Jobs, Justice, and the Clean-Energy Future

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Dollars & Sense

Jobs, Justice, and the Clean-Energy Future

 Good news: the U.S. can meet its necessary greenhouse gas reduction targets while also creating half-a-million jobs annually. (Photo: Linh Do/flickr/cc)

Today, there are 400 parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, far above the 350 ppm climate scientists regard as the safe upper limit. Even in the unlikely event that all nations fulfill the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction pledges they made at the Paris climate summit at the end of 2015, carbon in the atmosphere is predicted to increase to 670 ppm by the end of this century. The global temperature will rise an estimated 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. For comparison, a one-degree increase was enough to cause all the effects of climate change we have seen so far, from Arctic melting to intensified hurricanes to desertification.

Limiting climate catastrophe will require drastic cuts in the burning of the fossil fuels that cause climate change. But many workers and their unions fear that such cuts will lead to drastic loss in jobs and economic well-being for working people—aggravating the shortage of good jobs and the burgeoning inequality we already face. Is there a way to escape the apparent lose-lose choice between saving the climate and saving jobs?

A Possible Clean Energy Future

A series of reports by the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), and partners provides good news: The U.S. can meet the targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction that climate scientists say are necessary while also creating half-a-million jobs annually and reducing the cost of energy to consumers. The reports, gathered in the LNS Climate, Jobs, and Justice Project, also show that protecting the climate in a way that maximizes the benefit for working people and discriminated-against groups will take deliberate public policies and action by unions and their social movement allies.

Jobs and Climate Policy In the States

The Climate, Jobs, and Justice Project includes three reports that take a closer look at what the Clean Energy Future will mean in three states, Illinois, Maryland, and Connecticut. These states were selected both because they present very different problems and potentials for climate policy and because they all have active organizing around climate and jobs that can test the relevance and usefulness of the Clean Energy Future.

If Illinois were an independent country, it would be the 20th largest economy in the world and the 34th largest emitter of GHGs. It is also a state with enormous potential for wind and solar energy. As a result, the state can phase out its coal and nuclear production while adding enough renewable energy capacity not only to replace it but also to run a new electric-vehicle fleet and export energy to other states.

The “Illinois Jobs and Clean Energy: Protecting the Climate and the State Economy” report lays out a climate protection strategy that will produce more than 28,000 net new jobs per year over business-as-usual projections through 2050. That represents almost 0.5% of total employment in the state, so it should reduce the unemployment rate by one-half percentage point. Three-quarters of the jobs created will be in the relatively high-wage construction and manufacturing sectors. The report indicates that even more jobs could be created if Illinois accelerated its climate timetable and made itself a center for export of renewable energy and renewable-energy-related manufactured goods such as wind-turbine components and solar-energy equipment.

“Maryland’s Clean Energy Future: Climate Goals and Employment Benefits” presents a plan to reduce Maryland’s net emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to 80% less than the 2006 level by 2050—while adding more than ten thousand jobs per year. It identifies the state’s major industrial emitters of GHGs and lays out strategies for reducing their emissions. The report also indicates that Maryland can use the burgeoning state and national demand for clean energy to create good, stable jobs in a growing climate-protection sector: manufacturing jobs, jobs for those who have been marginalized in the current labor market, and jobs for skilled union workers in the construction trades. It argues that Maryland needs a robust job-creation and clean-industry development strategy to realize that potential.

“The Connecticut Clean Energy Future: Climate Goals and Employment Benefits” shows how a largely non-industrial state with extreme economic inequality can create a rapidly growing climate-protection sector that creates stable jobs for unionized workers, effective job ladders for those previously excluded from good jobs, and expansion of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other sectors. It presents a plan that meets the state’s official goal of reducing GHG emissions 80% below the 2001 level by 2050 while adding more than 6000 jobs, most of them in construction and manufacturing.

Connecticut can achieve many of its other goals, such as reducing poverty and inequality, improving air quality, raising workforce skill levels, and reducing unemployment while implementing an aggressive climate-protection plan, but to realize these “co-benefits” it will need policies designed to do so. Public policy must assure that Clean Energy Future jobs are good, secure, permanent jobs with education, training, and advancement. New, high-quality jobs and/or dignified retirement must be provided for approximately 600 workers who may lose jobs in the Clean Energy Future—less than one-tenth of the jobs that will be gained. Existing inequality and racial, gender, and other injustices must be counteracted through job pathways, strong affirmative action provisions, and local hiring requirements. And a more local and less top-down energy system can be created through a rising Renewable Portfolio Standard requiring in-state electricity generation; shared solar generation; electric grid modernization; and encouragement for local clean-energy initiatives.

