Article

Green Jobs for a Brighter Post-Pandemic Future

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on economies around the world with unemployment at record highs. And while many of these jobs may not return in the new post-pandemic normal, if we rebuild our economies by addressing climate change, we can create even more jobs than those that were lost.

By Laurie Stone
May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on economies around the world. So many people have filed for unemployment in the past month that I’m hesitant to put in a number as it will probably drastically change by the time you read this article, but suffice it to say it is in the tens of millions (the latest report shows the United States lost 20.5 million jobs in April alone). And while many of these jobs may not return in the new post-pandemic normal, if we rebuild our economies by addressing climate change, we can create even more jobs than those that were lost.

In fact, a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that the renewable energy industry could add more than 1 million jobs a year if countries invest enough money to meet their climate targets. IRENA also found that accelerating that investment in clean energy could mean 42 million new jobs by 2050.

Before the pandemic, in the United States alone, clean energy jobs grew by more than 10 percent since 2015, and clean energy was the biggest employer across the entire US energy sector. In fact, solar PV installers and wind turbine technicians were the fastest growing occupations in the country, and according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, before the pandemic those jobs were supposed to grow by 63 percent and 57 percent respectively by 2028.

Unfortunately, job losses from the pandemic hit the clean energy sector just like almost every other sector around the world. But by rebuilding the world’s economy based on a renewable and resilient energy system, we can not only recoup those jobs, but also put many more people around the world to work.

Clean Energy Creates More Jobs than Fossil Fuels

A recently released report from the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, led by a team of internationally renowned economists, found that investing in renewable energy generates more jobs in the short run—compared to traditional stimulus packages—when jobs are scarce in the middle of a recession. Renewable energy jobs are also less susceptible to offshoring compared to other industries. One study from the Political Economy Research Institute shows that every $1 million in spending generates less than three fossil fuel jobs, but will generate more than seven full-time jobs in renewable energy and almost eight full-time jobs in energy efficiency.

Although the clean energy sector has lost many jobs during the crisis—at least 106,400 in March alone according to one report—many of these are jobs that will return as the economy recovers and states try to meet their climate targets. On the other hand, job losses in the fossil fuel sector may be permanent as renewables become more cost-competitive with conventional fuels and coal plants close.

Another advantage that clean energy jobs have over fossil fuel jobs is that clean energy jobs—related to renewable energy and energy efficiency—are distributed across the country instead of focused in geographic areas where extraction takes place. “Green jobs, such as retrofitting homes, tend to be local, making for great stimulus packages, and have the added advantage of saving homeowners money which then multiplies local economic activity,” says Jacob Corvidae, a principal in RMI’s Carbon-Free Cities and States program.

“Green jobs, such as retrofitting homes, tend to be local, making for great stimulus packages, and have the added advantage of saving homeowners money which then multiplies local economic activity.”

— Jacob Corvidae, RMI Principal

States Taking the Lead

In the United States, certain states are realizing the benefits of clean energy to job creation and taking steps during this crisis to proactively expand the industry. For example, Massachusetts doubled the capacity of its solar incentive program when COVID-19 hit, to bring the capacity up to 3,200 megawatts. “(This) move will help stabilize the solar industry—one of the bright spots in the Massachusetts economy—and keep people working,” said David Gahl, senior director of northeast state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Also, New York State recently passed a measure to speed up the siting and construction process for new renewable energy projects to help the state’s economy recover from the COVID-19 health crisis. This will bring in many new jobs to the state.

Thirty-one oil and gas producing states are even asking for stimulus funds to put unemployed oil and gas workers back to work cleaning up abandoned wells. There are 57,000 documented orphan wells across the United States, and the Center for American Progress claims that a $2 billion orphan well fund could support 14,000 to 24,000 jobs in energy producing states.

A Just Transition

However, we have to be mindful to include all sectors of society in clean energy jobs. We have already learned that the health impacts of COVID-19 are worse for African American and Latino communities. We also know that low-income communities spend as much as three times more as a percentage of their income on energy costs than higher-income communities.

