The deputy prime minister of Spain responsible for the ecological transition describes the experience there of making ‘just transition’ a reality.
We find ourselves immersed in an unprecedented climate emergency, which is putting the current model of development at risk, increasing inequality and affecting especially the most vulnerable. Governments have to lead this transformation and we have to carry it out within the timescales that science sets for us and with the profundity that is necessary—no less.
This is not time to be lukewarm. Either we drastically reduce emissions or the future will be extremely hard for the most vulnerable on the planet and we will destroy a ‘natural capital’ that does not belong only to us but also the generations to come.
In this world of accelerating climate change, we need to be able to act in a manner that is innovative, strong and coherent. We need to pay attention to the direction of the changes in order to anticipate them, to generate proposals that meet the scale of the challenges and to multiply and expand our collective talent.
The only way to avoid climate chaos is if the transformation is taken on as a cohesive, robust proposition—a plan in which everyone has a role to play, in which no one is left behind. Ambition in climate commitments must go hand in hand with ambition in social guarantees, so that the changes that occur do not negatively affect those who have the least, but rather become a catalyst for opportunities precisely for them.
The objectives of the Paris agreement are fundamental to guarantee justice and equity in all societies, particularly in the poorest societies and in the least-favoured strata in all countries. Without accelerated climate action, a just transition cannot be realised.
However, accelerating mitigation policies without deep reflection on who will be the winners and losers of the transition to fully decarbonised economies will not engender the support and confidence of populations and communities who feel threatened by the very important change we have to undertake. Although the benefits far outweigh the adverse effects, attention must also be paid to these.
We have to move forward on climate policies yet while analysing well the economic contexts in which they must be implemented. In many countries, including many European countries, climate policies now have to be implemented in some national contexts where progress in social indicators is arrested or in retreat, where the indicators of inequality do not stop rising. Social indicators going in reverse debilitate in a profound way our ability to undertake transformations of all kinds.
More and better jobs
Employment is one of the fundamental elements to consider, because the incomes of families and their ability to prosper depend on its realisation and its quality. Climate action has to be a vector of creating more and better jobs and it must pay attention to the job losses which some of the associated changes can bring in train. In a country such as Spain, where unemployment levels remain high, this fact has been a key element of our action as a government.
That is why at the national level we have been developing a battery of responses to ensure that in Spain the transition to a decarbonised economy is just. Last year we presented the Strategic Framework for Energy and Climate, focused on facilitating the modernisation of the economy towards a sustainable and competitive model.
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This is about different elements designed together so that Spain relies on a solid and stable strategic framework for the decarbonisation of its economy:
- a draft Climate Change and Energy Transition law, which aims for emissions neutrality in 2050;
- an Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan 2021-2030, much in line with a goal for the European Union of reduction of emissions by close to 55 per cent, with the current rules for sharing out, and
- an accompanying strategy of support and just transition, to ensure that individuals and regions make the most of the opportunities of this transition, so that no one is left behind.
Finally, together with the climate and energy strategic framework, we approved an Energy Poverty Strategy to protect vulnerable consumers. And elaboration of a long-term decarbonisation strategy—a document expected to be delivered to the European Commission in the short term and whose central objective is for Spain to achieve climate neutrality by 2050—is well advanced.
We set ambitious goals from a climate point of view because we know they will create significant opportunities for the country. The Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan will mobilise more than €230 billion over the next decade from private, public and mixed investment and boost growth in growth domestic product against a scenario without such a plan.
It will also allow Spain to reduce its energy dependence and to improve its trade balance by around €70 billion between 2020 and 2030. And it will allow the not inconsiderable reduction, by around 25 per cent, of the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution, compared with a no-plan scenario.
Finally, it will have a positive effect on employment, as approximately 250,000 to 350,000 jobs will be created over the next decade, especially in manufacturing and construction, in a country such as Spain which needs its economy to generate more and better jobs.
