The growing clout of green-collar jobs

We often talk about expunging fossil fuels from our energy diet, which can put the discussion in a negative light. More often we should talk about adding clean energy and acknowledge the otherworldly progress that sector has made.

While the rest of us have been ferociously debating the merits and malevolence of fossil fuels and accompanying industries over the last decade, the clean-energy sector has positioned itself not only to replace oil and gas, but also its corner of the Canadian economy, jobs and all.

According to a series of 2019 reports from Clean Energy Canada, a thinktank with British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, national “green-collar” workers numbered 298,000 in 2017, a 16% increase from 2010 which includes renewable energy production, distribution, storage, energy efficient construction and electric transportation.

The sector is growing faster than the Canadian economy as a whole, and investment swells with each passing year. By 2020, the number of green-collar jobs will likely have risen to 398,000, given growth and the inclusion of a few more rising industries.

These same reports place employment in the fossil-fuel sector (which includes fuel production, fossil-fuel electricity generation, and value-added industries like trucking and equipment manufacturing) at around 1 million jobs as of 2017, a number which is projected to drop 0.5% per year between now and 2030.

Over that same decade the clean energy sector is projected to grow 3.4% per year. The final tally from this simultaneous rise and fall will be 989,700 jobs in the fossil-fuel sector, and 559,400 in clean energy by 2030, a dramatic swing of the needle.

Comparisons are tricky for a variety of reasons. The big one is the inherent difference between traditional and emerging energy sectors. Fossil fuels, for example, depend on extraction and use, while renewables depend on generation and efficiency. The clean-energy sector doesn’t just entail the production of wind power, but the energy efficiency of the homes and cars using it, attacking the problem from both sides.

Jobs in to the clean-energy sector don’t just include the technicians and engineers turning out wind power, but those contractors and mechanics determined to perfect the energy-efficient homes and vehicles of the future.

What’s interesting about our expanding clean energy sector is that it’s not localized, as with jobs in the Alberta Oil Sands or myriad pipeline projects. Clean energy is everywhere, from B.C. companies specializing in electric cars to wind farms on P.E.I. As of 2017, Atlantic Canada’s clean-energy sector alone employed 12,123 green-collar workers and attracted $3.8 billion in annual investment, an opportunity we have a fiscal and moral obligation to seize.

The rise of green-collar workers is a global phenomena, with concentrations in China, India, the United States, and the European Union, by virtue of their towering economies, population densities, and willingness to accept solar and wind at scale. According to a 2019 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, as of 2018 there were 11 million green-collar workers across the planet and that number is climbing.

Anyone who tells you a carbon-neutral future cannot work is suffering from an outdated worldview, formed when renewable power was prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient, when electric cars couldn’t get you to work without a charge, when fossil fuels were the only kid on the block and promised riches forevermore.

But we no longer live in that world. The technologies and industries at play have matured and promise, in no uncertain terms, to dominate in the near future. According to Natural Resources Canada, renewables produce 67% of Canada’s electricity and 17.3% of its overall energy use (when you incorporate home heating, cars, and other such uses), typically using fossil fuels). That’s not a bad foundation to build on.

The rising stars are solar power (which grew from 16.7 megawatts in 2005 to 3,040 megawatts in 2018) and wind (going from 444 megawatts in 2004 to 12,817 megawatts in 2018). Note that a mere 12% of Nova Scotia’s electricity mix came from these two sources in 2017, but 47.9%, came from coal. But even in the intervening two years, solar has grown 300% provincially, thanks in large part to government programs. The renewable revolution is here as well, even if we have some catching up to do.

Every report I’ve referenced in this column makes its predictions based on government policies national or international which have been at least announced up to 2019, and attribute the actual speed of our shift to a clean energy economy to the strength of future legislation, or their repeal by regressive governments, such as in Ontario where electric car rebates and renewable supports were scrapped. We need to make sure we end up on the right side of history, and buy in now with every tool in our government’s arsenal.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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