Our chances of achieving net zero by mid-century will depend on striking a delicate balance between environmental, social and economic priorities, and learning from the mistakes of the past. It could be argued, for example, that the failure of the UK economy to “auto-correct” in the 1980s was because of a mismatch between social and economic factors: the jobs lost were often in very different parts of the country to the jobs created, and required very different skillsets.
Achieving an equitable green transition will require careful stewardship, says Gregory Richards, who leads corporate engagements on sustainability issues on behalf of institutional investors: “The shift to a zero-carbon economy means upsetting the economic groundings that have guided society for generations. It's incumbent on policymakers, with the support of industry and other stakeholders, to ensure that all workers can contribute to this transformation.”
For Gueye, the need for social consensus is paramount, and at the heart of the ILO’s tripartite approach, which brings together governments, workers and employers. “It is imperative that leaders and decision makers of these three groups align social measures with climate policies targeting net zero,” he says. “Social dialogue has to be an integral part of policymaking and implementation at all levels — otherwise what could be drivers become obstacles to action.”
This tension is clearly illustrated by the “yellow vests” movement, which erupted in France in 2018. This populist protest for economic justice was triggered by the government’s Contribution Climat Énergie carbon tax, introduced in 2013, which had disproportionately hit individuals on low incomes by increasing fuel prices while leaving some industrial sectors exempt.
Issues such as social justice are inherently political — and therefore inherently divisive. But WSP’s Cappell believes that it should be possible to depoliticize the net zero transition. “If you focus too heavily on the social justice aspect, you risk accusations of being a ‘watermelon’ — that is, green on the outside but red on the inside.” To avoid this, he says, every policy or investment decision should be presented not just in terms of long-term climate goals or social equality, but also tangible day-to-day benefits, which could be less divisive. “For example, we know that addressing our ageing building stock is a key area in terms of cutting emissions. The biggest concerns for people living in decades-old apartment towers are the broken elevators, the lack of air conditioning, the cold and draughts. By leveraging energy retrofits, we can rapidly create easily accessible jobs, cut emissions and provide more liveable cities. Ultimately that's what most people want.”
A similar approach has been taken in Chile, where climate change is not presented as the main driver for decarbonization. The country’s historic dependence on imported fossil fuels has helped drive domestic renewable energy initiatives, notably solar and hydro, and more recently hydrogen, which has created jobs and business opportunities. But it is the improvements in living standards for Chileans up and down the country that has made it an easy sell.
“Access to cheap, clean energy from solar installations is particularly attractive in Chile’s colder, less affluent southern regions, where highly polluting timber is commonly used for heating homes, with a huge impact on air quality,” says Juan Pablo Negroni, WSP Chile’s energy, gas and desalination manager. He points out similarly tangible benefits in the deployment of a fleet of 1,000 electric buses in the nation’s capital, Santiago. “It has required investment to reinforce the reliability of the city’s blackout-prone electricity grid, simultaneously benefiting the residents while creating employment openings in terms of maintaining the electrical charging apparatus.”
This awareness of the need to maximize benefits that will secure popular buy-in is gaining traction elsewhere too. The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) — which includes the UK’s second largest city, Birmingham — has enlisted WSP to craft its first five-year plan, guided by five principles: ensuring no one is left behind in the transition; investing in the resilience of places; using its industrial past to create a new future; creating places and connections that help meet the climate challenge; and decoupling prosperity from the consumption of energy and resources.
“There are a lot of technical components around decarbonizing an entire region, but WMCA is clear that they want to have a strong labour market to support it,” says WSP’s Coleman. “They want to know what sort of jobs it will generate, where they will come from, when they will appear, and how to get the population skilled up.”