November 3, 2021

At the start of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, it seems fitting to reflect on some of the employment-related considerations arising from the climate emergency.  The Government has made it clear that it can only deliver on its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 if it ramps up collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, including local government, the devolved administrations, businesses, and civil society.

The scale of the task ahead is enormous and will require a major reset of how we all live and, in many cases, work. Indications of how the future of work might look, and the challenges of transitioning to a green economy, can be found in ‘The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ (November 2020) and the Green Jobs Taskforce’s report (July 2021). Now the Government has published its eagerly anticipated ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’ (October 2021), which sets out the next steps towards achieving a green economy.

The Government has hailed the Strategy as being hugely important because
the United Kingdom is the first major economy to publish this kind of roadmap. However, it is difficult not to feel a little bit disappointed when reading the chapter on green jobs, skills, and industries, which pulls together current initiatives but is otherwise light on further detail. Indeed, the chapter expressly acknowledges that the policies it describes are a first step in addressing the challenges identified by the Green Jobs Taskforce and explains how a ‘cross-cutting delivery group’ will be appointed later this year to oversee the development and delivery of the Government’s plans for green jobs and skills.

The weight of responsibility on this group is almost tangible, but at least the process has been started. More generally, many are questioning whether the Strategy is adequately funded and whether, as a result, the UK can realistically reach net zero.

Pathways to new skills

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Government is required to consider how to create ‘decent work and quality jobs’ and effect a ‘just transition’ for those currently involved in carbon-intensive sectors. It is estimated that around 6.3 million jobs in the UK are likely to be affected by the transition to a green economy, with workers experiencing either an increase or decrease in the demand for their skills as the economy moves towards green energy, transport and housing, the protection of nature, and the development of new technologies to achieve these aims.

Getting all of these workers reskilled or upskilled is clearly a significant, but not impossible, challenge. Notably, the matter of skills is a devolved matter, so there are different approaches across the nations to ramping up the provision of technical skills for green jobs, some of which are described in the Strategy.

Initiatives covering England include a programme called the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and ‘local skills improvement plans’ whereby employer organisations will work on identifying skills needs and shape local provision through close working with colleges and other providers (see the ‘Skills for Jobs’ White Paper (January 2021)).

One of the challenges when moving towards a green economy will be to create a diverse workforce so that no one is left behind. As well as explaining some
of the diversity initiatives that will be applied across the UK, the Government has committed the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to tracking diversity within the green economy and has indicated that it will explore actions such as improved data collection and transparency. It is not clear if this signals the possibility that employers may one day be required to publish diversity information for green jobs similar to the provision of pay gap information, but, given the importance of the green economy, this kind of requirement could well be on the cards.

Defining good green jobs

Aside from a reference to the (delayed) Employment Bill, which is a general employment measure that will improve workers’ rights by implementing elements of the Good Work Plan, there is no further detail in the Strategy on the Government’s plan to ensure that green jobs are good quality, regardless of the type of role. It simply states that the cross-cutting delivery group will consider how the Government and industry can work together to ensure green jobs are good jobs. It also states that the ONS will monitor the quality of green work.

In this regard, it is interesting to note an article on the ONS website entitled ‘The challenges of defining a “green job”’, published on 7 April 2021, which explains how estimating the number of quality green jobs is very difficult, given the absence of an overarching definition of that term. Similarly, there is a lack of consensus on what constitutes ‘decent’ work or a ‘quality’ job, although adequate pay and safe working conditions often feature. One thing that is certain, though, is that expectations have been raised, and this is an issue that trade unions will certainly be keeping an eye on.

Employment law trends

Finally, it is worth checking out an interesting article on the Lewis Silkin website called ‘Climate emergency, work and employment law’ (29 September 2021), which explores a range of practical climate issues for employers, such as the need to relocate their operations.  It also considers potential changes to employment law and practices, and the scope for climate-related disputes at work. For example, it points out that working at home may be less sustainable than green commuting, that issues around sustainability could affect recruitment decisions, and that employers may find that they are having to manage conflict between staff over increasingly emotive matters such as long-haul flights and eating meat. It also asks whether employers will start trying to regulate the behaviour of employees outside work where their activities do not align with an organisation’s environmental strategy.

Climate change clearly raises many macro and micro issues for employers and workers, and the expected rapid pace of developments as we shift to net zero will test the boundaries of employment, discrimination, and human rights law. While some progress has been made, much of the hard thinking lies ahead.

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