A just, job-centred approach to green transition

In their latest final warning, the IPCC have stated climate change “is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet”. Meanwhile, the cost of energy is soaring, further strained by a scramble to decouple from Russian oil imports following the invasion of Ukraine. We’ve all heard it before, but there really has never been a more urgent time than now to throw ourselves into a green transition. However, this is proving a difficult challenge.

One of the biggest considerations in any green transition will be jobs. How do we move away from fossil fuels whilst preserving or even improving occupational opportunities? This question is particularly pertinent for industries reliant on polluting energy. It also proves to be a volatile topic of discussion, with debates often polarising between workers and environmentalists. This binary split is not only unhelpful for bringing about a successful transition but often leads to an inaccurate depiction of events and results in media frenzy.

Reluctance to embrace the green transition may stem from personal economic concern rather than unwillingness to participate. Using interviews with energy workers in the US, one study demonstrates resistance to a move towards a green economy may emerge from hesitancy over job quality. Not many people would voluntarily leave a secure job with a steady income, even if there is an external motivation such as the climate crisis. This means there must be sufficient job opportunity for any transition to take place.

So, are there green job opportunities out there? Not really, according to industry experts who explain there is a chicken-and-egg problem governing the relationship between new green industries and a workforce with the skills needed for green jobs. One needs to come first, but in doing so, there is the risk of governments or business taking a gamble on things going to plan.

A solution frequently proposed to this dilemma is top-down state intervention and investment. If there is any cause worth subsidising, on this rationale, it is the mitigation of global catastrophe. There is also statistical evidence to suggest that investment in green innovation does generate more employment.

Indeed, this is the path being slowly but surely taken. In late 2020 the UK Government announced a new taskforce and £4bn of funding to support the creation of 2 million green jobs by 2030. However, a recent report evaluating this target from PwC warns of regional disparities in the distribution of these jobs, highlighting the necessity of any transition to be just.

The idea of a just transition is initially straightforward – the costs and benefits of a move to a low-carbon economy need to be shared proportionally, without burdening any specific groups. However, the nature of the green transition will inevitably put some people more at risk than others. Someone with a job in the oil industry is going to be more apprehensive than someone working in HR. This is understandable. There is also the real possibility of worsening current inequalities.

Therefore, the way we go about such a transition also becomes important. To unlock long-term solutions , there must be a broader conception of justice. This should include taking into account who determines what a transition looks like (procedural justice) and making sure those who have lost out on a national and international scale see some form of compensation (restorative justice).

The risk a green transition poses is not confined to material or financial issues. Identity looms large in the move away from fossil fuels. Research suggests climate scepticism is associated with social and political identities formed out of industrial modernity.

In this way, the continuation or move away from industries dependent on the exploitation of fossil fuels is a process deeply interlinked with community and work identity. Slowly or rapidly shutting down all industry connected to fossil fuels cannot be carried off without consulting those who it will affect most and promoting suitable alternatives. Doing so would only lead to a build-up of resentment and frustration  A condition of success is to work against, rather than reinforce, the tide of polarisation sweeping our politics, in the spirit of cooperation and democratisation. The crisis, and the transition to follow, demands this of us.

There are many uncertainties and potential pitfalls surrounding the move to a low-carbon society. It is imperative policymakers take a just, job-centred approach to a green transition, addressing inequalities and negotiating a highly-charged political landscape. It is not an easy task, but solutions must come quick – not least because the IPCC’s final warnings are already beginning to turn into initial threats.

Samborne Bush is a Research Assistant and Sociology student at the University of Bristol.

Image credit: Maria Godfrida