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Green jobs – puffery and promise

No fear of heights: two engineers check out the drill shaft on an oil platform in the North Sea.

If anyone can be relied upon to turn a crowd-pleasing photo opportunity into a row about Britain’s industrial demise, it is surely Boris Johnson. Visiting a wind farm off Scotland’s east coast in August, on a promotional jaunt for his plan to upgrade ports and factories, build a wave of new wind turbines and support the creation of 60,000 jobs in the process, the UK’s prime minister called for a ‘smooth and sensible’ transition from oil and gas to green energy. ‘Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start,’ he added.

Johnson’s throwaway comment prompted a furious backlash, including from within his own party. Tory MPs representing so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies (traditionally held by Labour incumbents) in England’s former industrial heartlands immediately recognized the offence he had caused, with one saying the PM was ‘spitting in the face of communities that still haven’t recovered’. Ewan Gibbs, a historian at Glasgow University, pointedly noted that ‘Thatcher’s government cut funding for an innovative renewables research programme in the late 1980s’.

In Aberdeen, Johnson’s comments sparked not only painful memories, but fears for a fast-approaching future. Jake Molloy, a veteran offshore oil worker and organizer for the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport) trade union, believes the northeast of Scotland is on the cusp of suffering the same fate as Britain’s coalfields, as the government reacts to growing public opinion that something needs to be done about climate change. ‘The more this continues, this absence of a clear, defined strategy or plan… the more likely you’re going to get some kind of knee-jerk reaction to appease the population. And bang, they’re going to shut the whole lot down. We’ll be left with one almighty mess to clear up – and it’s going to cost us dearly.’

Hot air

Ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Johnson was far from being the only Western leader to put ‘green jobs’ at the heart of their rhetoric. Joe Biden has said that tackling climate change offers the chance to create ‘millions of good paying jobs around the world’, while Justin Trudeau has claimed that ‘climate action will be a cornerstone of our plan to support and create a million jobs’ in Canada.

It is much rarer to hear quite what these jobs will include – or indeed hear of real-life examples of workers successfully progressing to the green economy. There is no single definition of a ‘green job’. The UN System of Environmental Economic Accounting sets out an ‘environmental goods and services sector’ which includes industries ‘producing goods and services for environmental protection purposes, as well as those engaged in conserving and maintaining natural resources’.

RMT organiser Jake Molloy is preoccupied with the missed opportunities of the oil-boom years − and full of dread that the same mistakes are about to be made over renewables

The International Labour Organization adds to this a requirement that green jobs ‘have to be decent’. This chimes with the Paris climate agreement, which stresses ‘a just transition’ along with ‘decent work and quality jobs’. Originally coined by trade unions seeking to guarantee future employment for fossil-fuel workers, the term ‘just transition’ has now been co-opted by governments and even big business. Yet a report published by Platform, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Scotland found that this has been ‘rhetoric rather than meaningful policy action’; 91 per cent of the North Sea offshore workers they surveyed had never heard of the concept.

If you want a taste of the pessimism that has infected the oil and gas workforce, the helicopter terminals at Aberdeen Airport are the place to go. ‘There’s been too much hype,’ says Tony Dutton, who has been working in the industry since arriving in Scotland from New Zealand in 1984. ‘People just think it’s the be all [and end all] and the answer. The government can’t promise jobs in renewables to people on rigs. Wind farms – it’s not like you have a crew on there.’

Trade unionist Molloy agrees that there will be limited operating jobs on wind turbines, but thinks that misses the point. ‘This is about the supply-chain process. This is about manufacturing onshore, engineering offshore and subsequent maintenance. We’ve not got any manufacturing base right now.’

The bottom line for labour

Back in 2011, then-First Minister Alex Salmond said Scotland could become the ‘Saudi Arabia of renewable energy’ – an ambition recently repeated by Johnson for the whole of the UK. As in Saudi Arabia, laissez-faire regulation and market forces have prevailed in Britain’s renewable energy sector. But in terms of plentiful employment and economic prosperity, the comparison is way off the mark. The Scottish government had projected that 28,000 workers would be employed in offshore wind by 2020, but by 2019 the number was just 1,400 – down from 1,500 the previous year. The Scottish Trades Union Congress says there are opportunities to be seized – 23,000 to 70,000 jobs in manufacturing; 2,000 to 13,000 in hydrogen electrolyzers; 2,300 to 6,100 in hydro-pumped storage; and 2,900 to 8,000 in decommissioning. But it has also modelled a ‘worst case outcome for renewables job creation’, which could see fewer than 10,000 jobs created in total.

