[By Jeremy Brecher]

Can we radically reduce the climate-destroying greenhouse gases (GHGs) we put into the atmosphere, yet also increase jobs for American workers, protect those whose jobs may be threatened by climate policies, and reduce America’s inequality and injustice? A series of reports from The Labor Network for Sustainability and Synapse Energy Economics shows we can.

The plans to create jobs and build a more just society by putting people to work protecting the climate are laid out in the LNS Climate, Jobs and Justice Project. They project an effective, workable program for a just transition to a climate-safe economy. They include a broad national jobs program and detailed studies of local, state, and regional plans that provide opportunities for organizing around and creating economic alternatives while developing examples that can inspire further changes at a national level.

The Clean Energy Future

The Climate, Jobs, and Justice project begins with a report titled “The Clean Energy Future: Protecting the Climate, Creating Jobs and Saving Money,” prepared for the Labor Network for Sustainability [1] (LNS) and 350.org, [2] with research conducted by a team led by economist Frank Ackerman of Synapse Energy Economics. [3] It shows that the United States can reduce GHG emissions 80 percent by 2050 — while adding half-a-million jobs annually and saving Americans billions of dollars on their electrical, heating, and transportation costs. While protecting the climate has often been portrayed as a threat to American workers’ jobs and the U.S. economy, this report shows that a clean energy future will produce more jobs than “business as usual” with fossil fuels and will save money to boot.

“The Clean Energy Future: Protecting the Climate, Creating Jobs and Saving Money” lays out an aggressive strategy for energy efficiency and renewable energy that will:

  • Transform the electric system, cutting coal-fired power in half by 2030 and eliminating it by 2050; building no new nuclear plants; and reducing the use of natural gas far below business-as-usual levels.
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions 85 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, in the sectors analyzed (which account for three-quarters of US GHG emissions).
  • Save money – the cost of electricity, heating, and transportation under this plan is $78 billion less than current projections from now through 2050.
  • Create new jobs – more than 500,000 per year over business as usual projections through 2050.

“The Clean Energy Future” presents a practical, realistic way for the United States to stop aggravating global warming. It does not depend on international agreements, science-fiction technologies, or sacrifice of Americans’ well being. Indeed, it provides financial, health, and job benefits for American workers and consumers that include much more than climate protection.

Why is this possible? The “Clean Energy Future” does not depend on any new technical breakthroughs to realize these gains, only a continuation of current trends in energy efficiency and renewable energy costs – but the cost of renewables is falling so fast that they are already cheaper than fossil fuel energy in some places and soon will be in most. And reducing our energy use through energy efficiency is already far cheaper than burning more fossil fuels. “The Clean Energy Future” shows in detail how we can use these new energy realities to meet our climate goals.

Most of the additional jobs will be in manufacturing and construction. Such jobs tend to have higher wages and better benefits than average, providing new opportunities for American workers. Manufacturing and construction also provide a high proportion of the better jobs held by people of color. Expanding these sectors will help counter the growing inequality within the American labor market. The report advocates deliberate policies to create new opportunities and job pipelines for those groups who have been most excluded from good jobs.

The study covers the entire electric system, light vehicle transportation (cars and light trucks), space heating and water heating, and waste management. It assumes conversion of all gasoline-powered light vehicles and most space heating and water heating to 100 percent renewable electricity. This strategy achieves three-fourths of the total emission reduction needed to reach the 80 percent by 2050 target. The report also cites other studies suggesting that sufficient GHG reduction can be achieved in the remaining sectors – freight and transit, industrial process emissions, and non-energy GHG emissions in agriculture – to meet the 80% by 2050 GHG reduction target. Indeed, that target requires only moderate reductions in these other sectors; accelerated reduction in these other

sectors would make possible even faster and larger national progress, doing better than 80 percent by 2050.

The plan will put the US on a trajectory to contribute its share of GHG emission reduction sufficient to reach the minimum target established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050.

Other studies have, at times, projected even larger job creation from a climate protection agenda. Frequently this is based on assuming much greater spending, accelerating the transition to clean energy. And indeed, in order to stabilize the climate and avoid worst-case risks of damage from climate change it may be necessary to go faster.

“The Clean Energy Future” is designed to show how much can be done with no increase in costs. It provides a floor, not a ceiling, for what can be accomplished. It shows how we can meet basic climate goals with no net cost, and that doing so will create more jobs. But we can, and indeed should, do more. By accelerating implementation of the plan and expanding efforts to other sectors we can approach zero net GHG emissions before 2050. That will take more up-front investment – but it will also create more jobs.

