Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is one of the most significant changes facing Britain, made all the more urgent by current geo-political events.

Economic change can provide golden opportunities for businesses, workers and the economy. But net zero requires a plan – a government plan – to ready the workforce for the jobs in the green economy. Without it, the UK will struggle to achieve this government’s environmental targets.

Government ambition

The current government has taken steps towards providing direction for businesses and workers. They have signalled intent for a green jobs drive. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and COP26 president Alok Sharma outlined ambitions to create two million green jobs by 2030 and this was reaffirmed in the net zero strategy.

The Green Jobs Taskforce, announced in 2020, advised the government and business on how to train up a green workforce.

The taskforce achieved a small roll-out of skills bootcamps and free 'courses for jobs' in forestry and sustainable construction and developed plans for an electrification skills programme to prepare for transport decarbonisation.

The green skills deficit

Despite these ambitions, the UK’s workforce is nowhere near ready for the demands of the net zero transition.

Research by Green Alliance indicates that in every major sector of the economy – transport, buildings, power, waste, agriculture and industry – there is a deficit of green skills.

Every skills gap represents the gulf between the UK’s emissions reductions targets and the kind of workforce that is required to achieve those reductions.

Cutting emissions with a skills plan for green transport

Transport is the UK’s highest-emitting sector, accounting for 31 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonising UK transport means making aviation sustainable, producing electric vehicles, electrifying public transport and expanding active travel networks.

We need workers who are able to install and operate charge points for electric vehicles, recycling experts for vehicle scrappage, battery manufacturers and electrification engineers. To do that, many of the 1.4 million people currently employed in transport will need to be retrained.

Delivering energy security with a green skills plan for power

The Prime Minister’s recent energy security strategy reaffirmed the government’s target of decarbonising the UK’s electricity system by 2035. The strategy set a target of building eight new nuclear reactors by 2030 and projected that nuclear power would provide a quarter of projected energy demand by 2050.

But even before the strategy the nuclear sector was grappling with increasing demands on its workforce given its ageing labour base: the government needs to be clearer on how it anticipates the labour market will be ready for the construction and operation of these new reactors.

Workers in the existing offshore oil and gas industry are expected to provide a large source of the skills needed for emerging industries like carbon capture and hydrogen; providing they receive the necessary training to upskill. However, without a plan that recognises their existing qualifications and supports them to switch industry, the government risks leaving workers in fossil fuel extraction adrift.

‘Levelling up’ with a green skills plan for housing

The building sector needs approximately 300,000 more skilled employees working all around the UK if we are going to make our housing stock more energy efficient. This represents an increase of 25% on the existing 1.3m in the building services sector.

The skills gaps in the buildings sector also maps onto the UK’s regional inequalities. Of the 1.3 million people in the UK currently work in the buildings sector, for example, nearly 600,000 are concentrated in the South-East of England. Tackling green skills gaps therefore also means grappling with what it means to “level up” the UK while meeting the government’s net zero targets.

Skills and post-16 education bill

Net zero will fail if we neglect to equip people currently working in high-emitting industries, like transport and energy, with the skillsets that they need in order to adapt to new, green jobs. Unfortunately, the government does not have a plan to train the workforce that is needed to achieve its emissions targets.

The government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill requires that environmental goals are considered in developing local skills strategies, but despite recent amendments there is still no national plan in relation to delivering skills for net zero.

It is certainly important to ensure that local authorities are preparing their communities for the transition.

However, businesses also need to know how to prepare their workforces for the transition on a national scale, and government needs to be clear on how it is preparing to build the strategic industries needed to achieve net zero.

Going forward

What is required is a holistic vision for green jobs across the country from the government. A plan which marries the government’s environmental targets with its economic and social aims. And an integrated green skills programme that encourages departments to work in lockstep.

Only then can businesses and workers start preparing for the clean, green industries of the future.

Joseph Evans works in policy at Green Alliance