What We Talk About When We Talk About a Green Deal

In the first article of his four-part series, Nicholas Trickett discusses how a comprehensive greening policy is desperately needed to avert climate catastrophe

As countries hit hard by COVID-19 continue to ease lockdowns and learn to live with the virus, the question of economic recovery – how to recover and what should be used to measure successful recovery – are rightly top of the mind. Ed Miliband has laid down a gauntlet in demanding a proper green recovery, framing a “green deal” as part of a transformative policy agenda meant to build a fairer, more sustainable, and more equitable economy. There is no doubt that climate change should be front and center of the policy discussion. Record-breaking temperatures in the Siberian Arctic over the last month are a powerful reminder that while economies may have slowed down, climate change hasn’t.

But calls for a ‘zero-carbon army’ and the promise of massive jobs gains from green economic proposals are premature, not on messaging grounds but when one digs into the nitty-gritty of what a green deal looks like. For example, the Local Government Association estimates that a whopping 700,000 low-carbon jobs could be created by 2030. The Renewable Energy Association pins the number much more modestly at roughly 100,000 new jobs created by 2030 (but just looking at power generation) with policy help. Back in January, the National Grid estimated that roughly 120,000 green jobs by 2030 would be needed to meet sector requirements and keep the country on path towards its 2050 net zero commitment. Between 2016 and 2019, 2.4 million new gig economy jobs were created by comparison. And the increasingly gig-centric nature of newer job creation isn’t going to dissipate as tech companies prove most immune to the effects of the current downturn.

Aggressive policies pushing up the net zero timeline as fast as possible may well create more jobs, but the reality is that greening the economy is not going to sustainably employ the countless people navigating furloughs into unemployment or unemployment at present.

Investment into green power generation, electric vehicle charging stations, and energy efficiency improvements is, in many cases, replacing existing infrastructure. In effect, you create short-run demand but don’t necessarily add jobs on the net. Newer power plants of all stripes often require fewer workers than older coal and nuclear facilities as technology improves. Policies like Rishi Sunak’s proposed home insulation voucher scheme might jumpstart demand for the construction sector – and create jobs – but once older building stock is improved, the obvious question is how much of the employment gains would stick? The problem is nothing new for Keynesian-style stimulus, as the positive growth effects of today’s spending diminish over time.

It’s also a risky bet to assume that job retraining is going to be palatable or feasible in many instances. Someone with prior experience in the energy sector – say working at a coal or natural gas plant – will have a much easier time transitioning to a role in renewable energy than someone who does not have transferable skills or knowledge in the first place. Automotive manufacturing is a great example.

Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts than combustion engines and the automotive industry – historically a leader in automation – is experimenting with newer production processes that will require less and less input from human labor and create more specialized jobs. The reality is that the newer jobs created in manufacturing and the green energy sector – park construction aside as a different case – require increasingly specialized knowledge. That specialized knowledge takes considerable time to acquire, time that many, particularly those with decades’ work experience and families, are unlikely to jump at without a concrete and credible job promised at the end. But it’s exceedingly difficult to promise those jobs will either exist or be productive when so much hinges on transferring labour from the ranks of the already employed.

These aren’t reasons to back away from a green deal. But greening economies does not necessarily create massive amounts of jobs, no matter what sunny projections one looks at. Rather it creates some jobs immediately, dislocates many that already exist, and is subject to the pressures of market maturation, automation, and other maladies affecting other sectors. Anyone claiming certainty is selling you a bridge.

A comprehensive greening policy is desperately needed to avert climate catastrophe. It’s time to talk more seriously about what those jobs will actually look like and entail for the workers now displaced by Covid-19 before going into communities that have suffered from rising inequality, deindustrialisation, stagnant wages, and job losses with little more than “trust us!” tattooed to our foreheads.

Nicholas Trickett is a political risk analyst and writer with extensive experience covering energy and trade politics and political economy in Russia and Eurasia, including a stint as an energy consultant. He holds an MA in Russia and Eurasia regional studies from the European University in St. Petersburg and an MSc in international political economy from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He tweets at @ntrickett16
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