We understand however that for the social and employment gains to be optimised, measures must be proposed among the different administrations—within the government (Industry, Labour, Agriculture, Economy, Finance, Education), between the different levels of the administration in Spain, from the local to the state, and through social dialogue, with employers, trade-union organisations and other social actors—to seek the most appropriate solutions.
In this way, our proposal for just transition includes sectoral policies for optimising the results, in terms of employment, of the ecological transition of the economy as the Green New Deal at European level aims to do as well. We consider these proposals key for Europe to continue leading the climate and social agenda.
It is about identifying the areas of the energy transition with the greatest opportunities for job creation (renovation of buildings, renewables, storage of renewable energy, electrical mobility, biomethane, hydrogen) and going beyond the energy transition (the circular economy, the bioeconomy). It is also about identifying proposals to support companies better and driving plans in support of the transition in industry and other sectors.
Training for workers in the skills of the present and the future is an important part of our proposal. We must review the curricula of compulsory secondary education, professional training and university education, for the inclusion of ecological-transition contents.
We must optimise the social gains of the ecological transition, but we also need without a doubt to mitigate the challenges. That is why, for those regions where the energy and ecological transition can put businesses and economic activity in difficulty, we have incorporated a tool for their revival—just-transition agreements, which must propose a comprehensive territorial action plan for them.
Just-transition agreements have as a priority objective the maintenance and creation of activity and employment in the region through working with the sectors and groups at risk, the maintenance of populations in rural territories in areas with installations facing closure and the promotion of a diversification and specialisation consistent with the socio-economic context.
In my first stint in charge of the Ministry for Ecological Transition, we had to face the closure of the Spanish mines and the request to close most of our coal-fired power plant. That is why we prepared an urgent action plan in which we committed ourselves to work together with all the administrations, the companies involved and the social actors on the transition agreements for these areas.
This plan arose from the agreement signed with the trade-union and business organisations for the closure of the mining sector, whose efforts were essential to advance the search for solutions. The agreement was associated with a strong, continuous dialogue with the mayors of the affected municipalities.
The agreements for these coal zones include numerous tools in support of investments, the restoration of the territories, support for industrial projects, the retraining of workers and the development of small and medium enterprises.
Also in a very innovative manner, at the end of 2019 we approved a regulation which allows us to put out to tender the network access and water use, of which coal-fired power plants avail themselves, to the best projects, not only in economic terms but also vis-à-vis employment generation. Two scarce resources in Spain, network access and water, are put at the service of job creation in the areas affected by closures, redirecting investments without the need to be supported with public resources—simply by approaching geographically opportunities and challenges, and taking into account the social benefits of these.
The preparation of the agreements is being carried out by means of participatory processes in which we propose an objective assessment of possible job losses and a commitment to a final list of projects born of the agreement between the parties, which will have to result in the maintenance of employment and population. This should represent a sustainable future project for these territories which were fundamental actors in generating the wealth of today—we have to recognise their contribution, respect their identity and help them to continue to be protagonists of the economic future of our country.
The just-transition agreements which have begun to develop must be signed with the territories which were living off coal in the coming months of May to October 2020. Fortunately, this proposal has generated important social support, demonstrated in the response to the various elections of the last year.
Finding a future
The population of the regions, although anxious and in many cases sceptical of the commitments made after a long restructuring which has been difficult and painful, is dedicated to finding a future for these territories and values honesty. Delaying debate or decision-making does not eliminate the problems—it simply leaves us in a worse position to solve them. Accelerating changes without putting people in the centre will equally have little traction and could lead to setbacks difficult to overcome.
As the priority of this new mandate of the Vice-Presidency for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge, we have the opportunity to make a reality of our promises, demonstrating that social and climate ambition can go hand in hand and can also respect the wishes of the rural population fighting depopulation, in Spain and in the European Union as a whole.
Teresa Ribera is deputy prime minister for the ecological transition and the demographic challenge in Spain, having already been minister for the ecological transition in 2018-20. From 2014 to 2018 she was director of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), enabling it to play a key role in the negotiation of the Paris agreement. She previously served as secretary of state for climate change from 2008 to 2011. She has also taught at the Autonomous University of Madrid.