Cambridge author’s COP26 focus on how net zero changes the future of employment
Author, campaigner and Cambridge resident Terry Macalister attended the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow to chair an event which included a vigorous discussion about the transitioning economy – and in particular the future of employment as the transition to net zero gathers pace.
“I was a consultant in the film documentary Black Black Oil which was made for the BBC,” says Terry, whose book Crude Britannia, which he co-authored with James Marriott, went on sale in the summer. “The film was shown at Glasgow Film Centre on Sunday (November 7) and I chaired a debate afterwards with Emma Davie, the film’s director, Prof Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, and Rachel Alexander, a 17-year old Glasgwegian college student who features in the film.
“Then we opened it out to the audience to ask questions and discuss issues raised by the film, which were essentially ‘what role, if any, does North Sea oil have in a future energy transition?’.”
It’s not just a rhetorical question, as readers of Crude Britannia know: it’s hugely relevant for the Scottish economy at a crucial time in its history, says Terry.
“It’s an important topic and very resonant in Scotland because of the politics around the importance of oil to local economy, and it’s played a key part in the Scottish independence debate, which is raising its head again. So that raises the whole issue of how Scotland would run as an independent economy, who owns the oil and what’s going to happen to that oil. Plus, the Green Party is in a coalition with the SNP, so environmentalism is a very hot topic politically in Scotland right now.”
In August the SNP signed a groundbreaking cooperation agreement with the Scottish Greens, creating a majority in the Scottish Parliament for a transformative agenda.
“There’s the question of the Cambo oil field [off the Shetland Islands], which is at the centre of the debate – whether the government gives it the go-ahead or do we stop drilling in the North Sea, do we call a halt to digging fossil fuels up... It was an extremely lively and informative discussion.”
Black Black Oil is not “a hardcore polemic”, Terry adds: it features representatives from BP and other oil interests. “It tries to explore the issues in a really dispassionate way.”
That includes what happens to jobs – the oil wealth and employment which could accrue to Scotland and its underfinanced coffers if drilling at Cambo goes ahead.
“The really interesting thing now is the position of the trade union movement,” Terry adds. “They are betwixt and between the protesters on the one hand saying shut it all down, and the oil industry which effectively wants to keep it going in some form. The trade union movement is in the middle. What they don’t want is to end up in a 1980s situation where coal mines were just closed down. I was born in Leeds and the peremptory closure of North Yorkshire coalfields was profoundly damaging, so how do we engineer a just transition without throwing people on the scrapheap while still ending the use of fossil fuels?
“I listened to trade unionists and climate activists trying to find their way through the complex transition being done in a gentle and effective way.”
And Terry’s personal takeaway from COP26?
“My overriding feeling on my way up was that I was deeply, deeply concerned the corporate sector has not got the will to change and won’t accept the need for an energy transition.
“On the way home my overriding feeling was that the corporate sector has got energy transition centre-stage, but may execute it in a way that benefits them and is done for profit not people, and I fear that the energy transition could be used as a dramatic event that has to be tackled and is used by unscrupulous business owners to make huge cuts and outsource even more, so they benefit from this financially. There are huge dangers for unemployment levels.”
Terry suggests this outsourcing strategy may already be unfolding: at GKN Automotive in Birmingham staff went on strike in September over the potential loss of 500 jobs because key customers – including Jaguar Land Rover – have started the transition to electric car manufacturing and began sourcing components in the EU and further afield.
He says: “One of those in Glasgow who crystallised this for me was Frank Duffy, the Unite union convenor from GKN Automotive in Birmingham.”
Mr Duffy has argued that the UK automotive industry needs to be future-proofed, with the workforce retrained and reskilled because “we need to transition to producing components for EVs, including new propulsion systems and e-drives”.
Terry adds: “The GKN example is a very concrete example of what I fear could happen, and it’s a matter of whether the UK government has the will to defend working people.
“The government is on board with the idea of energy transition but so far it’s all been words, and it needs to be action – so I’m quite pessimistic about the speed at which the policy makers are working and I’m concerned that if there is to be a big push it shouldn’t be done in a dramatic, brutal way.”
Terry didn’t go into the Blue or Green Zones but he did get to the People’s Summit for Climate Justice, a counter-climate conference.
“Roz Foyer, the general secretary of the Scottish TUC was there, plus Denise Christie, Scottish secretary at the Fire Brigades Union – she was incredible. She was saying the number of wildfires in Scotland is soaring and firefighters are being dragged from the towns and villages to fight fires in the countryside and that puts strain on them and their resources as they can be there on the fire site for days at a time, which is demanding on the firefighters.
“She pointed out these towns and villages then don’t have firefighters because the crews are miles away.
“It was a very interesting insight into the practical effects of climate change.”
Terry also had an interesting insight into the laws of supply and demand while he was in Glasgow.
“The prices were £1,400 a night for an Airbnb – some £2,000 a night – but thanks to the Cambridge COP26 organising group I was able to put a message out on WhatsApp about cheaper accommodation and they put me on to a home stay site so a very, very wonderful young woman called Jessica gave me and my co-author James a room – for £10 a night!”
Black Black Oil is on iPlayer. Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped A Nation is published by Pluto Press, £20.