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The climate emergency is already transforming the jobs millions of us do. Trade unions are leading the call for a just transition to net zero, so we avoid the devastating deindustrialisation of the past and deliver good, green jobs in the communities that need them most. For us, just transition must be more than just a slogan: it demands bold policies backed with investment. Our guiding principle is clear: change must be done with, by and for working people, not to them.

Trade unions want just transition to be included in national climate action plans, and in the legally-binding UNFCCC agreements. With the right approach, we believe it is possible to square the circle between net zero, growth, and jobs. So what can we do to make just transition a reality – and deliver those green skills and jobs of the future?

Firstly, we must invest big. Workers know change is coming – and we need to be ready. Exploiting super-low interest rates, the TUC is calling for an £85 billion investment in green tech, transport, and energy. From building insulation projects to a world-class network of charging points for EVs, from rail electrification to offshore power, this would create well over a million good jobs. By targeting investment effectively, we can regenerate held-back regions and make levelling up a reality.

Alas the UK is playing catch up. President Biden is spending almost £3,000 per head on the green jobs of the future – here, the equivalent figure is just £180. The UK risks losing 660,000 manufacturing and supply chain jobs if we fall further behind our competitors on net zero. Many of the industries on the frontline – from steel to chemicals – are in so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats.

Secondly, we must ensure we create good, skilled jobs. This is a tremendous opportunity to tackle insecurity and low pay, and deliver the kind of jobs people really want. From power network engineers to building retrofit coordinators, many of the jobs we need to get to net zero are highly-skilled positions. With the Green Jobs Taskforce calculating that over six million jobs require upskilling, we must spend more on the National Skills Fund, reverse years of cuts to FE and staff pay, and provide new rights to retrain and to paid time off work to undertake retraining. This is particularly important for workers in high-carbon industries on the climate frontline.

President Biden is spending almost £3,000 per head on the green jobs of the future – here, the equivalent figure is just £180

Unions can play a key role delivering green skills. The Green Jobs Taskforce calls for more employers to recognise union learning representatives “in order to increase access to training for hard-to-reach employees”. Stronger rights for unions to bargain collectively on skills would also make a huge difference.

Finally, workers must shape the change ahead. Working people are climate leaders who will help us get to net zero, whether it’s the postal worker managing the switch to an electric fleet at Royal Mail; the car engineer at GKN fighting for their factory to make electric drive systems; the council worker dealing with the aftermath of extreme weather; the teacher inspiring the next generation of activists; or the steelworker making the world’s first batch of zero carbon steel, soon to be used by Volvo. All the above are real workers – and union reps to boot.

I’ve met inspirational workers who are leading the fight for just transition, including Unite convenors negotiating a net zero Centre of Excellence at aerospace giant Rolls-Royce, shop floor staff at the Cummins diesel engine factory now making hydrogen power plants for trucks, and striking recycling workers in Glasgow fighting for fair pay. Workers like them must have a say about how net zero happens. As the voice of working people across the economy – from scientists and academics to transport, manufacturing and energy workers – unions have a unique role to play. Government and business should work with us to harness this collective experience and expertise.

Just transition won’t happen by accident. The Stern Report famously described climate change as the worst case of market failure in human history – and that’s why the TUC is calling for fundamental change. We believe net zero demands a new economic model: more sustainable, more equal, and more interventionist.

There is a strong Conservative tradition of intervention in the economy. Winston Churchill established wage councils to raise pay and standards. Edward Heath saved Rolls-Royce by nationalising it. Michael Heseltine has long championed industrial activism, promising to “intervene before breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner” to help businesses.

The Stern Report famously described climate change as the worst case of market failure in human history

It’s time to write a new chapter in that story. Progressive Conservatives should see strong trade unions as allies in a shared endeavour to tackle the climate emergency. With the right approach, we can secure those good green jobs and deliver a just transition to net zero. Let’s seize the moment.

Frances O’Grady is the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Favourable climate? Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Hoan Ngoc]