Can millions of new clean energy jobs bring a 'just transition'?

Expansion of renewables could create 15 million jobs globally between now and 2030 – are workers ready for them?

Photovoltaic_Farm_Transition
Global uptake of renewables like solar and wind power after the 2015 Paris climate agreement increased the number of clean energy jobs around the world to 12.7 million by 2021, according to International Renewable Energy Agency data. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

As countries around the world ramp up climate action by adopting clean energy on a larger scale, about 15 million new green jobs could be created in the sector by the end of this decade, REN21, a Paris-based think-tank on renewables, said this week.

The policies driving this employment include the US Inflation Reduction Act aimed at boosting clean technologies and the European Union’s “REPowerEU” proposal to adopt more renewables and end reliance on Russian fossil fuels before 2030.

Some 15 more countries - including Canada, India, three African nations and others in Southeast Asia - are due to expand renewables and related jobs, REN21 estimated in a new report.

Global uptake of renewables like solar and wind power after the 2015 Paris climate agreement increased the number of clean energy jobs around the world to 12.7 million by 2021, according to International Renewable Energy Agency data.

But if the new jobs expected this decade are to make up for the millions that will be lost due to a phase-down in fossil fuel production and use, they need to be long-term and supported by re-skilling, pensions and better pay, analysts said.

The new green jobs will have to address these challenges for a just transition of workers that are set to lose their livelihoods in the fossil-fuel sectors.

Sandeep Pai, research director, Swaniti Initiative

Here’s how clean energy employment could shape up in the coming years:

What challenges have clean energy jobs met so far?

While jobs have increased in recent years - especially in the solar power sector which employs about 4.3 million people - there are questions about their quality.

Much of the employment has been temporary, involving workers constructing renewable energy parks for short periods at low rates of pay, said Sandeep Pai, research director at the Swaniti Initiative, an Indian policy think-tank.

Often these new jobs have been located far from the places where fossil-fuel workers have been laid off, making it hard for them to move between the two.

For example, India’s clean energy jobs are emerging in western and southern areas, while coal workers are located in the east - and China is facing a similar issue, Pai said.

“The new green jobs will have to address these challenges for a just transition of workers that are set to lose their livelihoods in the fossil-fuel sectors,” Pai added.

Rana Adib, executive director of REN21, said renewable energy jobs could be made more attractive and accessible if governments and business invested in training and education.

Some countries - including the United States, Australia and China - are already doing this by creating funds for skills development and compensating workers who lose jobs in the coal industry.

Raising public awareness about the importance of green jobs, and their benefits for the environment and the economy, through media campaigns, education programmes and partnerships with community groups could also help, said Adib.

“A positive public perception of green jobs can also lead to increased support for related policies and initiatives,” she added.

What kind of clean energy jobs will be created?

A growing number of countries have committed to weaning their energy systems off fossil fuels and onto cleaner sources in the coming decades, to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

While this transition will lead to job losses in the coal, oil and gas sectors, it is projected to result in a global net gain in employment, with more jobs created by ramping up renewables capacity than are lost by reducing fossil fuels, the REN21 report said, without giving a specific figure.

And there are opportunities for workers to go green along with the energy mix - for example, an estimated 70 per cent of jobs in oil and gas, representing 22 million workers in 2022, overlap with the skills needed for low-carbon jobs, said REN21.

While oil and gas workers are highly skilled and can adapt to new jobs in renewables, the question is whether they will be able to earn comparable salaries - an obstacle shown in the low number crossing over in Norway, for example, Pai said.

More stable jobs in energy manufacturing and responsible mining of the critical minerals needed for clean technologies could be key for supporting a “just transition” that also benefits workers, he added.

In 2022, solar PV manufacturing capacity registered strong growth at 39 per cent, while manufacturing for technologies that support the expansion of renewables also grew globally, including batteries by 72 per cent, electrolysers by 26 per cent and heat pumps by 13 per cent.

For future jobs, consultancy McKinsey says the global renewable energy sector is projected to need about 1.1 million additional workers to develop and build wind and solar power plants from 2022 to 2030, with an estimated 1.7 million more needed to operate and maintain the plants once they come online.

Where are the gaps in clean energy employment?

Gender imbalance remains an issue, with women accounting for about a third of the renewable energy workforce overall in 2021.

Although the share of female employees in the solar industry is above average, at 40 per cent, most work in administration, and across the sector, women’s salaries are 20 per cent lower than those of men in equivalent positions, the REN21 report shows.

However, there are signs that some countries are beginning to address this, the research noted, with about 10 having integrated gender considerations into their national energy plans including Canada, Kenya, Australia and Chile.

Increasing clean energy access can play a major role in spurring economic growth and social-value creation including jobs, said the REN21 report – but the number of people without access to electricity was projected to rise in 2022 for the first time in two decades, increasing by 20 million, it added.

Sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of Asia face significant challenges – the main one being a lack of finance - in achieving access to sustainable energy for all by 2030, one of the global development goals. That is preventing those regions from tapping into the potential for green job creation, said Adib of REN21.

Meanwhile, as renewable energy targets become more ambitious in many parts of the world, the availability of skilled workers risks becoming a bottleneck for deployment.

Developers of renewable power plants are struggling to find the construction workers, electricians and engineers they need, according to McKinsey.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.

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