20th May 2023
Trudy Morris, Chief Executive, Caithness Chamber of Commerce. The North Highlands are key to Scotland’s transition to renewable power but one size does not fit all for a truly “Just” Transition.
From our expansive living blanket peat bogs, acting as a “carbon sink” across our Flow Country, to the harnessed power of our uncompromising wind and seas, the North Highlands are driving Scotland’s transition to net zero. Arguably the region has played a leading role in energy innovation for many years and our potential to lead on “Just Transition” is unrivalled.
The Scottish Government’s Just Transition Plan sets out the goal of maximising the economic benefit of the drive to net zero, committing to a fair distribution of opportunities, benefits and also risks. Pointedly ensuring it will be carefully managed, fair and leave no community behind. But what does this mean for the North Highlands?
The North Highlands are home to diverse communities and businesses, intrinsically linked to the lands and seas around us. Our area is rich in people, culture and natural resources but as with many rural locations, depopulation is a risk to the sustainability of our communities. This risk can be reversed through sustainable employment opportunities and investment, but major transformations need to be seen for our region. Good connectivity, effective transport infrastructure and fair public asset distribution are required to ensure the transition is truly “Just”. Despite being at the centre of energy transformation for our nation, fuel poverty is high, public transport and connectivity poor, and perceptions about opportunity and quality of life are drawing our younger generations towards cities and towns far from their highland roots. How can we address this narrative for positive change?
At the Focus North Conference earlier this year, we heard testament the North Highlands are fundamental to Scotland’s transition to renewable power. With our highly skilled workforce, abundant natural capital, and reputation for excellence, we are firmly at the centre of opportunity. We have a sophisticated supply chain supporting the highly complex decommissioning process at Dounreay and world-class expertise in nuclear, renewables, oil and gas, engineering and energy storage. Ground has just been broken to construct the UK Mainland’s First Vertical Launch Spaceport and we have a world class food and drinks industry and tourism sector. A plethora of exciting sectors with immense growth potential given the right environment. Transformational projects in our region must play a crucial role in driving investment in our future skills, economy and infrastructure. A “just transition” will not be realised without our communities seeing tangible benefits of the developmental burdens imposed upon them, therefore the needs of rural communities must be at the forefront of government decision making. Government policy and decisions made in Holyrood or Westminster have to be cognisant of the impact on the rural communities they serve. One size does not fit all for a truly equitable society.
That’s why with our population size and dispersion, diverse economic landscape, unique skill base and key locational factors the North Highlands are ideally placed to be a test environment for activities needed to reach a ‘Just Transition’ across Scotland.
As part of the chamber network, we have been active in our contribution to the Scottish Chambers of Commerce response to the Scottish Government’s Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan. The consultation response urges government to be aware of the dangers and unintended consequences of policy measures, when jobs, communities and significant investment are at stake. There is no doubt, Scotland needs to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels and replace them with clean energy sources and there is huge potential to create significant economic opportunities in this process. However, collectively our diverse membership will be impacted by these proposals. In amongst the recommendations there are calls for the Scottish Government to review how it intends to take account of ongoing labour shortages as it updates the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan, which includes the accelerated upskilling of the general workforce for green jobs as well as the transferable skills widespread in the oil and gas workforce, alongside calls for recognition of the continued importance and value that oil and gas will have for Scotland’s energy mix for the next 20-25 years.
We cannot negotiate with the future any more than we can predict its path, but we do know for sure the collective efforts needed to reach net zero by 2045 will transform every aspect of our lives. As always, our work at the Chamber will support businesses through both the challenges and prospects ahead. We will listen to our members and act with intention to help maximise these opportunities and we will act as a voice of challenge through our wide-reaching network to ensure the voice of the North Highlands is heard.
We have within our reach the ambition and potential to build a thriving, sustainable region for our future generations. The North Highlands is not a rural outpost or a far-flung corner of Scotland. We are the centre and powerhouse of Scotland’s future.
Just Transition – A major opportunity for the north of Scotland by Simon Middlemas, OBE, Board Director of Caithness Chamber of Commerce and Independent Chair, Focus North
On the near horizon, is a new, exciting opportunity for our region. One that will not only bring jobs but benefit the entire Country – Just Transition. More than that, this region is best placed to capitalise, because geography is in our favour. So how do we do this?
Just Transition is just another way of talking about sustainability – transitioning to an economy not based on the use of fossil fuels and throwing things away, but using freely available natural resources, reusing things and moreover, doing it in a way that brings prosperity and social justice to our communities. This country has made a commitment we will achieve this by 2045 – a tall order, but then targets are never set to be easy.
The good news for Caithness and Sutherland is that we are at the centre of major opportunities needed to help others realise these changes. We encompass in microcosm many of the issues likely to be faced by the rest of Scotland.
Just look at what we have on our doorstep:
- Energy from the huge natural wind resources
- The world’s biggest tidal energy stream for the production of energy
- Energy storage and use of green hydrogen produced from these sources
- The development of the peatlands and the opportunities
- Sustainable satellite launches from our north coast
- A multi-skilled workforce
- Scenery to die for
These natural resources cannot be moved so geography counts in our favour. We should not look elsewhere for opportunities for the future, we should sensitively develop what’s on our doorstep. What’s more, all of this is in the Scottish Government’s sweet spot of Just Transition. These are open doors when we look for assistance, we need to push them open.
So this is where we are “focussed” at Focus North. A truly sustainable region, providing a healthy, economically stable environment for everyone living here.
So, future jobs are not the challenge, but the multitude of skills, resources and services needed to meet the demand is. We need a larger working population, and this must be built into our regional strategic thinking at all levels. Can you offer the products and services that these industries are going to need in the very near future? Does your company have the requisite skills today? Do you have a plan to be ready for this revolution?
Very few other places in our country have these opportunities available. All our opportunities relate to nationally important Just Transition projects. The public and private sectors must work together and co-ordinate actions, we have a tremendous future ahead of us, something that will be lauded by everyone. If we don’t, history will not treat us kindly.