Climate change: What net zero transition will mean for 1.3m UK workers

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net zero A delegate walks past a sign during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 11, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman
The UK and several other countries have pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters

The UK’s net zero push will force 1.3 million workers in more polluting sectors to adapt as the decarbonisation drive will involve major changes across the economy, a think tank has said.

A report by the Resolution Foundation and LSE shows decarbonisation will disproportionately affect the UK’s 1.3 million ‘brown job’ workers who are most exposed to the impacts of the transition, as they are most prevalent in emissions-intense sectors.

This includes HGV drivers and energy plant operatives who will be driving “different kinds of vehicles and producing electricity in different ways” in the decades ahead, the report said.

The net zero race will involve major change across the economy but won’t destroy jobs in the way that deindustrialisation did in the 1970s and 1980s, the think tank suggested.

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“This has led some to warn that decarbonisation could be as damaging as deindustrialisation in terms of job destruction. Some transitions into new jobs will be required, but the reality is most workers will feel the net zero transition through changes to the jobs they already do, rather than redundancies and completely new types of work,” Kathleen Henehan, senior research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said.

“Securing a ‘green job’ is likely to lead to higher wages, but entry into those jobs is dominated by those with higher skills. Rather than focusing on misplaced forecasts of huge jobs losses, policy makers should prioritise supporting workers to adapt to new technologies and tasks, either in their current jobs, or by moving to ‘green’ jobs through an expansion of skills and training. That will hold the key to ensuring that decarbonisation can lead to better jobs and pay for as many people as possible,” she added.

Another key group affected are the 4.3 million workers in ‘green jobs’. Some of these are likely to grow – including wind turbine engineers and environmental and conservation professionals – while others will see their jobs change – including technicians and managers of various types.

The report said the real challenge is to ensure that low and mid-skilled workers can benefit from the net zero transition with most areas of job growth being higher skilled.

There are strong incentives to move to ‘green job’ sectors, which are set to grow in size, and already carry an average wage premium of 8% over non-green jobs. And with two-in-five green and brown jobs found in overlapping sectors – construction, manufacturing, agriculture and energy – calls for brown-to-green job moves are common.

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But the report cautions that it is all too rare for workers to switch from ‘brown’ to ‘green’ jobs – largely due to the significant differences between the tasks that green and brown workers complete.

‘Green job’ workers are over three times more likely to be in higher-qualified, professional jobs compared to brown jobs (83% versus 26%), with the majority of brown workers in lower-qualified, manual jobs (54%).

These differences help explain why more than a quarter of the highest-paid workers are in green jobs (27%) while brown workers are concentrated in the middle of the income distribution.

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