How the global rise in renewable energy jobs will accelerate post-COP26

Refined Global

As global leaders meet at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this week, a report released by the International Renewable Energy Agency has revealed that worldwide renewable energy employment rose to 12 million in 2020 – an increase of 500,000 from 2019. This is the eighth year the Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review has been published and the eighth time that global renewable energy jobs have risen. This rise comes despite a global pandemic that caused huge economic disruption and hit jobs across the globe. With a further acceleration of the transition to renewables following COP26 likely, not to mention rocketing global gas prices, jobs in the renewable energy industry seem guaranteed to rise even faster.   

The fact that not even a global pandemic could stem the rise of jobs in renewable energy and its supply chains indicates the state of health the industry is in. Indeed, the pandemic actively shifted focus towards creating sustainable, clean energy and ‘building back greener’. The focus now needs to be on the transition of workers from jobs in brown energy; training and upskilling those who could side-step into green energy jobs as well as those who want to enter the industry from elsewhere. 

The stand-out leader in terms of employment is solar PV, accounting for around 4 million jobs worldwide, or 36% of the global renewables workforce. Jobs were generated from large installations feeding directly into the grid as well as smaller applications providing electricity to remote communities. Biofuels accounted for 2.4 million jobs, hydropower for 2.2 million and wind energy for 1.25 million, the latter needing a steadily rising number of workers in operations, maintenance and off-shore. 

China was the biggest employer of renewables jobs, accounting for nearly four in 10, whilst Brazil was the largest biofuels employer. India and the US also employed high numbers of workers in renewable jobs. Vietnam and Malaysia made renewable energy employment increases largely through solar equipment exports, Indonesia and Columbia are employing a rising number of workers as part of the agricultural supply chain for biofuels, and Mexico and Russia are increasing their wind power capacity so jobs in that area are growing. Sub-Saharan African countries are progressing their solar energy farms and therefore employing rising numbers in solar jobs.  
In the UK, official estimates are that 200,000 jobs are currently supported by the low carbon and renewable energy economy. That would be hugely scaled up by new agreements that are predicted to be made during COP26, from green energy, to green building, transport, research, and finance. Every area of the economy will need to be incorporated into the drive for greener living if we are to meet the targets for net zero.   

The report predicts that, although established renewables technologies such as solar, wind and bioenergy currently lead the renewables jobs market, new technologies like battery storage and green hydrogen are gaining pace. It postures that lithium-ion battery storage manufacturing could create 10 million jobs by 2030 and that there could be a growth of 2 million jobs in green hydrogen as countries begin to embrace its benefits. 

One huge benefit of the energy transition is that opportunities will be available for a vast range of skills and educational levels. Of the 122 million jobs needed to be created in order to reach net zero by 2050, half will need just a primary of lower secondary education, 37% will require a secondary education and 13% will need a university degree. What the report also stressed was the need to encourage more female workers into the industry. Renewables currently employs more women than the oil and gas sector (32% compared to oils and gas’ 22%) but the target is to encourage a greater proportion than it does now, with the aim of a more diverse workforce all round.

Renewable energy jobs have been increasing steadily for years and the IRENA report predicts that if global governments stick to the limits on global warming temperature increases set in the Paris Agreement, those jobs could grow to 38 million by 2030 and 43 million by 2050. Much hinges on COP26 to push climate action and achieve a full decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2050 or those goals won’t be met. With mounting pressure across the globe to get this right, renewable energy jobs, plus greener jobs in every area of the economy, could skyrocket.