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Chris Seekings reports on the opportunities and challenges that ‘green jobs’ present for the UK as it looks to build back from the COVID-19 pandemic in a sustainable way

Last November, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) launched an inquiry into ‘green jobs’, and how they could provide a solution to the devastating unemployment that COVID-19 has caused in the UK. But what are green jobs? The term immediately conjures images of electricians installing solar panels, or technicians inspecting wind turbines. Their prevalence, however, extends far beyond emerging industries.

The International Labour Organization defines green jobs as “decent jobs in any economic sector which contribute to preserving, restoring and enhancing environmental quality”. With the UK having recently unveiled its 10-point plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’, they could be about to infiltrate almost every segment of the economy.

Unmissable opportunity

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that up to four million people could be left unemployed this year as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, up from 1.7 million in the final quarter of 2020. This has created a potentially dangerous scenario in which government decisions that aim to tackle unemployment could end up supporting the high-carbon jobs that have been traditional sources of growth. The Committee on Climate Change has said that green jobs could support a reduction in unemployment and create “a significant economic multiplier effect”.

Philip Dunne, chair of the EAC, says the UK’s net-zero emissions target makes it all the more important for unemployment to be tackled via green jobs. “The opportunity to rebuild the economy, and provide greater stimulus to encourage green sectors, is crucial if we are to put nature into recovery and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” he says. “There is considerable potential in sectors around the country to address rising unemployment with the introduction of more green jobs.”

However, those who are still in employment will also play a crucial role in ensuring the UK delivers on its net-zero goal, which is forecast to impact up to 10m existing jobs. Approximately 32.5 million people are employed in the UK today, 80% of whom are expected to still be working in 2030. “All jobs will have to become greener as the economy transitions to a low-carbon future if we are to tackle climate change – not just those in traditional environmental sectors,” Dunne says.

Including everyone

When giving oral evidence to the EAC’s inquiry earlier this year, IEMA’s director of policy and external affairs, Martin Baxter, explained that the success of sustainability professionals depends on the actions of organisations as a whole. “We have members in all parts of the economy, from finance to retail and across all of the public sector,” he said. “Those individuals are helping to guide the response of their organisations to environmental challenges, but effectiveness is determined by the contributions that everybody else in the organisation makes. We see green jobs as, in part, full-time roles, but actually about everyone doing things in a greener way.”

This is about driving energy and resource efficiency, sustainable procurement, eco-design, pollution control and environmental improvements across all organisations. Procurement, for example, should be seen through the lens of sustainability so that businesses are able to understand what labour practices should be, or specific material compositions, according to Baxter. “We have a very broad view of what we mean by green jobs, and there is a real opportunity to engage everyone in the world of work to do things in a greener and more effective way. We need to build a future workforce that is environmentally and climate literate, but also has an aspiration to want to solve some of the big problems we face.” IEMA’s written evidence to the EAC called for a dedicated ‘Green Jobs and Skills Strategy’ to help identify where skills gaps currently exist as the UK transitions to net-zero emissions, as this is still far from clear.

“I’m not sure we are certain where the skills gaps are, and when they will emerge”

Mind the gap

Green jobs won’t just help deliver net-zero emissions; the long-awaited Environment Bill, which has been delayed for a third time, is expected to include a whole range of environmental ambitions. These include new biodiversity net gain requirements, and nature recovery networks and partnerships, which will require considerable upskilling of workers.

“If you think of a new home, it needs to be net zero, it needs to be able to generate power, it needs to be incredibly energy efficient, it needs to use water really scarcely, it needs to be able to charge an electric vehicle, it needs to be able to swap electricity between that vehicle and the home through smart technology, and it’s going to have to be able to deliver biodiversity net gain,” Baxter told the EAC. “The question is: what are the changes that need to be made across the whole system to be able to deliver that in a really coherent way? I’m not sure we are certain where the skills gaps are, and when they will emerge.”

He is concerned that too many sectors have focused only on net zero, and not on wider environmental challenges. Food and drink companies, for example, need to think about how they manage land and natural capital, and what skills are needed to enhance them. “Or if we want to hit our per capita consumption targets for water, new homes are going to be part of the solution, and are going to have to play a role in helping the water companies achieve part of their targets, and it’s the same with electricity and energy as well.”

IEMA has also called on the EAC to push for a ‘Green Jobs and Skills Commission’ to provide clear oversight. “Expecting we can do this once and then sit around for the next fi ve or 10 years, I don’t think is going to cut it. We need to be constantly reviewing and understanding where the skills gaps are, what the timescale is to generate those skills, and we absolutely need something co-ordinated at a national level.”

Rethinking education

A recent survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found that just 7% of engineering companies in the UK with a sustainability strategy believe they have the skills needed to fulfill it, while 43% see university graduates as lacking the skills needed to work in their industry.

Josie Fraser, the deputy vice chancellor at the Open University and a skills and education panel member at the IET, said to the EAC last month: “Government policy has got to incentivise adult education and the full ecosystem of that, from localised community education providers to further education colleges and national providers of part-time education.”

The government is investing £2.5bn in a National Skills Fund for adult training, but a student who already has a higher education qualifi cation and is starting an undergraduate programme may not be eligible for funding of tuition fees under the Equivalent or Lower Qualifi cation policy. “Removing barriers to people in high-carbon industries who will need to retrain is very important,” Fraser added.

A separate YouGov survey of primary and secondary education teachers in 2019 found that just 18% had received adequate training to educate students on climate change, while 70% agreed that the UK’s education legislation needs radical change. IEMA provides numerous resources, tools and techniques for its members to undertake continuous professional development, and Baxter believes there is a huge job to be done embedding environmental issues into teaching and learning.

“It’s about how we integrate this into how we teach physics and other subject areas, weaving it through education right from primary school,” he says. “Having elements about how you do jobs in a net-zero way, or how to consider health and safety, should also be a straightforward obligation for all apprenticeships.”

Breaking down barriers

Diversity and inclusion is another problem for the sustainability profession, with much of the public perceiving the sector as being made up of white, middle-class individuals with degrees. In 2017, the think tank Policy Exchange found that the environmental profession was the second-least diverse profession in the UK. Various organisations have taken action to change their culture, but progress is slow.

“Removing barriers to people in high-carbon industries who will need to retrain is very important”

IEMA has carried out work with the National Union of Students and the Equality Trust to shine a light on this, and has recently launched its Diverse Sustainability Initiative (bit.ly/38Fw5HG), which looks at how to embed a more inclusive approach into professional qualifications.

Baxter believes people from different backgrounds must be part of the solution, and that the profession must challenge practices that discriminate: “People also need to recognise this is a profession to aspire to, is durable, well paid, exciting, interesting and has standing. There is a big concern about the environmental crisis, but we don’t want to frighten people – we want to show that they are part of the solution.”

Massive investment in both public and private sectors, breaking down barriers to entry, reforming training and education systems, and clear oversight will be key to delivering the green jobs that could give the UK an advantage over its competitors once the dust settles on the pandemic – and research and development will be key, too.

“We have clusters of low-carbon innovators around the country, but there is a very real risk that jobs in these areas could move abroad if their sectors are not properly supported in the UK,” Dunne explains. “All jobs will have to become greener, and even those in fossil fuel-intensive industries, such as oil and gas, could transform to decommissioning rigs or off shore wind installations, in both of which existing oil and gas workers have relevant skills. All of this will need our education sector to become fully equipped to provide a workforce with the knowledge and skills required for the future – universities, colleges, business and government will eed to collaborate on retraining and upskilling to meet these challenges and adapt to a changing economy.”

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