Management

Why a clean future means a resurgent energy sector

Transitioning to a low-carbon future can be a driving force in job creation – if we embrace it – says Forum for the Future’s Will Dawson.

Right now, industries are investing in zero-carbon technologies, and I have no doubt that the UK will decarbonise to deliver a cleaner, safer and fairer society for all. But we must all work together to ensure that the changes don’t leave behind communities currently dependent on high-carbon sectors. Social justice – giving people hope for a better future – is a critical ingredient in the transition story. We only need look to the US to learn that lesson.

Last year, I worked with the government and eight energy-intensive industries, including glass and steel making, to plan how to decarbonise while increasing UK competitiveness. I know these sectors have great potential to cut carbon and save on energy costs, but for some fossil fuel-dependent industries, such as North Sea oil and gas, decarbonisation will never be possible. Workers in these fields face potential mass unemployment as their jobs become rapidly obsolete.

Warnings from America

During his election campaign, Donald Trump blamed decarbonisation policies for the decline of the US coal industry, which resonated with his key voter audiences in the “Rust Belt”, who felt abandoned and threatened by progress. And when he recently announced the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, he said he was doing so because he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”.

I would argue that if Trump really cared about job creation, he would turn to renewables, recycling and other clean industries. He only needed to listen to any one of the 13,000 people employed in Pittsburgh’s blossoming renewables industry (5,000 more than all the coal-mining jobs in the whole state of Pennsylvania) to know how at odds with reality his decision was.

The truth is, few people, even in the coal industry, believe this move will increase coal jobs. “He can’t bring them back” were the words of Robert Murray, owner of the largest private US coal-mining company.

 

Trump is peddling false hope to laid-off coal miners, but if there more hopeful stories such as Pittsburgh’s renewable revolution had been told earlier to counter his pernicious narrative, he may never have been elected president. Politicians, industry and campaigners must learn from this missed opportunity.

Taking the right path

Ensuring decarbonisation happens in a just and positive way in the UK requires careful management.

On one hand, this is a question of logistics and close collaboration between business and governments. Low-carbon companies need to be working regionally with authorities to identify where vulnerable high-carbon jobs are currently concentrated to create low-carbon alternatives before these roles are redundant. A great example of where this is happening already can be seen with the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group, which is harnessing the world-leading engineering skills there to drive forward a flourishing renewables industry.

Job creation is a great social benefit of decarbonisation. Low-carbon industries need more workers than high-carbon ones do. For example, manufacturing, installing and maintaining solar panels in the US employs 200,000 more people than coal. Admittedly, many of these jobs are not as easy to confine to one geographical area as mining does, but as can be seen with Siemens’s decision to build its £310million, 700-job offshore windfarm plant in Hull, the UK can create high-skilled, low-carbon jobs where they are needed most.

Selling the vision

Mass redundancies are tragic events whatever the industry, and if they can be avoided, then every effort must be made to do so.

We must take the low-carbon opportunity for renewing economies and head off the threat of decarbonisation being blamed for harming communities in the UK, as it has been in the US.

I believe this is entirely achievable if we both plan ahead and shout loudly enough about the positive news stories, like the ones in Hull and Aberdeen, to engender even greater support for accelerated decarbonisation.

To show their commitment to this, I call on political leaders to commit to creating two local low-carbon jobs for every high-carbon job lost. By working all together we will travel further, faster. And in the fight against climate change, nothing is more important than that.

Will Dawson is Head of Energy at Forum for the Future. To find out more about how Forum for the Future can support you, please get in touch with Will at w.dawson@forumforthefuture.org or +44 (0)7824 692149

This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: Water & Energy.