? Managing the challenges of technology, trade, climate change and Covid-19 (Alex Ferry Foundation, 2021)