Protestors on the streets of London, Greta Thunberg, and the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) are all reminding us of one thing: time is running perilously short to take action on climate change.
If we want to positively influence the trajectory of global temperatures, then we have about 10 years left to make radical changes to the way our societies and economies function; if we do not, current projections suggest that human life as we currently know it will probably become unsustainable by the end of this century.
The price of failing to act is therefore clear, but the action required to mitigate the worst effects of climate change is both radical and incredibly daunting.
Globally, we still get 80% of our energy from fossil fuels, while wind, solar and hydro power combined account for only 5%, according to the latest figures from the International Energy Agency.
These proportions have not changed in the last two decades, and both demand for energy and CO2 emissions continued to rise in 2018. Nothing short of a complete revolution in how we produce and use energy is required over the next decade.
The challenge for us is not just to achieve this, but to do it in a way that does not leave behind the millions of workers around the world who currently depend on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihoods.
How many green jobs?
In the UK, around 180,000 workers are directly employed in energy production and distribution, with hundreds of thousands more jobs in the supply chain dependent on the energy industry.
The electricity and gas supply sector alone is conservatively estimated to ultimately contribute around 5% of UK GDP. And, adding to the challenge, much of this economic impact is felt in marginal rural and coastal communities, for example, in connection with North Sea oil and gas.
How will these workers and their communities fare as we transition away from carbon-based energy sources?
One possibility is that renewable energy will provide the jobs to replace those lost in fossil fuel production, as part of a ‘green jobs’ revolution
Ten years ago we were offered a plethora of predictions about how many jobs could be created as we transitioned to using more renewable energy.
In 2009, Greenpeace estimated that over 100,000 jobs could be supported by renewables in the UK by 2020, and two years later what was then the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) speculated that renewable energy could be supporting 500,000 jobs in 2020.
These predictions have so far proved to be very wide of the mark.
In fact, total direct employment in renewables actually fell by 30% between 2015 and 2017 (the latest available figures) to just over 26,000 jobs, according to the Office for National Statistics.
So why this big discrepancy between forecasts and reality? Part of the answer is that the UK is just not building renewables infrastructure fast enough.
The current free market approach that relies on giving expensive subsidies to private developers, has only delivered around the half the level of investment we need to see to hit our climate targets, according to the CCC.
Rising to the challenge
Another key problem is that subsidy payments by UK consumers have not always produced good renewables jobs for UK workers.
A recent report by the Scottish TUC highlighted how jobs in renewables manufacturing have gone to state-supported firms in Europe or Asia, while UK firms have lost out, reducing the number of local jobs arising from UK renewables projects.
At the same time, at least one employer has been caught paying well below the minimum wage to construction workers on a major offshore windfarm project, raising questions about the quality of at least some of the renewables jobs that have been created.
If this situation is allowed to continue, there is a real risk that the climate crisis will also be a jobs crisis, with workers displaced from the carbon-intensive energy sector and no corresponding growth in green jobs to replace them.
As Prospect has argued before, to avoid this outcome, we need an urgent rethink of our approach to renewables, with government taking a much more active, interventionist role to support much greater investment and more decent jobs.
We also need to see renewables employers allow unions to organise in the sector to protect workers and ensure safe, secure, well-paying employment.
We are at a critical juncture in our history and the decisions we take in the next few years in response to the threat of climate change will have profound consequences far into the future.
We have not yet risen to that challenge, but with bold action we can mitigate the worst impacts of climate change whilst also instigating a green jobs revolution that can ensure workers and local communities are given a chance to prosper in a low-carbon future.