Written by Zofia Borowczyk
Fossil fuels, and the world’s dependency on them, have been closely linked to the roots of climate change and are intertwined with the Russian-Ukrainian war. For some time now, climate activists, scholars and scientists have been urging world leaders to take a stand on climate change and once and for all tackle the issue, by transitioning to renewable energy. 24 February 2022 marks the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which is said to be powered by the fossil fuel industry and the world’s dependence on Russian oil, gas, and coal. Since the start of the war, the European Union and its Member States have been decreasing their need for Russian fuels by switching to other providers, but, more importantly, they have been working towards accelerating their green energy transition (International Energy Agency, 2022). Although this is a positive aspect, in many cases it has ultimately led to individuals being forced out of their jobs. Such a problem occurred, for example, in the Polish town of Braniewo, and many others (Fakty TVN24, 2021). The case of Braniewo is particular, as the town’s entire economy is based on fossil fuels. This poses the question of how changes in labour dynamics will be addressed during the transition towards renewable energy, which is why several questions are being raised regarding the ‘just transition’ and the idea of leaving no one behind.
A just transition
The just transition is a crucial part of the European Green Deal. The Green Deal refers to a growth strategy for the EU to enhance sustainability and work towards a climate-neutral economy (Filipovic et.al., 2022). It was signed in 2019 and has been an important part of the policy work of the Union ever since, as it aims for Europe to be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Although the deal is extremely ambitious and has the potential to once and for all address climate change, the Russian-Ukrainian war and the COVID-19 pandemic before it have impacted the Green Deal’s enforcement and slowed down the implementation of policies, halting the green transition.
A key priority of the European Union has been the ‘just transition’, which refers to ensuring that ‘[…] the transition towards a climate-neutral economy happens in a fair way […]’ (European Commission, n.d.). In essence, it relates to supporting all that have trouble transitioning, whether it is a single individual, a community, or a country; providing a space for cooperation, as well as the sharing of resources and knowledge. The concept of a ‘just transition’ has been especially crucial in ensuring that the employees of the fossil fuels industry are equipped with adequate (re)training and skills, and are therefore able to secure jobs in a different, more sustainable sector. It has been a key priority to guarantee that all regions of Europe are able to transition towards renewables and not leave those working in fossil fuels behind. As the energy sector currently occupies 65 million workers (International Energy Agency, 2022), abandoning them would severely impact the unemployment rates and cause many to suffer.
The green transition mainly refers to the transition away from fossil fuels into renewable and clean energy (Abram, et.al., 2022). However, the European Green Deal, of which the green transition is part of, has been urging to look at the issue from a broader angle and consider what implications the green transition may have on other sectors. The deal has addressed the issue from the perspective of employees working in the energy industry (oil, gas and coal sector), who may not be well advocated for and are scared of losing their jobs due to the green transition. Although the green transition is one of the most pressing and urgent matters at the moment, it must be planned accordingly, by implementing the theory of a just transition and leaving no one behind. Without planning and the reskilling of workers, the results needed to ensure the Union is on a good path to reaching climate neutrality may not be achieved. Moreover, those working in the energy industry often are not big supporters of the deal and green energy transition, therefore, by ensuring that they are well equipped with new skills to start a new job they may change their perspective about the EGD. In return, a just transition would allow them to stay in the labour market and avoid unemployment, which would ultimately put more pressure on the government, who would be responsible for paying them unemployment benefits. Therefore, investing in reskilling would not only support vulnerable people, but it would also help the government by boosting the economy.
The just transition attempts to unite the community and ensure everyone is accounted for and advocated for. Seeing as the number of people currently employed in the energy sector is higher than that of those employed in the renewable energy sector, the concept of a just transition highlights the importance of reskilling employees to ensure the transition is made with consideration of all individuals’ employment. Moreover, the renewable energy sector must also create many new opportunities of employment, to fill in the gap of jobs lost in the energy sector.
The just transition mechanism within the EU has been created to honour the value of leaving no one behind (European Commission, n.d.). It was implemented under the EU Green Deal to support those transitioning between employment sectors and vulnerable groups. Additionally, the just transition platform aims to assist countries in the sharing of practices and comprehensive technical support throughout a country’s or region’s transition. Finally, the benefit of this mechanism and platform is placed to support the vulnerable and the most carbon-intensive regions (ibid.). Although a main priority has been employment and transitioning of workers, some other policy focus points include energy efficient housing, investing in research and innovation, and improving digital connectivity.
Energy sector employment
The energy sector has been a significant source of employment and although the sector is currently highly occupied, the energy transition towards renewables poses a threat to it and its employees, as they fear losing jobs in the green transition. Although renewable energy workspaces create substantial numbers of employment, it is sadly not enough to ensure that all those transitioning from the fossil fuel industry are provided with employment in the renewable energy sector. Currently, clean air/renewable energy jobs account for more than half of all in the energy sector (World Economic Forum, 2022). Therefore, those advocating for the recognition of climate action have been discussing the urgency to create jobs in the renewable energy sector and to reskill workers coming from the fossil fuel industry (Graham, 2022).
