James Curran Cop26

James Curran MBE FRSE : Scotland’s contribution to CoP26 – a joined-up Just Transition

James Curran, our guest speaker and formerly CEO of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, engineered a novel event for Probus.  This entailed joining an international webinar organised by The Herald followed by a Club Zoom session for Probus members.  The Herald’s curtain raiser event gave members a sense of connection with CoP26.  A Conference which has put Glasgow in the international limelight.  It is attracting national leaders from all around the world including President Joe Biden.  A matter of sufficient pride to the City that most residents are resigned to good naturedly living with the disruption it’s causing.

The Economist’s leader ‘COP-out’ on 30th October summed up the Climate Change dilemma very succinctly.  ‘The dream of a planet of almost 8 billion people all living in material comfort will be unachievable if it is based on an economy powered by coal, oil and natural gas.  The harms from the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide would eventually pile up so rapidly that fossil-fuel-fired development would stall.’  However, the leader goes on to observe that ‘Investment in fossil fuels has fallen faster than replacements have come on line, aggravating the dramatic recent price rises. In the long term it is necessary that fossil fuels become increasingly expensive, but peaks and volatility are destructive. Governments need to build more buffers into the current system as well as hasten alternatives……’  This is part of the debate on a ‘Just Transition’ which is the thrust of James talk.

Herald Webinar

The Morning Session of the webinar scene was set by Martin Valenti, Director for Net Zero, South of Scotland Enterprise.  He observed that historically the governments of the world offered a false choice between the Economy or the Environment when determining strategies and priorities.  The current ongoing effects of Climate Change are demonstrating that both have to be taken together to avoid long term disaster.  However, Martin said it can’t all be done by governments and challenged delegates to do their bit in tackling Climate Change.  A difficult ask when so much leadership is required from our governments to ensure systemic change in national economies, housing, transport, agriculture and the environment.  He asked the question ‘Is Scotland on its toes?  Something we hoped to learn from the session to follow.

The keynote message from Richard Lochhead MSP, Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work, is that Scotland is ahead of the game.  Something perhaps suggested in his ministerial title.  A recognition that the future transition required to achieve Climate Change targets should be fair for everyone.  A key part in the Scottish Government’s strategy to tackle future change is to be guided by the independent Just Transition Commission established in 2019.  It is charged with the production of Just Transition Plans, in a way that is co-designed and co-delivered by communities, businesses, unions and workers, and all society.  The Commission’s Report of 2021 provided James with his framework for discussion at the Morning Session Panel

Panel Discussion

The panellists were Richard Hardy (Trade Union), Shaun McLeod (Industry), Lynn McEwan (Industry), Poonam Malik (Scottish Enterprise) and Professor Jim Skea (Just Transition Commissioner & Professor of Sustainable Energy, University College London).

James chose to use the four main themes to emerge from the Commission’s Report to frame the discussion.  Paraphrased these are to (1) Pursue a fair orderly, managed transition to net-zero; (2) Equip people with the skills and education: (3) Empower and invigorate our communities and strengthen local economies; and, (4) Share benefits widely and ensure burdens are distributed fairly.  Far too much ground was covered in this session to be covered here.  However, some key messages emerged.

 It should be noted that a number of the panellists had seen at first hand the devastation caused by rapid change.  James the loss of traditional industries in Greater Glasgow in the 1970s and 1980s.  Jim the closure of a shipyard in Dundee putting an uncle out of a job. And, Richard, who has observed his former coal mining village die after its mine’s closure and still hasn’t recovered to this day.  Experiences which provide a good basis for understanding the government’s objective of seeking a Just Transition as the Country tackles climate change by 2045 (or 2050).