In 2015, LNS asked Frank Ackerman of Synapse Energy Economics to assess the employment effects of meeting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) target of reducing GHG emissions by 80% by 2050 (or “80x50”). Ackerman developed a Clean Energy Future model based on Synapse’s many years of analysis of energy systems. [Disclosure: Ackerman is a longtime associate of Dollars & Sense and a former D&S collective member. —Eds.]

Ackerman and his coworkers set themselves the task of meeting three challenges simultaneously. The Clean Energy Future scenario should meet the IPCC target of reducing GHG emissions 80% by 2050. It should provide more good jobs than the business-as-usual scenario (what would happen if no changes are made to address climate change). And it should not place higher costs on American consumers. The resulting report, “The Clean Energy Future: Protecting the Climate, Creating Jobs and Saving Money,” shows that the United States can reduce GHG emissions 80% by 2050—while adding half-a-million jobs annually and saving Americans billions of dollars on their electrical, heating, and transportation costs. The Clean Energy Future constructs a baseline “business as usual” reference case based primarily on projections from the federal Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook. It compares that reference case to a clean energy alternative based primarily on scenarios developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and original research by Synapse. It uses IMPLAN, a widely used model of employment impacts, to evaluate the jobs impacts of each of the two scenarios.

In the Clean Energy Future model, energy efficiency programs match the performance of today’s most effective state programs. A national Renewable Portfolio Standard requires 70% renewable electricity by 2040. The cost of solar photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into electricity drops 75% from 2010 to 2020. (The reference case already projects a 40% reduction.) Coal is entirely phased out. No new nuclear plants are built and existing plants are retired at the end of their 60-year life expectancy. By 2050, gas cars and light trucks are replaced by electric vehicles, and 80% of gas- and oil-fired space-heating and water-heating is replaced by electric heat. Wind and solar power grow enough to provide electricity for the new vehicles and heating. The Synapse team has prepared detailed analyses showing these projections are realistic, even conservative.

Emissions Reduction

The Clean Energy Future plan covers electricity generation, cars and light trucks, space and water heating, fossil fuel supply, and waste management. It reduces GHG emissions across these sectors by 86% by 2050, compared to emissions in 1990.

If these reductions are made, meeting the “80x50” target (at least 80% reduction in emissions by 2050) for the entire economy will require far less stringent reductions in the remaining sectors. If non-electric industry, mass transit, freight transport, and agriculture reduce their emissions by 42%, the entire economy can meet the 80% reduction target. The report discusses a variety of studies indicating how those reductions could be achieved or indeed exceeded.

Creating New Jobs

The Clean Energy Future will create a substantial number of new jobs. The increase in jobs created, compared to the business-as-usual scenario, will start around 200,000 per year in 2016–2020 and rise to 800,000 a year in 2046–2050. The average job gain compared to business-as-usual scenario is 550,000 per year for the entire period. There are several reasons for this advantage. The Clean Energy scenario spends less on imported oil and less money ends up in the pockets of the owners of gas pipelines, coal mines, and oil wells and refineries, many of them overseas. Much of that money is spent instead paying workers to produce more labor-intensive forms of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Nearly 80% of the new jobs provided by the Clean Energy Future will be concentrated in manufacturing and construction. The scenario will immediately start to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in energy efficiency, ranging from insulation to high-efficiency heating and cooling, to fuel cells and combined heat and power (CHP) installations, to use of tree planting to cool urban areas. In the 2020s, a second wave of jobs will develop producing, installing, and maintaining wind turbines, solar panels, and other forms of renewable energy. In the 2030s, new jobs will develop in the auto industry due to the increasing production of electric cars and trucks. Starting in the 2040s, the clean energy scenario will save so much money that a significant number of jobs will be created by the money saved on fossil fuels that will be spent instead on job-creating expenditures. Over the 35-year period, the average of 550,000 extra jobs per year will include 187,000 jobs in manufacturing and 240,000 in construction.