The International Energy Agency (2022) concluded that in order to ensure a fair transition of employees, proper planning and support measures are needed. The report also stressed that taking advantage of already existing strengths is crucial, moreover, localising energy supply will be extremely important to ensure workers are transitioned within their communities.
Impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war on the employment in the energy sector
After having conducted extensive research on the status of employment within the EU, the European Commission (2022) argued that the number of unemployed people has actually decreased compared to recent years. However, it also argued that this is due to the rollout of post-Covid jobs, which enabled many unemployed people to find new jobs, contributing to the overall decrease of unemployment. According to the research done by the Polish TV news outlet Fakty TVN24 (2022), cities such as Braniewo in Poland are facing unemployment due to the embargo on Russian coal. Fakty TVN24 claims that every 4th resident of the town will soon be unemployed due to the embargo. Considering that a high percentage of jobs is at stake, this would ultimately result in the entire town suffering both financially and economically. As this town is relatively small and lacks good economic infrastructure to accommodate the need for new jobs, no currently available employment would be able to sustain the extremely high number of those unemployed coming from the coal industry. As Braniewo is relatively small, there is reduced availability of capital to create employment and support all those unemployed as a consequence of the embargo. They would surely require extensive support from the state, which if more towns encounter such a problem, will have significant trouble in helping all. Therefore, investing extensively in reskilling would not only support citizens in the transition, but also boost the economy with new, re-skilled labour.
Although the transition away from fossil fuels is a relatively major step towards the green transition, in this case, the transition was rushed and impacted by external factors. The external factors, such as the Russian-Ukrainian war, which was led by Europe stopping their demand for Russian fuels, have heavily impacted the rate at which the transition was happening. This has caused residents to be vulnerable to unemployment and left without any upskilling towards a different sector or job alternatives. Therefore, as pointed out by the European Commission (2022) and the International Energy Agency (2022), proper planning and funds are necessary to ensure that the values of a just transition and leaving no one behind are kept.
Dependency on fossil fuels and, more specifically, on other energy-producing states such as Russia, has led to the current crisis. Frequently, states are dependent on countries with whom they may not have good foreign relations due to cultural and social differences. The European Union has never had an extremely close relationship with Russia, on the contrary actually, it has opposed the wrongdoing of President Putin, who imprisoned Alexei Navalny, the most known vocal critic of Putin (Euractiv, 2022). This raises the question of why the European Union would put itself in a position of dependence on Russian energy. If it were a country with whom they had a close working relationship and similar values, then the current situation would likely not have materialised. Further relying on cooperations like these could result in future dependency.
However, if Europe were to solely rely on renewable energy, this would ensure that at least most of Europe’s energy would come either from Member States’ national production, or from countries which share European values. The renewable energy sector is much more efficient, allowing to create energy more independent of location, as we rely on sources such as wind or sunlight which are generally accessible to the public. Even in a hypothetical situation in which the European Union would have to outsource energy production to other states, as renewable energy resources are more accessible to countries, they would not be required to cooperate with states opposing their values and beliefs. The Union would be able to choose their renewable energy partners from nations with whom it has a close working relationship, and the scenario that happened with Ukraine and Russia would not repeat itself.
Renewable energy could also significantly strengthen European integration, which in general refers to the deepening of European cooperation on social, economic and financial levels (Wiener et.al., 2018). As not all countries may be currently well equipped to transition to renewables as quickly as others, integration could allow Member States to redistribute the energy produced in their regions to those that struggle with auto-sufficiency. For many Europeans and supporters of European integration, this would be a positive step forwards; however, those who refer to themselves as Eurosceptics would not be satisfied, as this step would bring European nations closer together.
According to the United Nations, climate action is currently one of the most important focus areas due to the increase in climate disasters spreading across the globe. Due to the urgency, investing in renewable energy should be a top priority for all nations. This means investing both in individual household renewable energy sources, but also in those meant to produce energy for an entire country. This is important not only to engage in the energy transition, but also to create new jobs to support those currently working in the fossil fuel industry. In order for fossil fuel industry employees to transition towards sustainable employment, they firstly need to be effectively trained and have new positions to transition to. Therefore, investing in renewable energy now is extremely important, as it becomes harder if done at a later stage because the state will not be able to catch up with the demand for employment.
Taking a politico-economic perspective, transitioning workers is more beneficial than allowing them to be unemployed and living off the national social security system. Moreover, owing to the high extent of European integration, renewable energy sources would allow member states to support those countries which are still struggling. This would increase cooperation within the Union and ensure that all countries will succeed in the green transition.