Last month, off the breezy coast of Fife, Scotland, a six-legged robot crawled slowly on suctioned feet up the vertical blade of a giant wind turbine. This was a coup for British innovation. It suggests that robots could soon cut the costs of maintaining wind turbines across the world. But it is also a sign that the green industrial revolution will bring jobs for data scientists, engineers, meteorologists and mathematicians, but not necessarily for legions of welders.
Politicians hope that the road to net zero is paved with jobs, because the next phase of curbing climate change will mean an upheaval on the scale of the first industrial revolution. Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan to wean the economy off carbon could be a turning point in the race against climate change. But it will also bring profound shocks to some livelihoods and lives.
Mr Johnson’s plan is light on detail as to where his promised 250,000 green jobs may come from. It lists 60,000 new jobs for the wind industry and 10,000 constructing nuclear plants. Trade unions are cautious, pointing out that promises to create hundreds of thousands of new roles a decade ago did not materialise. Ministers must be realistic about which jobs will be lost and which will be gained in the transition. They must be ruthless about onshoring as much as possible.
The prime minister’s ambition to make the UK “the Saudi Arabia of wind” is right for an island nation with vast experience in maritime engineering. Great strides have been made in the past two decades: 2,200 turbines have been installed and costs have come down. But much of the fabrication and construction of these majestic structures is done abroad.
Foundation piles have been built in the Middle East for wind turbines which lie 43km off the coast of East Anglia. Some Scottish yards have likely lost out to south-east Asia on contracts to build offshore platforms and are now teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Britain has only two plants making turbine blades, on Humberside and the Isle of Wight.
Part of the problem is that Britain joined the race late. Experts tell me that the UK’s subsidy regime has encouraged recipients to minimise labour costs, driving manufacturing offshore. The government has a target to increase the proportion of UK-made components, but small UK companies find it hard to compete with multinationals which have scale in project management and engineering.
“Some of these job numbers are just not going to materialise without a real change of tack,” says Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of Prospect, a trade union that represents energy professionals. She points to data suggesting that Denmark produces about five times as many jobs as the UK for every gigawatt of offshore wind installed. To match that will require “a real industrial strategy”, with proper labour standards and a clear pipeline of contracts for firms to bid on.
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For the young and educated, the future looks bright. Renewable energy networks are complex and digital, and will provide high-skill roles. Environmental consultancy is a strong British export. But the older and less skilled may need help.
A fundamental part of Mr Johnson’s strategy is to decarbonise the way that we heat our homes. This will mean ripping out gas boilers and installing insulation. It is not yet clear how it will be paid for. The GMB union, which represents gas workers, opposes replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, which it says could raise fuel bills exponentially. The union is worried about how workers will migrate to heat pump installation and servicing, which has its own set of skills and qualifications. This should surely be a priority for government training.
The challenge of net zero is to mobilise both public sentiment and private investment. While polls show that tackling climate change is increasingly popular, the gilets jaunes protests in France are a reminder that green taxes hurt, and that environmentalism cannot be a bourgeois preoccupation foisted upon the poor. It will be hard enough to persuade grumpy homeowners to change their boiler and rip out cavity walls, let alone if whole groups find themselves left behind.
There are an awful lot of moving parts and not a lot of resources. Mr Johnson’s £12bn includes only £3bn of new money, and only about a quarter of the £2bn that Rolls-Royce and its partners wanted to build small nuclear reactors. Tensions are simmering between the energy regulator and companies over investment in the electricity grid. Mr Johnson has made electric vehicles central to his plan, but a no-deal Brexit would make them even more expensive, raising costs to business and consumers.
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Decarbonising economies will bring tremendous benefits. With the world heading into calamitous climate change, rapid action is undoubtedly needed. But in seeking to avert much bigger costs in the future by acting now, we should not underestimate how painful the transition could be for some of those who have already been hit hard by the pandemic.
More than 100,000 oil and gas jobs were lost in the US between March and August, according to Deloitte, and some researchers have suggested that men in those industries are at higher risk of suicide. In the UK, some communities still recall the agonies caused by the end of coal mining.
Hope is the currency of Mr Johnson’s plan. But the rhetoric of green jobs must become detailed policy, and the alluring future he paints must be as inclusive as possible if he is to achieve his vision.
The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow
— to www.ft.com