This story originally appeared in AGU’s Eos Magazine and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Opponents of climate policy say curbing fossil fuel emissions will kill jobs, but a new study showed that switching to renewables would actually create more jobs than a fossil fuel–heavy future will. The tricky part will be ensuring that laid-off workers have access to alternative employment.
Globally, jobs in the energy sector are projected to increase from 18 million today to 26 million in 2050 if the world cuts carbon to meet the well-below 2°C target set by the Paris Agreement, according to a model created by researchers in Canada and Europe. Renewables will make up 84% of energy jobs in 2050, primarily in wind and solar manufacturing. The new study was published earlier this summer in One Earth.
In contrast, if we don’t limit global warming to below 2°C, 5 million fewer energy jobs will be created.
The future looks bright for solar and wind
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest physical science assessment predicted that climate will be 1.5°C warmer than preindustrial levels by the 2030s unless there are strong, rapid cuts to greenhouse gases in the coming decades. Such cuts will necessitate a greater reliance on sustainable energy sources.
In 2020, renewables and nuclear energy supplied less than a quarter of global energy, according to BP’s 2021 report. Many regions will gain energy jobs in the transition. This number is expected to rise, however, in part because solar photovoltaics and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels per megawatt-hour and because many countries have set aggressive emissions-cutting goals.
According to the new study, many regions will gain energy jobs in the transition, including countries throughout Asia (except for China), North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as the United States and Brazil. Although fossil fuel extraction jobs will largely disappear, “massive deployment of renewables leads to an overall rise in jobs,” wrote the authors.
But not all countries will be so lucky: Fossil fuel-rich China, Australia, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, and sub-Saharan African countries will likely lose jobs overall.
Only jobs directly associated with energy industries, such as construction or maintenance, were included in the study. Other reports have included adjacent or induced jobs such as fuel transport, government oversight, and service industry.
Previous studies estimated a larger increase in energy jobs, using numbers compiled from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The new study instead compiled data from primary sources by mining fossil fuel company reports, trade union documents, government reports, national databases, and other sources that cover 50 countries representing all major players in fossil fuels and renewables. Lead study author Sandeep Pai ran the numbers through an integrated assessment model housed at the European Institute on Economics and the Environment. The model calculates job growth projections under different climate policies and social and economic factors. Pai is a lead researcher at the Just Transition Initiative supported by the nonprofit policy research organization the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Climate Investment Funds.
Calls for just transitions
Crucially, the study found that nearly 8 million of the 26 million jobs (31%) in 2050 are “up for grabs,” said study author Johannes Emmerling, a scientist at the European Institute on Economics and the Environment. Renewable manufacturing isn’t tied to a particular location, unlike coal mining.
These jobs in renewable manufacturing aren’t tied to a particular location, unlike coal mining.
Pai concurred. “Any country with the right policies and incentives has the opportunity to attract between 3 [million and] 8 million manufacturing jobs in the future.”
Recently, countries have begun putting billions of dollars toward “just transition,” a loose framework describing initiatives that among other things, seek to minimize harm to workers in the fossil fuel industry. Concerns include salary loss, local revenue, and labor exploitation.
What could be done? Just transition projects may include employing fossil fuel workers to rehabilitate old coal mines or orphan oil wells, funding community colleges to train workers with new skills, supporting social services like substance abuse centers, and incentivizing local manufacturing.
“The just transition aspect is quite critical,” Pai said. “If [countries] don’t do that, this energy transition will be delayed.”
LUT University energy scientist Manish Thulasi Ram, who was not involved in the study, thinks the latest research underestimates the job potential of the energy transition. Using a different approach, Ram forecasts that close to 10 million jobs could be created from battery storage alone by 2050—a sector not considered in the latest analysis.
—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), Staff Writer