A green skills plan that marries environmental targets with economic and social aims will put UK in stronger position for net zero, writes Green Alliance’s Joseph Evans

The UK economy needs to go through a sea change if we are to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Carbon intensive industries will have to go green, cutting emissions and restoring nature in line with the government’s environmental targets. And doing it in a fair way means upskilling those workers in high carbon jobs for new, low carbon roles while training the next generation to work in the green economy of the future.

The government has pledged to expand green jobs in line with this transformation. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and COP26 President Alok Sharma outlined ambitions to create two million green jobs by 2030 and this was reaffirmed in the Net Zero Strategy. The Treasury’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund wants to create and retain jobs while restoring nature and tackling climate change, and the chancellor has announced a £3bn green jobs plan to steer the economy out of the pandemic.

There is a deficit of green skills in every sector

Despite these ambitions, the UK’s workforce is not yet ready for the demands of a net zero economy. This is evidenced by the deficit of green skills which exists in every major sector: power, buildings, transport, waste, agriculture and industry. In our new report – Closing the UK’s green skills gap – we estimate that the skills gap across the timeline of the transition for these sectors could be as high as two million jobs, which matches the government’s pledges.

The problem is that there is currently no way that even a fraction of those vacancies could be filled. There has been some progress on the government’s green jobs drive: the Green Jobs Taskforce, announced last year, is designed to advise the government and business on how to train up a workforce to support the future green economy. Convened by ministers from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Education (DfE), the group is made up of members from industry, unions and the skills sector. The taskforce recently celebrated a small roll-out of skills bootcamps and free ‘courses for jobs’ in forestry and sustainable construction, and it is developing plans for an electrification skills project to train a workforce for transport decarbonisation.

However, the taskforce does not yet have a holistic vision for green jobs training and upskilling across the country. Although the government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill now requires that environmental goals are considered in developing local skills strategies, there is still no national plan in relation to achieving net zero. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is collaborating with DfE on a skills gap plan to identify the workforce shortages standing in the way of biodiversity targets, but there is no equivalent for meeting the much broader whole economy aim of net zero emissions by 2050. Most recently, the Net Zero Strategy estimated that its package of policies would create less than a quarter of the government’s pledged two million jobs by 2030 and offered no route map for filling them.

Net zero should be embedded in other priorities

Part of the problem is that the government treats net zero as a separate mission from its other pressing priorities. It also talks about levelling up and the importance of infrastructure to spread economic benefits across the country but sees these agendas as distinct. In doing so, it is failing to recognise the necessity and greater impact of joining them up.

There are stark regional inequalities in the sectors that must be decarbonised. These places also broadly map onto the priority zones for levelling up. The buildings sector is a clear example. Almost all the UK’s housing stock of 29 million homes needs to be retrofitted with energy efficiency measures and low carbon heat. Yet, employment in the sector is skewed towards the South East: of the 1.3 million people in the UK currently work in the buildings sector, nearly 600,000 are concentrated in London, the East and the South East of England.  

Similarly, around half of heavy industry’s emissions derive from several geographical clusters. This means that jobs in high emitting sectors are unevenly distributed, so some regions, like Yorkshire and the Humber, will be disproportionately impacted as the country moves to net zero, unless there is a targeted strategy to address it. Workers in these places need to be the focus of upskilling programmes to ensure that communities currently relying on high emitting sectors for jobs are not dislocated by decarbonisation.

This skills gap is a sign that the government does not yet have a coherent approach to meeting its climate ambitions, and this will become an increasingly pressing problem over time. But an integrated green skills programme that marries the government’s environmental targets with its economic and social aims will put us on a much stronger footing for the transition.

Joseph Evans is a policy assistant at the think tank Green Alliance.

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