30 October 2023

Why consent is key to a just transition to Net Zero

By Jeremy Apfel

Honouring the political definition of a just transition is central to the successful achievement of the government’s [legally binding] Net Zero goals.

The concept is straightforward enough – we need to bring the whole of society along on the journey to Net Zero. This entails a comprehensive approach that safeguards jobs in industries affected by the shift to a low-carbon economy, protects the economic well-being of individuals and families, as well as thinking more comprehensively about the impact on communities. The just transition concept seeks to embody the principle that environmental sustainability and social justice are interconnected, with societal consent at the heart of it. It’s absolutely vital in functioning democracies, but even in autocracies like China, there can’t be full transition without the consent of the people.

As the language around Net Zero has escalated over recent years with phrases such as ‘climate catastrophe’ and ‘climate disaster’ becoming part of the vernacular, the political imperative has moved away from consent, and the long-term transition this implies, to becoming more driven by regulation to meet sharper goals. This is best exemplified by proposed bans on the sale of internal combustion engine cars and gas boilers in the UK.

The issue is that these top-down mandates make the transition seem anything but ‘just’ to hard-pressed families struggling with a cost of living crisis. Whilst technology is rapidly developing, the fact remains that people are being asked to adopt technologies that can be more expensive to buy and work less well than those they already have [for example, electric vehicles and heat pumps]. 

These trade-offs are the source of quiet discontent, and consequently we are behind schedule on our Net Zero targets. Take-up of both heat pumps and electric vehicles is well behind expectations (and goals). Even though polls show a majority of people support the overall Net Zero goal, when confronted with making real choices, the ‘revealed preferences’ of the public may be different. The impact of the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone on the Uxbridge by-election shows that policies that seek to improve the environment are resisted when they don’t share strong public consent.

What this likely means is that the concept of the just transition is going to have to adapt from one which has become process-driven and enforced by regulators, which has a direct outcome of costing people more, to one which takes into account how much people are prepared to pay, and how jobs and livelihoods are affected – especially in politically contested constituencies. For example, Aberdeen, which is a key beneficiary of North Sea oil and gas exploration, has seen MPs from all three major parties over the past 10 years.

The Prime Minister took the first steps on this road in his September speech on the government’s revised policy on the transition, stressing that there needs to be ‘more accountability from elected representatives and more transparency for the British public’, ‘[an easing of] the burden on working people’, ‘reducing costs on British families’ and ‘[maintaining] public consent’.

Short of a breakthrough in some cost efficient Net Zero friendly technology, politicians will very likely continue to gravitate back to the original just transition concept, with the longer time frame this implies.

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Jeremy Apfel is a managing director at Pension Insurance Corporation.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.