Our Research Assistant Kieran Connelly reflects on the discussion at a recent roundtable, supported by the London Borough of Hounslow, and assesses what action needs to be taken for London’s workforce to benefit from a green jobs revolution.
The challenges ahead
The pandemic caused an unprecedented shake-up in London’s workforce, with the capital being hardest hit by unemployment compared to the rest of the UK. Although London is experiencing a strong recovery, many jobs will not come back in the same way as before. Meanwhile, the UK has a long way to go in meeting its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Could a green-jobs led recovery be the answer to tackling both London’s unemployment crisis and the climate emergency? We recently held an expert roundtable supported by the London Borough of Hounslow, which looked at what needs to happen to get such a scheme on the road, and what challenges may lay ahead.
Case in point – at the height of the pandemic 40 per cent of the population of the London Borough of Hounslow were furloughed, as jobs linked to nearby Heathrow evaporated. While some of these roles have since returned as people tentatively begin to fly once more, it is likely that we are way off the levels of air traffic that Heathrow and other UK airports were accustomed to returning. International travel continues to pose the risk of importation of new COVID-19 variants, and the need for business travel appears to have at least partially been replaced by video conferencing. It goes without mentioning that air travel is a substantial contributor to the UK’s carbon footprint, with eight per cent of our total emissions stemming from the airline industry. Relying on the international travel industry for our post-pandemic recovery is simply not a climate conscious option.
Even prior to the pandemic, it was becoming clear that firmer action was necessary to meet the UK government’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Our post-pandemic recovery is a clear opportunity to both reduce our carbon emissions, and rebuild our economy with new, fulfilling careers that give London’s workers a future they can be proud of. This is especially pressing given the impending end of the furlough scheme in September, when many workers in industries that will either recover more slowly or not at all may find themselves unemployed. These workers deserve a fresh start, in a fulfilling career that enables their continued professional and personal development, one which can be accomplished alongside tackling the climate crisis, through government investment in a comprehensive green jobs program, and an upskilling scheme that enables everyone to transition into a climate friendly economy.
What is a green job?
Our roundtable attendees agreed that all jobs would need to be ‘greened’ in some way – meaning that they would take on new climate conscious skills. For example, heating engineers and plumbers will need to learn how to install and maintain new technologies as we shift to more efficient forms of heating. Investment managers will need to learn to assess the carbon impacts of their assets, and salespeople are going to need to learn to pitch remotely. Some roles would also see increased demand, like software developers as our reliance on IT increases through the shift to remote working. Some positions however would be new and emerging green jobs that are created as a result of concerted ecological action, like retrofitting workers, electric vehicle charging point installation engineers and carbon auditors – vital roles necessary to lowering our collective carbon footprint.
Many of the roles in this last category of green jobs would be in greening the built environment. As 38 per cent of the UK’s emissions come from the places we live and work, a lot of our discussion revolved around this topic. Particular focus was paid to the challenges of retrofitting London’s existing building stock – especially important given the fact that 80 per cent of the buildings we will be living and working in by 2050 have already been built. Retrofitting involves making adaptations that improve the energy efficiency of existing structures, often by adding insulation or upgrading heating systems to more efficient ones.
Accessibility and inclusivity
The green jobs revolution must also be accessible and inclusive. As we transition away from fossil fuels, care must be taken to ensure that existing workers in these industries are not left behind, and are instead upskilled into new, rewarding careers. Retraining older workers who have been in one industry for most of their working life may prove challenging. And although there is scope to train older workers to retrofit existing structures, there are important questions about what professional and personal development is possible during time-limited retrofitting projects. Green jobs must be good jobs, with career progression, workers’ rights, and fair pay.
Upskilling for today and tomorrow
To make the most of these opportunities, substantial investment in the skills ecosystem is required. Most jobs that today’s school and university students will be working in don’t exist yet, which means we do not know what skills they will need to perform and excel in these roles. Our roundtable attendees emphasised the importance of providers being nimble and for educational institutions, certification bodies, and employers to work together to adapt to quickly fill skills shortages. It was emphasised that local authorities need to work together rather than in competition to utilise London’s rich educational infrastructure as if they fail to provide the requisite skills base in London, the capital will lose out to other parts of the country and the world as employers take their firms to skills rich areas. With the shift to remote working, a much wider pool of talent from across the globe is available to firms which makes ensuring that London’s workers are able to compete ever more important.
Who can drive change?
While the case for tackling unemployment and climate change in one stroke is a strong one, alas the powers London has to make the necessary changes are less strong. Although London governance systems have no authority to authorise spending on retrofitting of existing structures, councils do have control over new stock, where they can opt to only give planning permission to structures that meet certain standards. Due to funding restraints, a comprehensive green jobs revolution must originate at a national level, or London needs to lobby for new powers. Both of these options are currently difficult for the capital after the recent Transport for London funding negotiation, and in the context of a political climate where Westminster’s attention is seemingly fixated in the North of England – action in London appears far off. However, after the government’s recent defeat in Amersham and Chesham, at least partially stemming from a perception in the South that it is being ignored by the levelling up agenda, it is possible that a change of direction could ensue. Time will tell, time that the planet and London’s workforce may not have.
Kieran Connelly is Research Assistant at Centre for London.