Incoming President Joe Biden has vowed to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, to combat climate change and global warming. If done right, this massive undertaking could create hundreds of thousands of jobs, with costs comparable to what we now spend on energy in the United States.
Comprehensive new research by Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment finds that Biden’s aggressive climate goals are plausible, given the right kinds of investment and appropriate urgency. Carbon industries such as oil and gas drilling would lose jobs, but new energy sectors would more than make up for that. “Overall, this is a jobs growth story,” Princeton researcher Chris Grieg said recently on Yahoo Finance. “We can afford to do this, we just have to mobilize the capital.”
Biden’s goal is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, meaning the amount of carbon pollution emitted would be equal to or less than the amount removed from the atmosphere. That can happen in several ways. There could be no use of carbon energy at all, with all power coming from solar, wind, nuclear and other clean sources. More likely is some use of oil and gas, with those emissions offset by “carbon capture” technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
The Princeton research analyzed five scenarios covering a range of energy sources by 2050. In all scenarios, there were job losses in the gas, oil and coal sectors. But there were more new jobs in low-carbon energy sectors, and they paid at least as well as current drilling jobs. In the most limited scenario, the low-carbon transition created 400,000 jobs on net during the next decade and 700,000 new jobs by 2050.
Energy sector jobs would double
The most aggressive scenario would create 700,000 new jobs during the 2020s and 4.9 million new jobs by 2050. In addition to new wind, solar and other low-carbon jobs, construction and maintenance of a new electrical grid would be a big source of employment. The number of jobs in the energy sector overall would more than double, with energy firms becoming dominant employers in some states and cities.
Every big change creates winners and losers, which is one of the biggest barriers to Biden’s climate goals. The Princeton study, not surprisingly, shows that fossil-fuel job losses during this transition are likely to be concentrated in oil, gas and coal states such as West Virginia, Louisiana and Wyoming. Texas could lose drilling jobs, too, even as there are new jobs in emerging sectors such as wind energy.
Any loss of jobs creates natural local resistance and political barriers to rapid change, which scientists say is necessary to catch up with a planet that’s warming beyond our ability to control it. Biden plans to use executive actions to start moving the needle, such as setting stricter emission limits for cars. But rapid change requires new government policies and trillions of dollars in new or redirected spending, which can only come through congressional legislation—and that requires bipartisan agreement that the short-term costs of slashing carbon emissions are worth the long-term gains.
To get there, federal policies need to target new investments at the very places likely to lose the carbon-industry jobs—and do it in real time so workers don’t spend years on the sidelines, waiting for new jobs to materialized. Government at all levels also needs to make sure training is readily available to help workers transition, since a coal miner in Appalachia or a rig hand on the Gulf Coast isn’t automatically qualified to build or maintain a smart grid. And government in the United States has a poor record of helping workers navigate changes in the labor market.
“We really have to be sensitive to those regions likely to see some job losses,” Grieg says. “We’ve got to shape these opportunities so those same regions will benefit in the long run. The biggest challenge we face is broad scale public commitment to this.”
If Biden can sell his vision for carbon reduction to Congress and to voters, it would speed the transition already under way in the private sector, as firms such as Tesla and NextGen Energy excite investors who think they’re on to the next big thing, and traditional energy firms struggle. Transitions happen a lot faster when there’s money to be made, especially if workers can cash in, too.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.