What can a just and fair net zero transition look like?
What can a just and fair net zero transition look like? It’s a topic that has been on my mind a lot since joining Cynnal Cymru in February as the Senior Programme and Policy Lead, leading our Fair Work and Living Wage team. Unsurprisingly for a charity called ‘Sustain Wales’, we’ve always been a sustainability charity first and foremost. But for a few years now, we’ve worked on developing our aims on ‘just transition’, and that has included embedding the fair work agenda outlined in the Fair Work Wales report in 2019 into our aims. That has meant working with trade unions, writing policy papers on spreading fair work principles throughout existing government programmes, and sitting on the Welsh Government’s group aimed at tackling modern slavery.
We’re also the Living Wage Foundation’s accreditation partner for Wales, meaning we essentially host Living Wage Wales in house. Living Wage Wales has delivered over 22,000 pay rises for low-paid workers across Wales through this work, including 5,575 in 2023 alone – making a direct contribution to tackling the cost of living crisis. This fits with another key Cynnal Cymru principle – focus on action, not just words.
This is what myself and my colleagues on the Fair Work and Living Wage team work on – but what does it have to do with sustainability? I’d say it has a huge contribution to make. We should be honest about the fact that there are vested interests who are opposed to carbon reduction and nature-positive actions, particularly at the scale we know these need to happen at. It barely needs saying, but profit motives very often run against sustainability aims. A tree can be a project stewarded by communities over hundreds of years that provides space for nature and clean air for people, or it can be a blocker to a new car park. At time of writing, it was only yesterday that we heard the UAE government plans to use COP28 to make oil deals.
There are often efforts to protect private profit motives via leveraging the jobs business creates, to bind the inexorable destruction of the natural world to the interests of working people. In this framing, environmentalists and their causes are painted as cloistered from the demands of the real world that most people have to deal with. There’s no hiding from the fact that this can be an emotive and powerful dividing line, carving the people whose world is being worsened away from efforts to protect it. We saw in the recent Uxbridge by-election how action on emissions, in this case Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ), can be utilised for political gain.
Focus on action – not just words.
For me, then, a just and fair transition isn’t just a slogan. It is a vital tool in our efforts towards carbon reduction and nature restoration. If our sustainability efforts are questioned, we can very happily point to the work we do to ensure that people have access to fair working conditions and boosting the pay of those in the lowest-paid jobs so that they can afford to live and not just exist. Work on a fair and just transition can bind working people to the cause of sustainability – not an inconvenience for people, but an opportunity. At a legislative level in Wales, the recent Social Partnership and Public Procurement Act has amended the Well-being of Future Generations Act to include ‘fair work’, and our well-being indicators include payment of the real Living Wage and trade union membership. This binds the cause of working people even closer to the task of saving our planet.
If we get it right, the green transition gives us the opportunity to repair many of the broken elements of our economy. It can mean high-quality, unionised, green jobs spread across communities that have seen unfair working practices and low pay proliferate. Green skills training programmes that prepare our workforce for the future can contribute to bringing an end to the gender and racial inequities we see today. And of course, it can mean the avoidance of the road to disaster our climate and natural world are currently on.
So, as we look at Wales Climate Week and COP28, let’s keep the things that are important to people – their livelihoods, incomes, and their everyday lives – at the forefront of our minds. That’s what a just and fair transition is all about.
Harry Thompson is Cynnal Cymru’s Senior Programmes and Policy Lead. He manages the Fair Work and Living Wage team, which work towards Cynnal Cymru’s strategic goal of a fair and just society. He comes from an economic policy background, having led projects on topics such as empowering trade unions, the Welsh Government’s fiscal framework, and community empowerment.
He is also our Equality and Diversity lead.