The last decade has transformed the debate around the relationship between our climate and our economy. It used to be the case that renewable energy was derided as expensive and unreliable, now offshore wind is one of the cheapest power generation technologies around. Similarly, for years the narrative around climate and work was that “going green” meant losing jobs, creating a self defeating tension existed between environmental activists and trade unionists.

Now, as we understand more about climate change and the steps we need to mitigate its impacts, we are entering a more mature debate. It is now widely recognised that the green transition can create hundreds of thousands of green jobs whether in energy, electric vehicles, or the natural environment.

We can see evidence for this shift on both sides of the Atlantic. President elect Joe Biden has promised more radical action on climate than any previous presidential candidate, and yet the voters that got him into the Oval Office are predominantly from the so-called “Rust Belt”; blue collar workers whose carbon-intensive jobs are disappearing. 

This may seem paradoxical. Yet the key to understanding this phenomenon is the way Biden speaks about the transition, promising “to meet the climate crisis, build a clean energy economy, address environmental injustice, and create millions of good paying union jobs”. The idea of green union jobs is central to his messaging on climate, reassuring and inspiring workers in equal measure.

The issue now for policymakers, unions, and activists in the UK and US is less the quantity of jobs, and more how to help workers transition. In this challenge particularly, unions are part of the solution. So, what do we need in order to make sure that workers aren’t left behind?

First, we must understand that clarity over long term infrastructure investment is what allows companies to plan, create jobs, and invest in their workforce. The lack of a clear strategy on green infrastructure from the UK government has been one of the main barriers to creating more green jobs in the UK in areas such as energy. We have been waiting for a White Paper for years, meanwhile we are dangerously close to losing a whole generation of skills in areas such as nuclear. This must change, and fast.

Second, we need structures to enable transition planning with government, businesses and unions. These spaces have been dismantled in recent decades, but they are essential if we are to get this right. The Scottish government’s Just Transition Commission is a good start, but we need more of this convening space at a UK level.

Finally, we need a commitment to job quality. The anxiety over green transition has never just been about job quantity. We need to make sure that the new jobs we are generating are equivalent in status, meaning – and yes – in pay, to those we are phasing out. This is especially a concern in environmental work where we have seen specialists in Natural England and the Environment Agency systematically unvalued and underpaid.

To conclude, it is worth reflecting again on the global nature of this challenge and the implications of this for the UK’s foreign policy as well as our domestic agenda. If the UK government thought there was a trade deal to be done with previous White House on the basis of undermining environmental and workers’ rights, then we must hope that these plans have been hastily rewritten. The UK should be taking this opportunity, as we host COP26 and renegotiate our global relationships, to demonstrate that there can be a mutually beneficial race to the top on the green transition, and that the interests of workers and of our climate are not opposed but are inextricably woven together.

Mike Clancy has been the General Secretary and Chief Executive of Prospect union since 2012, having been the Deputy General Secretary for the previous eight years. Prospect represents 116,000 professional, managerial and technical staff, employed in central government, utilities, defence, telecommunications, nuclear decommissioning, air traffic control and science. He is the chief spokesperson and is responsible for the strategic direction and financial management of the union that employs 200 staff with over 4,000 representatives. Michael has also been an Employment Tribunal (ET) and then an Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) member continuously since 1994. He was appointed to the EAT in 2002.