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Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Renewables Would Add 8 Million Energy Sector Jobs Worldwide: Study

By Brett Wilkins - Common Dreams, July 23, 2021

Critics of a shift to a post-carbon economy often claim that a fossil fuel phase-out would leave millions of people unemployed. And while millions of fossil fuel industry jobs would indeed be lost under a robust climate policy, a study published Friday shows that overall energy sector employment would actually increase by over 40% by 2050 due to gains in renewable energy jobs.

The study—conducted by the RFF-CMCC European Institute on Economics and the Environment in collaboration with researchers from the University of British Columbia and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and published in the journal One Earth—concludes that "jobs in the energy sector would grow from today's 18 million to 26 million" under a climate policy aimed at keeping global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and even the more ambitious target of 1.5°C.

"Over 12 million people work in the coal, oil, and natural gas industries today," the paper states. "However, to keep global warming well below 2°C, a target enshrined in the Paris Climate Agreement, all three fossil fuels need to dramatically decline and be replaced by low-carbon energy sources."

"Such a shift in energy systems would have wide-ranging implications beyond meeting the climate target," it continues. "While this is technically possible, whether it can be done fast enough is a political question. One major factor influencing political support for climate policies, particularly in fossil fuel producing countries, is the impact they have on fossil fuel jobs."

The study notes that "meeting the global climate target of the Paris Agreement of staying well-below 2°C or even reaching 1.5°C requires rapid growth of low-carbon energy and phaseout of fossil fuels."

"One impact would be on jobs across the energy sector as older industries decline and new energy industries rise with corresponding shifts in the location and types of jobs that exist within the energy sector," the paper says. "Understanding these potential job shifts is important for a couple of reasons."

"First, in economies where fossil fuel production and exports are important, political support for low-carbon transitions increasingly centers on the debate of jobs versus the environment or climate, and it is important to know the impact such climate action may have on what are often politically salient jobs," it explains, noting that many politicians continue to support the fossil fuel industry because it employs millions of people.

"For example, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, candidate [Donald] Trump referred to coal miners 294 times and campaigned on a platform of reviving the coal industry and coal jobs," the study states, adding that when the former president withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017, he said, "I happen to love the coal miners."

The study also notes that "Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was re-elected after running on a campaign that vowed to protect the fossil fuel industry and related jobs in the face of stronger climate policies."

"Second, green politicians and environmental groups argue that taking bold climate action, including phasing out fossil fuels, can go hand in hand with a 'just transition' for fossil fuel workers that includes retraining these workers to renewable energy jobs," the publication continues. "However, any just transition program needs to understand the scale of shifts of jobs away from fossil fuels."

According to the study:

Of the total jobs in 2050 under the well below 2°C scenario, 84% would be in the renewables sector, 11% in fossil fuels, and 5% in nuclear. Moreover, while fossil fuel jobs, particularly extraction jobs, which constitute 80% of current fossil fuel jobs, would rapidly decline, these losses would be more than compensated by gains in solar and wind jobs.

A large portion (7.7 million in 2050) of the growth in solar and wind jobs would be in manufacturing jobs which are not geographically-bound, and which could lead to competition between countries to attract these jobs. Results show how regionally, the Middle East and North Africa, and the U.S. could witness a substantial increase in overall energy jobs with renewable energy expansion, but China may see a decrease with a decline of the coal sector.

Johannes Emmerling, one of the study's authors, said in a statement that "currently, an estimated 18 million people work in the energy industries—a number that is likely to increase, not decrease, to 26 million if we reach our global climate targets. Manufacturing and installation of renewable energy sources could potentially become about one-third of the total of these jobs, for which countries can also compete in terms of location."

"The energy transition is increasingly being studied with very detailed models, spatial resolutions, timescales, and technological details," Emmerling added. "Yet, the human dimension, energy access, poverty, and also distributional and employment implications are often considered at a high level of detail. We contributed to fill this gap by collecting and applying a large dataset across many countries and technologies that can also be used in other applications."

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