The Clean Energy Future will provide many new jobs for each that is lost. There will, however, be fewer jobs in coal, oil, and gas extraction and burning and in nuclear energy. For example, there will be about 100,000 fewer jobs each year in mining and extraction compared to the business-as-usual scenario. The report calls for a “just transition” for the workers who hold those jobs, including “assistance in training and placement in new jobs, or retirement with dignity.” (For a just transition plan, see Jeremy Brecher, “A Superfund for Workers,” Dollars & Sense, November/December, 2015.)

Some studies have projected a far higher number of jobs created by climate protection policies, sometimes running in the millions. There are several reasons the numbers in the Clean Energy Future scenario are lower. It is based on the large and continuing reduction in the cost of renewable energy, which makes it possible to meet GHG reduction targets at far lower cost—but therefore also with considerably less labor. Unlike some studies, it is not based on extensive expansion of biofuel production, which creates large numbers of low-paid agricultural jobs. The program is designed to keep the cost of transition to a minimum, which also holds down the number of jobs created. Finally, the projections are based on conservative assumptions derived from a detailed knowledge of the electrical system. The report emphasizes that if society is prepared to spend more money, a far more rapid and job-intensive program could result.

The Costs Will Be Less

Over the 35-year period, the Clean Energy Future will actually cost slightly less than the business-as-usual case. It will actually save $7 per person annually in electricity, transportation, and heating costs—while meeting climate goals and creating jobs.

Why are the costs so modest? One reason is that the costs of solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy have been getting dramatically lower and, according to Synapse’s projections extrapolated from those of the federal Energy Information Administration and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, they are likely to continue to do so.

“The Clean Energy Future” points out that there is another reason as well. Economists often assume that the status quo already represents the greatest possible efficiency; if it were possible to do things more efficiently, people would already be doing so in order to maximize their gains in the market. This is often put in the form of such adages as “there is no such thing as a free lunch” and “if there were pennies lying around on the ground someone would have already picked them up.”

But in the case of energy in particular, the evidence indicates that there is so much waste in the current energy system that major cost savings can be realized by such available means as insulating buildings and co-generating heat and electricity. Investment in such measures will be highly cost-effective and provide a high return. There are various reasons these “pennies” are not currently being picked up, including the market power of large energy corporations, the monopolies held by energy utilities, counterproductive government regulations, and incomplete knowledge. But those pennies can be picked up and utilized as part of the transition to the Clean Energy Future.

Pacific Northwest: Fossil Fuel vs. Clean Energy Jobs

Whenever there is opposition to a pipeline, fossil-fuel power plant, oil well, or other fossil-fuel project, it raises a legitimate question: Where are the people who would have built and operated the project going to find jobs? An LNS Climate, Jobs, and Justice project report, “The Economic Impact of Clean Energy Investments in the Pacific Northwest: Alternatives to Fossil Fuel Exports” by Noah Enelow of Ecotrust Knowledge Systems, examines job prospects for such an area, Grays Harbor County in western Washington state.

The report compares a recently defeated oil-export terminal to possible clean-energy projects. The Grays Harbor Westway and Imperium crude-oil storage-and-export terminal would have received oil brought by train from Utah and shipped it to Asia. The project would have created an estimated 231 construction jobs during its year of building and 148 operations jobs thereafter.

Enelow developed plans for two complementary clean-energy initiatives as an alternative. The first is a utility-scale solar photovoltaic array, with electrical components manufactured in-state. It would produce 478 construction jobs—more than twice as many jobs as the coal export terminal. But once built, the solar facility would produce only seven direct operations jobs compared with 148 direct operations jobs for the export terminal.

The report proposes a complementary investment in energy efficiency for commercial buildings, such as those financed by Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs. This would create 262 direct jobs in Grays Harbor County—exceeding the Westway/Imperium proposal by 114 jobs. In short, the combined utility-scale solar and energy-efficiency proposal would create far more jobs both in construction and in permanent operations than the oil-export terminal.