Creating clean energy jobs, especially energy efficiency jobs, in low-income communities can help the triple burden that these communities face in relation to health, energy costs, and job loss. “What COVID has shown us is that we as a society are at much greater risk according to the weakest link in the chain,” says Corvidae. “Our most vulnerable communities make us all more vulnerable; so creating a baseline of security for all of our communities makes us all more secure.”

“Our most vulnerable communities make us all more vulnerable; so creating a baseline of security for all of our communities makes us all more secure.”

— Jacob Corvidae, RMI Principal

According to Adenike Adeyeye, western states energy manager and senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the energy efficiency workforce is whiter and more male-dominated than the workforce as a whole.

There are a handful of programs around the country focusing on clean energy jobs for underrepresented groups including Emerald Cities’ e-Contractor Academy in California and Ohio, Rocky Mountain Institute and Emerald Cities’ REALIZE Boston Contractor Academy, and Elevate Energy’s Contractor Accelerator in Chicago. However, much more can be done. “Workforce development policies both at the federal and state level should include job quality and equity measures, to ensure that people of color and low-income communities have access to high quality clean energy jobs,” Adeyeye wrote in a recent blog post.

We also have to be mindful of the jobs that are being lost. Regions that have traditionally relied on oil, gas, and coal production were already struggling before the pandemic, and may be much worse off if we don’t help them transition to clean energy jobs. This is a complex issue, as they are not the same jobs. “You can’t take an oil pipeline worker and easily convert them to being a solar installer,” says Corvidae.

“The important thing to do is look at who is in distress, consult with them to understand their needs, and give them the opportunity match their skills to an opportunity in their preferred geography,” says Carla Frisch, a principal in Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Cities and States program. For example, if wide-ranging support for job training is provided, offshore oil and gas workers can transition to offshore wind or other careers of their choosing with training they choose. If they choose, coal miners can work on environmental remediation with minimal job retraining.

New Jobs for a New Paradigm

As we rebuild from COVID-19, many things will look different including jobs. “The biggest mistake would be to invest in things that preserve the status quo such as building out infrastructure that served us for the past century instead of what will serve us in the next one,” according to Corvidae.

Just as telemedicine took hold in the health industry and became crucial throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we should consider in tele-home improvement. Video assessments offer a whole new job niche in which people can remotely conduct a check-up on a house, whether for energy, air quality, or other resilience measures.

Another way to create jobs and accelerate the green construction industry is by investing in prefabricated “green” housing. Off-site and prefab construction not only offer a way to scale green construction, they also offer a needed solution for addressing the country’s affordable housing crisis.

“Off-site construction has the potential to reduce construction timelines by up to 50 percent while reducing costs by 20 percent,” according to Martha Campbell, an RMI principle who leads the REALIZE initiative. “And it is a safe and controlled work environment, allowing folks to return to work now, while providing higher quality employment for those in the trades who have been severely impacted by COVID.”

And while offices and schools are closed, we can be making upgrades, which can be done much cheaper as buildings are empty and energy professionals don’t need to work off hours. Along the same vein, as long as roads are relatively empty, why not retrofit them with dedicated bike and bus lanes? Or retrofit fleets to be hybrid or electric? “This is the perfect time to be employing people to make our transportation fleets more efficient, providing jobs while greening our mobility system,” says Frisch.

“This is the perfect time to be employing people to make our transportation fleets more efficient, providing jobs while greening our mobility system.”

— Carla Frisch, RMI Principal

Recovering with a Win-Win-Win

Unfortunately, unemployment numbers continue to rise. Speaking about the high job loss rate, treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin recently stated that, “The reported numbers are probably going to get worse before they get better.” Therefore, stimulus packages must include an emphasis on green jobs. This will not only increase employment opportunities, but also brings about many co-benefits critical to a clean energy future.

“Energy is so closely tied to health and air quality, that if we can grow clean energy jobs, we’ll not only be providing employment, but also improving health and combating climate change,” says Corvidae. In fact, investing in green energy jobs may be the best way to reactivate the economy and have a post-pandemic world that is cleaner, safer, and brighter for everyone.