For years, fighting climate change was seen as something that could really only be done at the expense of an economy’s economic growth. Today, it is widely accepted that striving for a clean
environment does not preclude the growth of a healthy job market. In fact, most experts say that investing in green technologies has a positive impact on employment: Up to 60 million new jobs could be created globally by 2032 in the shift to a greener economy, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).  

Although there’s still an open debate on what makes a job green and how to count such jobs, green jobs are generally seen as those that involve preserving the environment and/or conserving natural resources. 

According to Moustapha Kamal Gueye, a policy specialist for the Green Jobs Programme at the ILO in Geneva, “We’re already witnessing a measurable boom in jobs growth in some areas.”

The renewable energy sector, for instance, employed 9.8 million people in 2016, and that number was expected to rise to 24 million by 2030, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental body. Investments in green construction were expected to account for more than 3.3 million jobs in the U.S. by 2018. Two years ago, growth in green construction there had already begun to outpace that of conventional construction, one study said.

What’s behind green jobs? 

Leaders, policymakers and experts have repeatedly called the transition to clean energy “irreversible.” Last year, then U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “The once unthinkable has now become unstoppable.” 

Indeed, individual forces have gathered their own momentum to usher in the green economy, including technology, policy, climate science and a desire by individuals and companies to live and work more sustainably. Often, the rise of clean energy is compared to the transition from wood to coal in the 1800s and from coal to oil and natural gas in the 1900s, which each had dramatic effects on business and society. Many experts say what’s different this time around is how fast the changes will take place. 

As these trends gather force, some industries will be impacted more than others, including construction, farming, manufacturing and transportation. Companies will need workers with totally new skill sets or an expanded portfolio of green skills. And industries are expected to go through phases of both job gains, for instance in highly skilled areas, and job losses, likely to come in low-skill areas. Similarly, industries may experience waves of job relocation as economies begin to specialize in niche areas of the green economy. 

Green opportunities in emerging markets

In emerging markets especially, policymakers have seen the potential of embracing green technology, says Rainer Quitzow, a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany. 

“Green technology is a huge opportunity because it often comes with new or emerging industries,” says Quitzow. “This allows countries to jump in early in an industry that hasn’t been formed. This is exactly the Chinese strategy.” 

China has been investing heavily in renewables, for instance. According to IRENA, green power companies employed 3.5 million people in 2015, compared with 2.6 million in the oil and gas industries in China, which has now become the world’s biggest renewable energy market. Quitzow said, “Chinese leaders see a lot of opportunity for their industries to leapfrog into a greener economy where they also have a larger share of the value creation embedded in their national economy.”

Similarly, in battery manufacturing, China is vying to win market share from other countries with strengths in this area, such as Japan and South Korea. Earlier this year, Beijing called for companies to double electric vehicle battery capacity by 2020, and the Financial Times, citing a bank study, reported that the market for the lithium-ion battery will be worth $40 billion by 2025.

Skills – holding back green jobs?

As countries position themselves in the low-carbon environment, green job prospects look positive, but a skills shortage is often what holds back growth in green jobs. The European Commission and the OECD have called for more training in niche skills, along with science, technology, engineering and math. 

According to Gueye from the ILO, “There are too few engineers and technicians working in solar and wind energy in several parts of the world. And we have shortages of certified energy auditors who understand energy efficiency in buildings. The skill shortages at technical levels have already created problems.”

Gueye pointed to Germany as a country that has done a good job in linking industry promotion with technical and vocational training, with properly skilled labor being one reason Germany is a leader in the green economy, particularly in clean energy. 

Reinhard Hans Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament who is a member of the Green Party, recalled to reporters at a Green Growth conference what he was told by the president of the German Electrical and Electric Manufacturers Association: “A third of the small and medium enterprises we have in our sector would not exist today if you had not initiated the renewable policy. It gives us business, it gives us profits, it gives us an opportunity to create new jobs.” 

For Quitzow, it’s clear that green is good for business, and those economies and industries that strike the right balance between public policy initiatives, private sector investment and consumer involvement in the transition will have a competitive advantage. According to Quitzow, “Green jobs are the jobs of the future. Those countries that green their economies successfully and cost-effectively will have those jobs.” —  Rhea Wessel

Published: November 2017

Images: Danae Diaz for Delivered