- Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change
As the UK prepares to host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021, there are high hopes that the signatories to the Paris Agreement will take bold and decisive steps on the actions required to address the climate crisis.
While exact pathways are uncertain and alternative visions of the future certainly contentious, one aspect remains clear: the transition to a more sustainable world requires huge changes in the ways we live and work. Overall projections of the impact on jobs are generally favourable with growth in a wide range of new sectors and occupations in the ‘green economy’ forecast to outstrip the loss of those affected by decarbonisation.
However, in this process of transition, how do workers, particularly in those sectors most likely to be adversely affected, view the prospect of change? What are their hopes and fears for both themselves and their communities? And what are the implications for policymakers to help manage a fair and just transition?
Researchers at the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the University of Leeds have conducted a representative survey across the UK with workers on just transition, the green economy and net zero. The overall message is: workers are ready for a change. Workers in high-carbon sectors, especially, feel ready for change towards a greener future.
While this doesn’t come without anxiety and fear about the future, workers feel the urgency to mitigate climate change. A huge number consider themselves knowledgeable about climate change and are prepared to change jobs to work in greener segments of the economy. They are willing to be upskilled or retrained.
As part of our research project - The Worker Voice in Just Transitions to a Low-Carbon Economy - we conducted a survey in March and April this year (2021). The respondents were all of working age, economically active, and representative of the UK with regards to age, gender and regional distribution. A quarter of the respondents worked in sectors with high-carbon emissions like energy, transport, construction, manufacturing, agriculture and extraction.
Interestingly, overall, respondents of working age in our survey are slightly less concerned about climate change than respondents in comparable polls with the entire population including students and younger people, or the economically inactive.
This might result from the fact that 40% of respondents in our survey say they work in organisations where management has already undertaken measures to reduce carbon emissions. While overall levels of concern amongst workers are slightly less than the general population, the majority see that climate change should be addressed with urgency, (66% say with extreme or a high level of urgency) which is comparable to other general population surveys.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, workers in high-emitting sectors are more likely to be working at sites already undertaking plans to decarbonise, and have been consulted by management on those plans and received relevant training. They are even a bit more hopeful than workers in other sectors that climate change will be addressed. While at the same time they are a bit more likely to say they are knowledgeable about climate change.
14% of our respondents think that they will have to change jobs due to a shift towards a greener economy, and over a quarter will have to learn new skills (27%). Among those working in high-carbon sectors, 35% think they will have to learn new skills. 12% think they will have to move to a different region in order to find a new job.
In addition to asking about jobs, we also asked about expectations of job quality: 16% of respondents are optimistic and think they would get a better pay if they get a new job, while the majority think an improvement of pay or working conditions will be rather unlikely.
Respondents are, on the whole, more optimistic about the potential of the transition to a green economy to have a positive effect on their communities: 47% of respondents think that the green economy will bring new jobs to their communities and 40% think it will bring better jobs to their region.
When asked about choosing from a range of potential new green jobs, working as an environmental conservation professional and a forestry worker are the most popular roles (19% and 17% respectively) with high-carbon sector workers even more likely to opt for these choices (21% and 20% respectively).
More broadly, the following sectors are the most popular choices to potentially work in: energy efficiency buildings; low carbon electricity; waste management and reuse but also health and social care are popular. The vast majority of workers switching into these new areas require skills training to help facilitate this.
If jobs are at risk, workers consider training, as well as the availability of new jobs with the potential for high job-satisfaction, the most important policy measures to ensure the transition and economic restructuring is fair and effective. Redundancy packages or pension boosts are considered less important (but not insignificant), even by older workers.
Interestingly, trade union members consider financial support like pension boosts more important and training slightly less important than non-union members: although it is notable that union members are almost twice as likely to already receive on-the-job training compared to non-members.
Participation and involvement of the communities affected by a green transition is considered most important for ensuring a fair process of change.
These survey results are extremely interesting as they contradict some of the more general assumptions about workers and their uptake of greening the economy and their role in it. It gives some hope that given the right policy measures and inclusive and participatory approaches towards workers and communities, workers are ready to shoulder any necessary burdens to decarbonise and to green the economy.
Funding for this research - The worker voice in Just Transitions to a low-carbon economy - was received from the UKRI (Research England QR-SPF). Members of the team: Dr Jo Cutter, Professor Vera Trappmann, Dr Ursula Balderson, Dr Helen Norman, Andrew Sudmant.
For further inquiries please contact: Dr Jo Cutter or Professor Vera Trappmann at email@example.com.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.