Clean energy jobs are at the top of various countries’ agendas as they seek to tackle the fallout from the coronavirus crisis and accelerate their transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
Clean Energy Jobs and the Just Transition
The concept of green jobs has fluctuated over the years, and the definition has become ever broader as the impacts of climate change worsen and support for decarbonizing every corner of the economy accelerates.
The International Labour Organisation describes green jobs as “decent jobs that contribute to preserve or restore the environment.” The group notes that green jobs can be found in sectors such as renewable energy and energy efficiency as well as across more traditional areas like manufacturing and construction. Think tank Century Foundation argues for a relatively broad definition of green jobs that includes those who work in healthcare and education, as these sectors make society more socially and economically sustainable. For example, healthcare workers are positioned to become an increasingly vital resource as more people face adverse health impacts due to climate change. Teachers have a role in educating children about global warming and raising awareness of environmental issues.
Along with the imperative for the world to address climate change, a growing movement supports a just transition. This aims to benefit communities, particularly marginalized and vulnerable groups, both environmentally and economically through the shift to a net-zero carbon economy.
Research has shown that people of color in areas of the United States are more likely to suffer from the adverse effects of pollution, while those in low-income countries outside the US appear more acutely exposed to climate change’s consequences. Areas that have become economically dependent on fossil fuels may face additional vulnerabilities as they transition to a greener future. However, investors can play a key role in a just transition by targeting initiatives that promote green job creation for marginalized and vulnerable groups.
Realizing the Biden Clean Energy Plan
President Joe Biden presented a “plan for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice,” including an ambitious agenda for the United States to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050. The plan was to be backed by $1.7 trillion of federal funds over the next decade while facilitating trillions in additional investment from the private sector as well as the state and local levels. The plan aims to create around 10 million jobs in green energy as part of Biden’s goal to attain a carbon-free US energy sector by 2035, placing a focus on high-paying union jobs.
Nevertheless, Biden’s job targets for the energy sector face some obstacles. Shifting nearly all of America’s energy needs to renewables within a matter of decades is a mammoth task—fossil fuel power plants currently account for about 60% of US electricity generation versus roughly 20% for wind and solar. The latter also tend to employ comparatively fewer people than coal and gas electricity. For instance, data from the BW Research Partnership shows that generating one megawatt-hour of electricity requires five times more coal mining and power plant workers than wind farm workers. While the energy transition is set to create more jobs as it gathers momentum, the net job tally might not look as impressive when factoring in the lost jobs from the traditional power industries.
However, a jobs boom may reach renewables construction over the coming years as more solar and wind power plants take ground. Construction accounts for about 53% of solar jobs and 33% of wind jobs. Although green jobs pay more than the average US job on average, wind and solar workers tend to earn less than those in the fossil fuels sectors. Despite the pledge that green jobs will be well-paid, workers making the transition away from fossil fuels may face a pay cut. Meanwhile, Biden’s emphasis on union jobs throws into relief the fact that workers in the solar and wind industries tend to be less unionized than those in the traditional energy sector.
The Future of Green Jobs
A broad definition of green jobs like the one promoted by Century Foundation makes sense, especially as fewer people are likely to be sustainably employed over the long term in renewables compared with traditional fossil fuels. Governments and sustainable investors should see industries like healthcare and education as part of the solution. At the same time, fossil fuels workers displaced by the transition to renewables may look for retraining and other sources of support. As all communities contend with the effects of climate change, the public and private sector can work to ensure that marginalized and low-income groups are not left behind in benefitting from green jobs creation.