Economic Study Shows Why 'Saving the Planet Is Not a Jobs Killer'

A key argument made by opponents to climate action—that sharply reducing carbon emissions by shifting away from fossil fuel production and towards renewable energy sources would kill jobs—continued to fall apart Wednesday as a new report showed the employment impact of abandoning fossil fuels over the next two decades would be minimal.

At the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), economist Dean Baker and researcher Aiden Lee found that while a reduction in the use of oil and gas will lead to job loss, even aggressive action by policymakers would affect fewer workers “than the number of workers that employers typically fire or lay off in a single day.”

“Saving the planet is not a jobs killer,” CEPR said.

The researchers took stock of how many workers are employed in the drilling, processing, and distribution of oil and gas, finding that 1,027,000 people were employed in all nine sectors associated with fossil fuel energy production—about 0.7% of total payroll employment in 2019. 

Of those employees, about 655,000 people use skills for their jobs that are considered non-transferable, particularly if they work in construction and extraction. 

“Even in this category, there are occupations such as welders and electricians, which involve skills that can likely be transferred easily to other industries,” the study states.

If the U.S. government were to largely eliminate the use of fossil fuels over a 20-year period—a more aggressive climate action path than the one the U.S. is currently on—an average of 53,600 jobs would be lost annually during that time period. About 32,700 of those jobs would use non-transferable skills, necessitating education and training to prepare workers for new professions.

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“There will invariably be cases where a refinery or power plant is closed, and all the workers are laid off, which will almost certainly include many workers who are not ready for retirement,” said Baker. “Ideally, we would make efforts to ensure these workers are reemployed elsewhere.”

The report shows, however, that “it’s not an impossible task to make sure workers in the fossil fuel industry are provided with the skills, training, and opportunities to find other jobs,” said Lee. “The employment impacts of moving towards green energy is something that must be considered, and this report shows that it can be feasibly addressed.”

Between 2000 and the Great Recession in 2009, according to the study, the annual rate of job loss was more than 12 times the rate expected in the fossil fuel industry in the event of aggressive climate action.  In the manufacturing sector alone, between 2000 and 2007 the U.S. lost more than 3.4 million manufacturing jobs, or 491,000 per year on average—20 times the annual job loss rate in the case of a near-elimination of fossil fuels by 2040. 

“While a rapid phaseout is desirable from the standpoint of limiting the damage from climate change, it is likely that it will take longer than 20 years to move the country away from fossil fuels,” the report reads.

With this in mind, said Baker and Lee, it is likely that the annual rate of job loss in the oil and gas industries would be one-third less than the study anticipates. 

CEPR released the study a month after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) reintroduced the Green New Deal, calling on Congress to pass legislation that would create more than one million well-paying union jobs while sustainably building the nation’s infrastructure. 

Progressives have also called on the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to fight for bold climate action within their infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, which President Joe Biden cut by $550 billion last week in an attempt to appease Republicans, who frequently claim—erroneously, it turns out—a shift toward a renewable energy economy will act as a “jobs killer.”

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