Some key points to emerge

  • There has been failure to manage change fairly in the past; eg failure to attract new investment and to re-train and educate
  • The essential features for the Management of Change for a Just Transition are considered to be : (1) A holistic or comprehensive approach: (2) It’s about process not just outcomes: (3) Change requires monitoring and stewardship; (4) Collaboration essential to balance profit, people and the planet; and (5) There is a need to plan change. We can’t wait for the economy or the market place to deliver.
  • Community empowerment can work; eg Eigg – community turning the island around, because local enterprise was previously stifled by a disinterested owner.
  • Spreading the burdens of change fairly. The existing approach to spreading costs of change tends to be unfair; eg a flat charge in our energy bills to cover the cost of subsidising renewables.
  • Can Scotland Lead? Yes, look at places like the Ruhr and Ohio Valleys which have locally tackled industrial decline and provide useful examples of local leadership.

Kelvin Probus discussion led by James Curran

James’ session with Probus members opened with his reflections on the Importance of the Glasgow CoP 26 event.  He has been working with Climate Change in Scotland for the last 30 years.  Unfortunately the deniers and delayers, similar to the tobacco, asbestos and leaded petrol industries, have succeeded slowing down tackling Climate Change measures so that we are well behind the curve.  In 2018 the Paris CoP Conference had succeeded in establishing a framework for tackling Climate Change but not the necessary commitments to deliver that change.  The hope is that Glasgow Conference will turn this around.

Scotland can have some pride in the fact that it has been a leader in Climate Change solutions embracing renewables such as wind, solar, hydro, pump storage, etc.  To capitalise on these renewables, more is needed such as ‘big batteries’ and interconnectors to exploit the scale of natural resources available.  James says that we’ve done much of the easy bit but we have to tackle the more difficult bit.  This impacts on all of us; eg moving away from our gas boilers to use heat pumps, replace our fossil fuel powered cars, etc.  This is not cost free and some government assistance to ease the financial pain will be required.  In addition, wider change including more active travel and using public transport are also necessary.

Tackling Climate Change will have wide consequences.  The Scottish Government don’t want a repeat of the demise of the traditional industries and have set up a Just Transition Commission.  It has been charged with finding practical steps to help the government avoid the mistakes of the past.  James’ concluding keynote message to start off our discussion was appropriately ‘Let’s flourish in the future!’

The questions and issues which arose from members highlighted long standing frustrations and grievances such as the ‘brilliant’ government Climate Change rhetoric but not followed through with action, the fault-line between the Scottish Government and UK government, the need for government intervention and financial support, etc.  However, one significant point to emerge is that there isn’t an overarching strategy in place which has been evaluated and costed to manage change for our domestic heating needs.  It appears we are effectively proceeding ‘fingers crossed’ with a cocktail of heat pumps, insulation, electric boilers and hit and miss grant arrangements.  Moreover, can the existing electricity network cope if we move wholesale to electric vehicles and boilers?

This discussion led James to observe that he had been a regulator all his life and he felt that ‘good regulation’ could make an effective contribution to positive change.  This author, reflecting on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, agreed.  Considering that the building regulations which applied in 1974, if they had remained unchanged, could have prevented the cladding changes taking place which led to the fire spreading.  The fact is that good regulation provides a level playing field for good practice.  They discourage corner cutting and the incentive for short sighted cost savings.  This has long term benefits for all stakeholders and benefits the environment as well.  James summed it up nicely, intelligent regulation can help direct technology in the right direction so that all benefit.

In conclusion, James succeeded in bringing Kelvin Probus into the fold of CoP26.  We had an opportunity to walk in parallel with world leaders and expert delegates in the climate change discussion.  We have been brought up to speed with Climate Change issues and introduced to the work of the Just Transition Commission of the Scottish Government seeking to chart an orderly transition towards Zero Carbon by 2045.  However, this blog can only give a brief flavour of the event.  Thank you James for arranging access to the Herald Webinar and making our event ‘global’!

Further Reading :

Just Transition Commission 1.0  Report   https://www.gov.scot/publications/transition-commission-national-mission-fairer-greener-scotland/

The four main themes (taken from the 24 recommendations) of the Just Transition Commission 1.0 report


The full 24 recommendations of the Just Transition Commission 1.0 report  https://www.gov.scot/publications/transition-commission-national-mission-fairer-greener-scotland/pages/5/

The Scottish Government’s response to the Just Transition Commission 1.0 report  https://www.gov.scot/publications/transition-fairer-greener-scotland/

James Curran Cop26