: Noah Enelow, Labor Network for Sustainability, “The Economic Impact of Clean Energy Investments in the Pacific Northwest: Alternatives to Fossil Fuel Exports,” March 2016 (

A Floor, Not a Ceiling

The Clean Energy Future plan provides a floor, not a ceiling, for what can be accomplished. It shows how we can meet climate goals with no net cost, and that doing so will create more jobs. But we can, and indeed should, do more. For example, mass transit can be expanded far faster. GHG reduction targets can be met earlier. GHG emissions can be reduced to near zero. We can achieve such goals just by accelerating the same basic plan.

We can also achieve other goals besides climate protection as part of the same process. To achieve maximum benefit from the Clean Energy Future, the project advocates four basic policies:

    • Climate protection will require the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs. But there is no guarantee that they will be good jobs. Indeed, depending on other economic trends, spending on climate protection could increase inequality and provide increasingly insecure, contingent work. Climate protection strategy should be designed to provide the maximum number possible of good, secure, permanent jobs with opportunities for education, training, and advancement. The deterioration in the quality of jobs is directly related to the reduction in the size and bargaining power of labor unions; reinforcing the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively should be an explicit part of public policy for climate protection.


    • Because some jobs will be lost in fossil fuel-related industries, we need a vigorous program to provide new, high-quality jobs and/or dignified retirement for workers in those industries. A Superfund to protect workers and communities from negative side effects of climate policies should be a central part of any climate program. Anything less will be unjust to workers and will undermine political support for climate protection programs.


    • The Clean Energy Future plan opens up new opportunities to counter the growing inequality and rampant racial, gender, and other injustices of our society. But many of those opportunities will be lost unless we have deliberate policies to realize them. Climate protection programs should include job pathways and strong affirmative action provisions for those groups that have been most excluded from good jobs in the past.


  • The Clean Energy Future also opens up a wide range of opportunities for creating a more democratic economy and society. It allows for a less top-down and more distributed energy system, potentially reducing control by centralized utilities and increasing that of local and grassroots entities. It provides many opportunities for local economic initiatives, ranging from energy coops to local and community-based enterprises of many kinds. It will reduce the wealth and power of the fossil fuel corporations that have such a dominant role within our political system. These opportunities should not be squandered.


A Worker-Friendly Approach to Climate Protection

The Clean Energy Future laid out in the Climate, Jobs, and Justice Project represents a practical plan to reduce GHG emissions 80% by 2050. It shows that climate protection is not only affordable, but that it can actually save Americans money. The plan will create half a million more jobs than continuing on a fossil-fuel pathway, most of them in manufacturing and construction. It shows that—should we choose to do so—we can reduce carbon emissions enough to stabilize the climate, create growing numbers of good jobs, and at the same time avoid imposing new costs on consumers and taxpayers.

For unions, the Clean Energy Future presents a worker-friendly approach to climate protection. It overcomes the false assumption that workers must make a choice between climate protection on the one hand, and jobs and economic well-being on the other. It can form a key element in a workers’ program for climate protection—one that can unify trade unionists, environmentalists, and the growing majority of Americans who are deeply concerned about climate change.

More and more unions are making climate protection a central part of their program. Unions and federations ranging from SEIU to the California Labor Federation have passed resolutions on climate change in the past few months. Climate caucuses have been formed in central labor councils up and down the West Coast. In January 2016, LNS organized the first Labor Convergence on Climate which brought together 75 labor leaders to forge a common strategy to change organized labor’s approach to climate protection; the Convergence included invited representatives of state AFL-CIOs, city central labor councils, and individual unions, including building trades, manufacturing, public employee, and service unions, including elected officers. Such efforts open the way for organized labor to become a significant participant in the climate protection movement.

As the devastation caused by climate change grows the consciousness of the need to halt it is likely to grow as well—not only in the labor movement but throughout society. Whether it will grow strong enough fast enough to limit climate disaster is today an open question. (For discussion of the obstacles to climate protection and strategies for overcoming them, see my book, Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (2016) and my forthcoming books Climate Solidarity: Workers vs. Warming and Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual (PM Press: 2017).) The Clean Energy Future represents a pathway away from climate destruction that is also far better for workers and consumers than our current pathway based on fossil fuels. Should we let greed and inertia prevent us from taking it?


Jeremy Brecher

Jeremy Brecher

Jeremy Brecher is an historian, author, and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. A new edition of his most recent book, Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival, is available for free download at his personal website. His previous books include: Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action; Strike!; Globalization from Below; and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan/Holt).

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