The promise to replace fossil fuel jobs with an identical number of clean energy roles in coal-dependent communities is too simplistic and ignores the fact that communities need to be engaged with credible expectations of higher quality employment.
Not all green jobs are equal, but they all relate to the equity of a just transition. With women making up 32 percent of the clean energy workforce—more than the fossil fuel industry’s 21 percent—there is hope for gender equality. However, we need a transition from the number of jobs to the quality and a new way of talking about green employment.
“Houston, we have a problem,” was how the energy transition was recently framed at CERAWeek, an annual energy conference organized by the US financial information company S&P Global. The words were spoken by Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and candidate for the presidency of this year’s COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates. This warning should resonate with a global economy that has reached peak oil.
It got me thinking about my transition from big oil to the huge global potential of renewables when I attended CERAWeek on my second visit to Texas – arguably the energy capital of the world. My choice was less about jumping on the energy transition – the topic of a panel session on emerging market finance – and more about finding mutual benefits rather than compromises in the search for renewal.
CERAWeek is traditionally a tough bunch of energy transition messages, but a recent analysis by the sustainability research body Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has revealed the bare facts: The energy revolution is being televised. Either we wake up to this reality now, or when the effects of climate change intensify, we will soon find ourselves living in a nightmare.
While climate change can sometimes feel like watching “Titanic,” the energy transition is not a movie. And yet, as we come to the end of Oscar season, it’s worth noting that it took movies like “Hidden Figures” and “The Boy That Harnessed The Wind” to shine a light on the central role of African-American women on the moon. landing and how a young boy from Malawi imagined a world independent of oil.
Jobs in trouble
Communities dependent on solar energy and fossil fuels can share the frustration. The latter may seem invisible against the relentless energy transition that promises, sometimes implausibly, unparalleled green employment. Solar advocates may be frustrated that those with science, technology, engineering and math skills crucial to clean energy continue to attract better-paying jobs in the extractive industries.
The first International Energy Agency report on energy employment revealed that more than half of the world’s energy sector jobs are now in clean energy, but the most recent International Renewable Energy Agency and International Labor Organization study reported only 12.7 million renewable energy jobs — 4.3 million in solar. We need 30 million in this decade with net zero in 2050.
Equally valuing green job creation is the first step in understanding the hidden costs to communities of fossil fuel job losses. Likewise, highlighting the benefits of a just transition beyond employment will lead to new conversations about the real revitalization of fossil fuel-dependent communities. It took a few shipwrecks, as the “Titanic” might say, for humanity to wake up to the danger of icebergs, and the RMI Green Jobs Report (see chart below) takes a similar approach.
But where are the icebergs in front of us? Are they in Asia or Africa? What is undeniable is the diminishing role of fossil fuels in the rapidly accelerating transition, which increases the need for a flexible, adaptable global workforce. In order to adapt in a fair and equitable way to the new world and the changing climate, the energy transition must go beyond “increasing work”.
Through a wider lens, it is possible to see that this radical energy change requires a better alignment with the expectations and needs of employees. As the world moves more and more towards a sustainable and even renewable economy, new opportunities open up for rehabilitating degraded natural resources, adapting to a changing climate and building circular material paths. We also need to go beyond “job inequality” because workers can consider the non-quantitative aspects of replacing fossil fuels: where these jobs will be, how long they will last, and what they will pay, both now and in future oil. assets left in gas and coal.
In the Global South, there are structural barriers to community investment that need to be overcome through financial de-risking and technical capacity building, so we also need to go beyond how many green jobs are created to focus on who they are created for. After Women’s History Month, I was happy to see the conversation in Houston increasingly led by women. They represent the demographic most likely to benefit from green jobs, as the data shows (see below).
Initiatives such as RMI’s Energy Transition Academy and the Women In Renewable Energy Network offer opportunities to expand support for fossil fuel divestment. We need to find ways to increase the share of women in technical and management responsibilities so that they are in the director’s position.
About the author: Raul Alfaro-Pelico is the senior director of RMI’s Global South program. He leads policy advice, thought leadership, capacity building, technical support activities and investment preparation support to create a net-zero, sustainable and prosperous world. Alfaro-Pelico oversees the Africa Energy Program, which enables energy access and de-risks clean energy projects, and the Energy Transition Academy, which empowers senior and mid-level professionals in the power, industrial and financial sectors in the Global South.