This is part one of two blogs looking at the specific challenges of moving away from fossil fuels in cities that have been historically dependent on them. Dr Daria Shapovalova from the Universtiy of Aberdeen examines the issues of how to carry out the necessary just transition and how it impacts communities in her own city and across the world.
Leaving fossil fuels without leaving the communities behind
While there is no unified definition of ‘just transition’, it broadly refers to a fair distribution of burdens and benefits of the transition to a low-carbon economy. The origin of the just transition concept dates back to the 1970s when it was born out of labour and environmental movements as an attempt to reconcile emerging environmental imperatives with achieving justice for workers. Over time, a wider approach emerged, particularly in academia, bringing together all elements of society in transition, and encompassing energy, climate, environmental and social justice.
Just transition presents some specific challenges in places historically dependent on fossil fuel production. Around the world, ‘energy cities’ like Calgary and St. John’s in Canada, Stavanger in Norway, and Aberdeen in Scotland, are struggling to embrace the new reality of energy transition. Energy cities served as hubs for oil and gas production and are now reinventing themselves to align with new industries – renewables, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
In this 2-part blog post, I will examine the challenges of just transition in energy cities focusing on the common features of such cities in the first part, and zooming in on Aberdeen as a case study in the second.
Climate emergency and fossil fuel production
The climate emergency cannot be solved without a complete transformation of our energy systems. While any urban centre has to deal with the challenges of decarbonisation, in energy cities there are additional complications from the deep economic, social and cultural connections with the energy industry. In order to meet the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming below 2°C, globally a third of oil and half of gas reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050. In 2021, the International Energy Agency estimated that in the net-zero emissions scenario, there is no need for fossil fuel exploration, new oil and natural gas fields beyond those already approved for development, or new coal mines or mine extensions. The 2021 Production Gap report estimated that to follow the 1.5°C-consistent pathway, “global coal, oil, and gas production would have to decrease by around 11, 4, and 3 percent, respectively, each year between 2020 and 2030”. In some areas, production is already declining due to maturing of the oil and gas fields, prompting governments to establish special regulatory and policy conditions to stimulate investment in new production. In the UK, climate tests have been developed by the Government for authorising new oil and gas production but they require strengthening and clarification.
Workforce and new technologies in energy cities
From the energy industry hubs’ perspective, the switch from fossil fuel production to renewables is not a simple replacement. Labour markets in energy cities are often split with the oil and gas industry being the main employer in regions like Rogaland (Stavanger) or North East of Scotland (Aberdeen). Just transition efforts thus often focus on jobs and training, almost exclusively to address the diminishing demand in the oil and gas sector with a corresponding increase in the low carbon sector. While in the long-term the prospects of job creation in low-carbon energy are positive, in the shorter term and based on existing skills structures fossil fuel extraction is more labour-intensive than renewable energy production.
In this context, energy transition in oil and gas hubs is sometimes presented as an opportunity to develop alternative industries such as hydrogen and CCS, in a bid to preserve jobs and capitalise on the existing expertise and human capital in addition to maintaining the primacy of gas as a transition fuel. While these technologies can be important for ensuring a transition for energy cities and regions, many are understandably suspicious of their contribution to ‘business as usual’ and linkages to the oil and gas industry.
Cultural shift in energy cities
Energy cities can be close to the primary production, or further removed but hosting business and political administrative resources necessary to keep the production going. Historically, the presence of the fossil fuel industries has provided significant economic benefits to energy cities and regions. There is often a sense of pride in the endeavour to develop oil and gas resources for the good of the country, and today – in leading efforts in energy transition. The oil industry, particularly, is often seen as ‘pioneers’, with oil cities becoming ‘energy capitals’ over time.
This contributes to a specific culture forming in a place. There are often negative feelings about what is perceived as an ‘image problem’ or ‘vilification’ of oil production and oil wealth. The conflict between the oil industry and climate change causes tension but is often seen as an opportunity or brushed off as ‘someone else’s job’. Local business leaders and politicians express dismay at any proposals to accelerate the oil industry wind down. The cities themselves usually have ambitious local climate planning with little reference to the impact of the industries they are hosting.
At the same time, communities living in energy cities rarely have a say on how energy production is authorised and conducted. Decision-making on large-scale fossil fuel (and often) renewable energy projects is usually done by central authorities, far away from the drilling or the suburbs where communities reside.
Despite this lack of agency, the economic wellbeing of the energy cities is closely linked to how well the industry is doing. The high oil prices in the 1970s brought an economic ‘boom’ to cities like Stavanger and Houston, but the busts of the 1980s, late 1990s, and 2014 hit the local economies dependent on oil revenues. Oil price notwithstanding, oil and gas is a finite commodity and the region must be prepared for the production wind down.
Planning for a just transition in energy cities?
With ‘just transition’ becoming a prominent concept in policy and planning, it is still not clear how this concept can help the energy cities facing a unique set of challenges in oil and gas production wind down.
The narrow interpretation of just transition focuses on job creation and skills, but job creation does not in itself always deliver just outcomes. Just transition planning must not lose sight of the security and stability of such jobs as well as equal access to training and any proposed ‘green jobs’ market. Workers must be at the centre of just transition planning, with heavy casualisation of work and confusion with training and qualification requirements setting the transition back.
Addressing existing social inequalities and revitalising deprived communities who have not benefited from the economic gains of energy cities must become a priority in just transition planning. The benefits of both oil & gas extraction and now the transition industries are not distributed equally between men and women, between social classes or across geographies. For example, in Aberdeen, the creation of jobs in Aberdeen as a result of oil developments has historically favoured men rather than women, and middle class rather than working class people. When the average salaries in the city increase, so does the cost of living for everyone, even those who are not on ‘oil salaries’.
Finally, the democratic deficit in the way energy decisions are made must be addressed in energy cities. Deliberative democracy is key to just transition planning, although it is time and resource-consuming. New modes of decision-making such as the use of citizen and climate assemblies are growing in places like the North-East of Scotland which is increasing citizen voice and pressures in the decision-making system. While assemblies are growing popular and expanding, there is a high level of uncertainty about how the outcomes can be used in policy, the awareness and support of assembly processes by decision-makers, and how deliberative processes can support social change in energy cultures.