Climate protection strategy can be designed to provide the maximum number of good, secure, permanent jobs with education, training, and advancement that provide maximum possible improvement in our job shortage. Because some jobs will be lost in the clean energy future (about one job lost for every five new jobs created), we need a vigorous program to provide new, high-quality jobs and/or dignified retirement for workers displaced from the old energy industries.

“The Clean Energy Future” will help bring together environmental and labor advocates around their common interest in putting Americans to work saving the earth’s climate. Climate protection has caused significant friction as labor unions and environmentalists have disagreed about whether it is more important to create jobs or address climate change. The report demonstrates that this is a false choice. Climate protection is also a great jobs program. We can create many more jobs by protecting the environment than by expanding the fossil fuel infrastructure.

In the states

What does the Clean Energy Future mean at a state level? The Climate, Jobs, and Justice Project includes case studies on Connecticut, Maryland, Illinois, and Eastern Kentucky, as well as forthcoming studies on North Carolina and the Pacific Northwest. Each reveals a different dimension of the transition to the clean energy future.

“The Connecticut Clean Energy Future: Climate goals and employment benefits” shows how a largely non-industrial state with extreme economic inequality can create a rapidly growing climate protection sector that creates stable jobs for unionized workers, effective job ladders for those previously excluded from good jobs, and expansion of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other sectors.

“Maryland’s Clean Energy Future: Climate Goals and Employment Benefits” presents a Clean Energy Future plan to reduces Maryland’s net emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) 80 percent below the 2006 level by 2050 – while adding more than ten thousand jobs per year. The report also indicates that Maryland can use the burgeoning state and national demand for clean energy to create good, stable jobs in a growing climate protection sector: manufacturing jobs, jobs for those who have been marginalized in the current labor market, and jobs for skilled union workers in the construction trades. It argues that Maryland needs a robust job creation and clean industry development strategy to realize that potential.

“Illinois Jobs and Clean Energy: Protecting the Climate and the State Economy” report lays out a climate protection strategy that will produce more than 28,000 net new jobs per year over business as usual projections through 2050. That represents almost 0.5 percent of total employment in the state, so it should reduce the unemployment rate by one-half percent. Three-quarters of the jobs created will be in the high-wage construction and manufacturing sectors.

While the country as a whole will benefit from the transition to a clean energy future, workers and communities in the fossil fuel industries are likely to face adverse effects. The coal mining area of Eastern Kentucky is a case in point. “Employment after coal: Creating new jobs in Eastern Kentucky,” lays out a practical approach to creating a new economy for Appalachian Kentucky. It analyzes the potential for job growth in six sectors: energy efficiency; local food production; healthcare; forest products; tourism; and environmental remediation. It presents a plan that will produce nearly 25,000 new jobs by 2030– enough to replace half of today’s coal jobs and to bring the unemployment rate down to the national average.

Whenever there is opposition to a pipeline, power plant, oil well, or other fossil fuel project, it raises a legitimate question: Where are the people who would have built and operated them going to find jobs? The forthcoming report “The Economic Impact of Clean Energy Investments in the Pacific Northwest: Alternatives to Fossil Fuel Exports” examines job prospects for such an area, Grays Harbor County in western Washington state. It compares a recently-defeated coal export terminal to possible clean energy projects. It finds that the clean energy projects will create more jobs, but that public policies are needed to ensure that they are good jobs.

Additional reports are in the works and will be added to the Climate, Jobs, and Justice website as they are completed.

The world must go fossil-free – and fast. Americans have often been told that meeting climate targets is impossible without threatening jobs and costing a fortune. But the Climate, Jobs, and Justice Project shows that the opposite is true. The Clean Energy Future represents a pathway away from climate destruction that is far better for workers and consumers than our current economy based on fossil fuels. Should we let greed and inertia prevent us from taking the better path?


[1] The Labor Network for Sustainability was founded in 2009 based on an understanding that long-term sustainability cannot be achieved without environmental protection, economic fairness, and social justice. LNS believes we all need to be able to make a living on a living planet.

[2] Founded in 2008, 350.org is building a global climate movement with online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions coordinated by a global network active in over 188 countries.

[3] Synapse Energy Economics is a research and consulting firm specializing in energy, economic, and environmental topics. Since its inception in 1996, Synapse has grown to become a leader in providing rigorous analysis of the electric power sector for public interest and governmental clients.