Last week the government made an eye-catching promise: that the country would slash carbon emissions by 78 per cent over the next 14 years. That’s a seriously ambitious and very welcome target. Now it needs to get equally serious about hitting it.
Climate action delivers a host of benefits such as cleaner air, lower energy bills, improved health and, vitally, new and rewarding jobs – needed now more than ever as we recover from the pandemic. But people cannot take up new green jobs without the right training. If the government wants to turn promises into action, it needs to invest in training people with the skills for tomorrow’s greener economy.
Take housing. We need to make our heating systems and old, cold homes more energy efficient. With 26 million homes needing a sustainable makeover, there’s no time to lose. Tackling this problem would massively reduce our carbon emissions, while also helping people out of fuel poverty. Add in the job opportunities and it’s a no-brainer.
Yet when it comes to building a workforce to do this, our foundations are distinctly dodgy. Long-term funding commitment from government is vital. Businesses, colleges and young people will only invest their time and money in the relevant training if they are certain of demand for retrofit services. But in recent years all three have been burned by stop start-start initiatives that leave them frustrated and out of pocket.
The latest example is the shambolic Green Homes Grant scheme, which collapsed last month. The government claimed a lack of demand – but in reality, the scheme was under-resourced and too hard for people to navigate. For love nor money, people couldn’t get work done on their homes because there weren’t enough people trained to do the job. Less Grand Designs, more disastrous bodge job.
The green skills shortfall is genuinely jaw-dropping. Take heat pumps, a marvellous innovation that can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The government thinks we will need to install 600,000 a year between now and 2028. But there are just 950 accredited installers in the UK.
What’s really infuriating is that there are inspiring organisations out there, ready to scale up their work. Take Manchester-based co-operative Carbon Co-op, which offers a range of training for tradespeople. This includes on-site and virtual sessions helping them get to grips with triple-glazed windows, cutting-edge heating technology and sustainable products like hempcrete – a natural, lightweight, insulating material.
Carbon Co-op is working with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to close a skills gap threatening the authority’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2038. This locally-driven action is so important, particularly in the North West, where over 12 per cent of households are affected by fuel poverty as they struggle to pay their bills – the highest figure of all English regions. In Yorkshire it’s not far behind, at 10 per cent.
Such local innovation needs government backing. Westminster should look north of the border for inspiration – where the Scottish government has been collaborating with another pioneer, Warmworks, to tackle fuel poverty. Through upgrading Scotland’s homes, Warmworks has created 137 apprenticeships and 2,500 training opportunities.
By working with small businesses across Scotland, rather than a single national contractor, Warmworks has created local jobs paid at the living wage. And it collaborates with others such as children’s charity Barnardo’s to encourage people from all backgrounds to find jobs in the industry.
These are the green jobs we need – inclusive, well-paid and with decent conditions attached. They are the jobs that can drive a green recovery from coronavirus, and attract young people into exciting and rewarding careers
So when the government makes grand pledges about a low-carbon future, it should also say how it will invest in the green skills to take us there. We need stable plans and long-term commitment. Or, like the victims of the worst cowboy builders, we’ll be left with nothing but broken promises.
Harriet Lamb is CEO of Ashden, which aims to promote climate solutions and build a more just world. Through awards and programmes, Ashden supports climate and energy innovators – including businesses, non-profits and public sector organisations (ashden.org)