Menu

Why green jobs aren’t good jobs – yet

In his speech at the October Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke of his vision of a transition of the UK national economy to one of high wages, high skills, and high productivity. One day later, the government unveiled its plans to decarbonise the UK power system by 2035.

These two events are not unrelated. A key plank of government environmental policy is how it might function to create new jobs (and save others). The ‘Net Zero Strategy’, also released in October and ahead of COP26, is a case in point, promising 440,000 jobs by 2030. Johnson’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution pledged 60,000 jobs from offshore wind, 10,000 from nuclear, 50,000 in retrofitting and energy efficiency, and 30,000 in nature protection and restoration.

A ‘green’ job is a broad category – ranging from renewable energy production to organic agriculture and environmental education. They are the electricians, the roofers, the horticulturalists, the refuse and recyclable collectors. These jobs are fast-growing. Globally, there may be 24 million such jobs by 2030.

Yet, it is essential to question what these ‘green’ jobs might look like – and how they may differ from current work. If Johnson hopes for green jobs to be driving force towards a new decarbonised economy, current trends suggest that such words and hopes may dissolve into hot air.

 

Green jobs as a new environmentalism?

Decarbonisation will create new sets of winners and losers across the UK. These will not just be fossil fuel companies but also communities dependent on carbon-heavy work. One in five jobs in the UK may be affected by the transition to net-zero, with impacts heavily skewed by geography. Many regions, towns and communities are economically dependent on industries that others may see as dirty and in need of change. From airport towns like Hounslow to the oil and gas jobs in Aberdeen, a move away from fossil fuels will change the livelihoods for many.

‘Transition’ and ‘decarbonisation’ are words that are often met with fear – of jobs lost, local economies disrupted, and communities broken. The decline of fossil fuel industries elsewhere have proved traumatic – a loss of jobs in the Appalachia coalfields coincided with an opioid epidemic. History can also loom large. In the region of Latrobe Valley, Australia, memories of privatisation and redundancies remain central when discussing what comes next in the wake of decarbonisation agendas.

Contemporary environmental movements have often found themselves bogged down in a false decision between jobs and environmental health. Extinction Rebellion’s targeting of Canning Town underground station in 2019 is symbolic of a vision that has not only failed to make space for working people – but can also have a distinct lack of sympathy for their concerns. In France, the efforts of the Gilets Jaunes have highlighted what happens when decision-makers fail to understand how environmental policy (in this case increased fuel taxes) intersect with patterns of inequality.

Yet, working-class environmentalism can – and does – exist. The Green Bans movement in New South Wales in the 1970s provides a powerful example of how coalitions can be built by labour movements and environmentalists – to protect green spaces and local communities from re-development. For such a coalition to emerge today, environmentalism needs to move beyond a focus on communities making sacrifices – and towards comprehensively addressing people’s fears of lost jobs, unemployment, or loss of income.

A green job represents a key site at which such a coalition can be built. Whilst Johnson calls for such work should not be understood as motivated by the desire to build such an alliance, it does represent a repurposing of decarbonisation agendas. Moving them beyond shuttered industries and lost jobs and towards new forms of work.

This is not necessarily new. Previous economic transitions involved direct government action to protect livelihoods in flux. In the USA, government policies have supported communities in the wake of the closure of nearby military bases (redeveloping bases into university campuses or new business quarters) and awarded billions of dollars in compensation to tobacco farmers facing lost income due to government regulation. In the UK, the forced decline of the coal mining industry was accompanied by schemes that aimed at retraining redundant miners, encouraging entrepreneurialism, and creating coalfield ‘enterprise zones’, although none proved successful.

All such schemes demonstrate that government policy must be enacted to mitigate the impacts of policies elsewhere. New jobs and livelihoods aren’t magicked out of the air. This necessity remains evident in today’s quest for net-zero. Recent research commissioned by the Scottish Trade Union Congress has shown the importance of such concerted policy –an active industrial strategy, public ownership and significant investment can lead to up to 367,000 energy jobs in Scotland alone.

 

Low wages, lost skills

For all the talk of the ‘good’ jobs to be created by decarbonisation, the tangibility of such gains remains unclear.

Decarbonisation can also happen without such job creation and with any new jobs being poorly paid and precarious. In Germany, regional unemployment levels led to solar panel manufacturers imposing low wages. In the USA, non-unionised workers working on utility-scale solar projects are paid substantially less than others working elsewhere. Offshore wind projects in the UK have been found to used irregular migrant labour, paying substantially below the minimum wage and demanding extensive working hours.

A further complicating factor is how skills and training can be transferred from carbon-heavy industries to the renewables sector. Whilst the latter demands new skills and training programmes, there do remain some skills that are transferable. Plumbers and pipefitters in the gas sector may be able to move over to green hydrogen with limited fuss. Oil rig workers already have the skills and awareness of working at height to find a new home in the offshore wind sector.

Whilst the core skills may be the same, they are often treated as distinct. Recent work shows the roadblocks put in the way of workers moving from the oil and gas sector to the offshore wind industry. The two sectors often fail to recognise the training courses completed by workers in the other –requiring enrolment in a new course that significantly overlaps. The result is the need for two qualifications, with workers paying for training costs out of their own pocket. The only winners here are the training companies themselves.

 

What next?

81% of oil and gas workers surveyed in the UK would consider leaving the sector but are concerned about job security. This is understandable. Once a solar park or offshore wind plant is built – it reverts to skeleton staffing, for maintenance only. Community, small-scale and rooftop solar often involve ad-hoc and localised projects – with where the next job might come from uncertain.

In the USA, trade unions have sought to provide their own vision of decarbonisation – evident in Climate Jobs New York and the Texas Climate Jobs project. Such projects are centred on the protection of current working conditions and practices and the stemming of any circumvention of union labour. This has led to a series of project labour agreements, with renewable energy companies pledging to work with unions to provide good, secure, well-paid, high-skilled green jobs.

Supply chains and manufacturing are also key – with the parts required by the renewables sector stimulating job creation elsewhere. The success of any transition (and, with it, the provision of new forms of job security) depends on the continued health of local and regional economies. It is this that can assure a longer-term benefit of green job agendas.

Such moves represent substantial investment. The announcement of the BritishVolt electric vehicle battery factory in Blyth represents the biggest investment in the north-east since the 1980s.

In New York, a ‘Buy American’ provision has been extended to renewable energy projects – encouraging the use of national supply chains. This can also help avoid the use of forced labour elsewhere, as well as the collapse of locally significant employers. The debacle in Scotland surrounding the closure, the manufacturing firm, BiFab has demonstrated the sanctity of protecting renewables supply chains in national visions of decarbonisation.

Green jobs can be transformative. They can be targeted to address youth un- and under-employment. They can provide key points of transition for people leaving the armed forces and provide new lines of work for marginalised communities. Yet, they are not yet at the point where they represent ‘good’ jobs for all.

Transitions are rarely smooth processes. Jobs are lost and new lines of work must emerge. For a transition to net-zero to be inclusive, governments must adopt proactive frameworks to tie jobs created by moves to renewables to wider patterns of employment and economic support. Policies that decarbonise must be complemented by policies that stimulate new jobs and economic support.

The two come together. If they don’t, the jobs that power our route to net-zero will merely add to the list of losers of decarbonisation – and the split between environmentalism and labour will persist.

Ed Atkins is a Lecturer at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

Image credit: Oakland Images