Green jobs – are they only promises?

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Green jobs – are they only promises?

Campaigners say that a change to renewable energy could create a lot of jobs. Now politicians are saying the same thing but many workers in the fossil-fuel industry think that it isn’t true. Conrad Landin writes about green jobs and offshore workers in Scotland.


Two engineers on an oil platform in the North Sea.HORIZON INTERNATIONAL IMAGES LIMITED/ALAMY

Boris Johnson is good at turning a photo opportunity into an argument about Britain’s coal industry. Boris Johnson, UK’s prime minister, visited a wind farm off Scotland’s east coast in August 2021. He was there to talk about his plan to improve ports and factories, to build new wind turbines, and help to create 60,000 green jobs. He asked for a ‘smooth and sensible’ change from oil and gas to green energy. He also said, ‘Thanks to Margaret Thatcher [a past Conservative prime minister] we had a good start with green jobs when she closed so many coal mines across the country.’

Many people were angry about what he said, including MPs from his own party. Some of the angry Conservative MPs represent ‘red wall’ constituencies. These ‘red wall’ constituencies are traditionally Labour constituencies, where England’s coal industry was. One MP said the prime minster was rude to coal industry communities. They still haven’t recovered from losing their coal mines. Ewan Gibbs is a historian at Glasgow University. He said, ‘Margaret Thatcher’s government cut funding for a renewables research programme in the late 1980s’.

In Aberdeen, in Scotland, Boris Johnson’s comments reminded people of painful memories, and made them feel afraid for their future. Jake Molloy was an offshore oil worker and organiser for the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) trade union. He thinks the northeast of Scotland with its oil and gas industry will have the same problem as Britain’s coal mines, because the government is taking action after the public think the politicians need to do something about climate change. Jake Molloy is worried the government will shut down the oil and gas industry to keep the public happy.

Only talk?

Before COP26 in Glasgow, Johnson was not the only Western leader to talk about the importance of ‘green jobs’. Joe Biden said that climate change offers the chance to create ‘millions of good paying jobs around the world’. Justin Trudeau said that ‘climate action will be the most important part of our plan to support and create a million jobs’ in Canada.

We don’t hear much about what these jobs will be or hear examples of workers changing successfully to the green economy. There isn’t only one definition of a ‘green job’. The UN System of Environmental Economic Accounting says it’s an ‘environmental goods and services sector’ with industries ‘producing goods and services for environmental protection, and jobs conserving natural resources’. The International Labour Organization adds that green jobs ‘have to be decent’. This agrees with the Paris climate agreement. The Paris agreement talks about a ‘just transition’, a change which is fair, and ‘decent work and quality jobs’. Trade unions first used ‘just transition’ when they wanted to make sure of good future employment for fossil-fuel workers. Governments and big businesses also now use ‘just transition’. But a report by Platform, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Scotland says this is talk and not action’; 91 per cent of the North Sea offshore workers in the survey had never heard of the idea of a ‘just transition’.

If you go to the helicopter terminals at Aberdeen Airport, you will hear what the oil and gas workers think. ‘There’s been too much big talk,’ says Tony Dutton. He has worked in the industry since arriving in Scotland from New Zealand in 1984. ‘People just think it’s the answer to everything. The government can’t promise jobs in renewables to people on oil rigs. Wind farms don’t have a team of workers like on an oil rig.’

Trade unionist Molloy agrees that there will not be many jobs on wind farms, but he thinks that isn’t the real point. ‘This is about the supply-chain. This is about manufacturing onshore, engineering offshore and maintenance. We’ve not got any manufacturing base right now.’

How many green jobs?

Back in 2011, Alex Salmond was the First Minister of Scotland. He said Scotland could be the ‘Saudi Arabia of renewable energy’. Boris Johnson said this was true for all of the UK. But the Scottish government planned for 28,000 workers in offshore wind by 2020, but by 2019 the number was just 1,400 – down from 1,500 the year before. The Scottish Trades Union Congress says there are opportunities – 23,000 to 70,000 jobs in manufacturing; 2,000 to 13,000 in hydrogen; 2,300 to 6,100 in hydro-pumped storage; and 2,900 to 8,000 in decommissioning. But it also has a ‘worst case situation for green jobs’ - fewer than 10,000 jobs in total.

The French state owns 84.5 per cent of Électricité de France, the big multinational energy company. It is building the very big Neart Na Gaoithe (NNG) wind farm east of Scotland. Just miles away on the Fife coast is Burntisland Fabrications (BiFab), the obvious place to make the ‘jackets’ for wind turbines. BiFab successfully changed from building for oil and gas rigs and it really needed the work for the company to continue but they got a contract for only eight of NNG’s 54 jackets.

The big share of the contract went to the multinational Saipem in Italy. It plans to build the jackets on Karimun island in Indonesia. Saipem’s company video says it wants to keep skilled workers and their families on Karimun island. The minimum wage in Karimun is $232 a month. New Internationalist asked Saipem for the minimum and average wage for workers on the island, but the company gave no answer.

It’s clear that multinational companies with green ideas in Europe and North America can get cheaper labour in the Global South – but what about the environment? RMT’s Molloy says, ‘They’re burning millions of tonnes of some of the dirtiest coal in the planet, in China and the Middle East, to make the steel. They’re making the jackets and the turbine pillars, then they’re loading them onto diesel ships, and sending them halfway round the world.’

Closer to home

Molloy thinks the answer is closer to home. ‘We’ve got thousands and thousands of tonnes of steel, waiting for recycling,’ he says of the oil and gas rigs around the North Sea. Very little of the North Sea recycling work is in Scotland – and the environmental problems will be in the Global South. ‘We’re selling the steel to Turkey, Norway’s is taking some of it, or it’s on a Chinese ship on the way to a beach in Bangladesh.’

If governments are forced to take action to cut emissions, there will be a lot of work. It will not mean bringing unemployment to Karimun to help the Fife – both can play their part. But there are very good reasons why Western countries should make their own green infrastructure: to help to reduce emissions, to take their share to help land and air pollution, and to give their working-class communities a role in fighting climate change.

Molloy is clearly angry. All parts of the industry have refused to put long-term plans before short-term financial interests. He is worried about the missed opportunities of the oil years and worried we will make the same mistakes with renewables. Businesses own Britain’s oil wealth, but in Norway the state has created a $1.3-trillion wealth fund thanks to its state oil industry. They are now investing in renewable energy, but foreign governments and private investors own Scotland’s wind farms. ‘I wish I could speak Norwegian,’ says Molloy. ‘I would move to Norway.’ If there were green jobs ready in Britain, convincing fossil-fuel workers that they could transfer their skills would still be difficult for politicians. With so few transfers so far, people no longer believe in it. It will be more difficult to solve the climate emergency if governments do not change their plans. That is very unlikely if these communities know the result will be that they will lose everything. If you visit the Aberdeen heliports, you will hear a lot of people with different accents from northeast England, where in the 1980s and later there were so many mines and factories closed.

A ‘just transition’ would offer enough jobs for workers in offshore mining and decommissioning. A lot of the workers are old enough to retire soon. But will the children of oil and gas workers find work that is equally skilled and paid as their parents?


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)