Ecologist guide to green skills and education

| 2nd February 2010
Wind turbine engineer
Weaning ourselves off carbon will mean a profound change in every aspect of daily life, every sector of society and every job. For that to happen we need a new mindset and a new set of tools...

The Government has vowed to reduce emissions 80 per cent by 2050, but as documented by a spate of reports last year (Environmental Industries Commission, Aldersgate Group, Institute for Public Policy Research and manufacturers’ organisation EEF) – the barrier to making this a reality is a 'green skills gap'.

Even taking into account its narrow definition of green skills – generally those applied within the green service sector, on technologies such as clean energy – the shortfall is expected to delay the promised transition by many years.

The Aldersgate Group’s report indicates overseas workers will be required to help out in the short term, and warns there must be more investment in developing technical and existing skills, with more encouragement for young people to study all-important STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). The Environment Agency has also called for more investment in building a low-carbon skills base in UK industry, with a focus on providing more scientists and engineers. Many may wonder how it has come to this – after all, it took the Government no time at all to create a National Skills Academy for Power to furnish the nuclear, oil and gas industries with more qualified workers.

More offshore wind turbines will be needed, as will better home insulation and sustainable building materials, but green skills are not exclusive to green-collar workers – they both underpin and go beyond the manufacturing, engineering, installing and repairing of, say, solar panels. Nor are they merely spades we’ll use once, to dig ourselves out of this mess then put back into the shed to gather cobwebs – adapting to the challenges and mitigating the effects of a changing environment will be a part of everyone’s working life from now on.

Education, education, education

Green skills rely on education, both to win the argument for a low-carbon economy and furnish workers with the abilities to provide it. A large proportion of the UK workforce still doesn’t understand the importance of cutting emissions, including the senior managers expected to manage the transition to a low-carbon economy. Consultants in the workplace will be needed to address this knowledge gap; teachers and lecturers, using targeted school and university syllabuses – it needs to filter through the whole system. The practical skills will be taught by experienced professionals, but they don’t grow on trees. Perhaps the most important green skills will be those involved in encouraging and inspiring young people to want to become the experienced professionals of tomorrow.

The Government has committed to making all new homes carbon neutral by 2016, but this means more than retraining builders to work with and source sustainable materials. The construction industry needs project managers who understand new technologies, architects able to design to stringent environmental standards, accountants who understand whole-life costing and life-cycle analysis.

A focus on local food to cut down on food miles will require small farmers and artisans to grow and make; restaurants, shops and markets to stock and sell; as well as town planners and sustainability advisors to address the supermarket monopolies destroying so many communities.

The way we feed ourselves must change, with more support and investment in domestic agriculture, meaning more farmers and land workers. Scientists and agricultural researchers can advise on improved tillage techniques to sequester more carbon and suggest ways of improving soil content without recourse to chemicals. Industrial livestock production will be rethought; improving fencing and building dry stone walls may be considered green skills in this context. More efficient machinery will be needed; greener vehicles; low-carbon roads designed by a new generation of eco-civil engineers. Mechanics, labourers, fitters, auditors, caterers, drivers... The list goes on.

Skilling up for a low-growth economy

The drive towards carbon reduction should result in a blossoming of green skills, as peak oil and climate change dictate the world cannot continue with business as usual. Unchecked economic growth is unsustainable; indeed, surviving in a warming, post-oil world may make a contracting economy not only important and necessary but also unavoidable. The work of Canadian economist Peter Victor, cited in Prosperity Without Growth, a groundbreaking report from the Sustainable Development Commission, suggests an economy not predicated on growth can be sustainable if total and average working hours are reduced. As the report says, 'it is possible to avoid the damaging unemployment that follows from recession by sharing work more equally amongst the population'. Less working hours will mean less pay, but developing a set of more general green skills – DIY, horticulture, cooking, keeping animals, and a whole host of others to exchange with those of our neighbours, through timebanks or Local Exchange Trading schemes (LETs) – will balance out our budgets, and even help us save.

As carbon-intensive employment such as heavy industry and car manufacturing declines, and the social and moral imperative to become more environmentally conscious grows, teaching and learning green skills will become ever more vital. In the workplace and outside it, green skills offer a two-birds solution: salaried employment that decarbonises society; savings at home that rejuvenate communities. The costs of funding green jobs, training courses and education will be offset by carbon and energy savings, and less quantifiable but no less important factors such as work fulfilment, health and happiness.

Eifion Rees is a freelance journalist

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