Électricité de France, the multinational energy giant that is 84.5 per cent owned by the French state, is currently building the massive Neart Na Gaoithe (NNG) wind farm east of Scotland. Just miles away on the Fife coast lies Burntisland Fabrications (BiFab), the obvious place to manufacture the ‘jackets’ which anchor each wind turbine. Having successfully converted from building infrastructure for oil and gas rigs, BiFab should be the poster child of just transition. But even though it badly needed the work to keep operating, the company was awarded a contract for just eight of NNG’s 54 jackets.

The lion’s share went instead to the Italy-headquartered multinational Saipem, which plans to build the jackets on Karimun island in Indonesia. According to a promotional video with a soundtrack to rival a Hollywood blockbuster, Saipem is ‘committed to focus on local content’ in Karimun, wants to ‘link to the promotion of local entrepreneurship and skilled labour’ and is ‘focused on the retention of [skilled workers] and their families on the island’.

The minimum wage is determined on a regional basis in Indonesia, and in Karimun it is $232 a month. New Internationalist asked Saipem for both the minimum and average wage for workers at its yard on the island, but the company declined to answer. ‘In all the locations where Saipem is present, we operate in compliance with the local laws and regulations,’ a spokesperson said.

It’s clear that multinationals burnishing their green credentials in Europe and North America can get cheaper labour in the Global South – but the environmental impact of globalization cannot be ignored either. ‘They’re burning millions of tonnes of some of the dirtiest coal in the planet, in China and the Middle East, to create the steel,’ says the RMT’s Molloy. ‘They’re then manufacturing the jackets and the turbine pillars, then they’re loading them onto diesel-driven ships and shipping them halfway round the world.’

Close to home

A sustainable solution, Molloy believes, could be found much closer to home. ‘We’ve got thousands upon thousands of tonnes of steel, sitting waiting to be recycled,’ he says of the oil and gas rigs that currently pepper the North Sea. As it stands, little of the North Sea decommissioning work is taking place in Scotland – and the environmental consequences will be felt in the Global South. ‘We’re selling it off to Turkey, Norway’s picking some of it up, or it’s getting landed on a Chinese ship and dumped on a beach in Bangladesh.’

If governments are forced to take drastic action to cut emissions, there will be no shortage of work. It will not be a question of bringing unemployment to Karimun for the sake of Fife – both can play their part. But there are compelling reasons why Western countries should fabricate their own green infrastructure: for the sake of reducing emissions, for the sake of shouldering their share of land and air pollution, and for the sake of giving their working-class communities a stake in fighting climate change.

Molloy is clearly exasperated. All parts of the industry – corporations, government, the regulator – have refused to put long-term strategy before short-term financial interests. He is preoccupied with the missed opportunities of the oil-boom years – and full of dread that the same mistakes are about to be made over renewables. Britain’s oil wealth is hoarded by corporations, whereas in Norway the state has amassed a $1.3-trillion sovereign wealth fund thanks to its public-led oil industry. This is now being invested in renewable energy, while Scotland’s wind farms are almost exclusively owned by foreign governments and private investors.‘I wish I could speak Norwegian,’ says Molloy with a sigh. ‘I’d probably move.’

Even if there were a ready industrial base for manufacturing green infrastructure in Britain, convincing fossil-fuel workers that they could transfer their skills would still be a mammoth task for politicians. With so few transfers having happened to date, the proposition is fast losing credibility. It will be far more difficult to solve the climate emergency if governments do not face sufficient electoral pressure from working-class communities to change course. That is highly unlikely if these communities know this will result in their own economic destitution. Any visitor to the Aberdeen heliports will be struck by the number of accents they will hear from northeast England, one of the regions hit the hardest by mine and factory closures from the 1980s onwards.

A just transition done properly would offer sufficient employment for the existing workforce – much of which is nearing retirement age – in residual offshore extraction and decommissioning. But the key test is whether the offspring of oil and gas workers can find work that is equally skilled and remunerated as that of their parents’. That is a claim, sadly, that few miners’ children can make.

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