How climate change will shape the future of environmental professions – for better and for worse
The consequences of a warming planet will create opportunities in ‘green’ jobs while also putting new demands on environmental protection workers
Melissa Drury and Paul Richard
Climate change will have important impacts on society, including the workplace. Environmental professions will be both negatively and positively affected in ways that are unique to this field, as well as by trends that will affect the workplace in general.
That the labour market will change is clear. According to a recent International Labour Organization report (2019), climate change will put up to 80 million jobs at risk by 2030, particularly in agriculture and construction, but also in the transportation, tourism, sports and industrial sectors. Despite being a northern country, Canada is not immune; the ILO report estimates the equivalent of a loss of 800 full-time jobs from heat stress alone. Temperature extremes will make outdoor work difficult or impossible, while consequences of climate change such as more frequent flooding or fires will also indirectly affect employment.
“According to a recent International Labour Organization report, climate change will put up to 80 million jobs at risk by 2030.”
Conversely, the authors of an International Labour Review article about mitigation of climate impacts argue that “climate action is an opportunity to create over 24 million jobs across the world. To maximize the employment opportunities, governments need to complement climate action with a conducive legal framework, consultation process of society, social protection, skills and industrial policy to enable a just transition” (Montt et al., 2018).
Not all these future jobs are expected to be of an environmental nature, of course, but the environmental profession – the “green” jobs – will be well represented.
Present and future opportunities in green jobs
Climate change is tackled by decarbonizing the economy and by sequestering carbon. Green jobs act directly on these objectives: installers of solar panels, windmills, efficient windows or electric charging stations; designers of efficient vehicles, public transit, industrial processes; energy auditors and sustainability planners are examples among the many trades and professions that contribute to reducing emissions. Land-use managers and conservation professionals may create programs that build biomass and sequester carbon, such as planting and caring for tree and kelp forests; engineers who design high-tech systems for atmospheric carbon dioxide removal are also working toward the same objective: reducing atmospheric carbon.
Sharan Burrow (2015), General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, says that jobs are already being created from investments in climate action: “In renewable energy, the US solar industry is creating jobs 20 times faster than the overall economy, while the world’s largest renewable energy job market is in China, with 3.4 million working in the industry. In Germany, 370,000 people are employed in renewable energy, the largest number in Europe.”
In Canada, employment opportunities in green jobs have been steady (ECO Canada, 2012) or, more recently, growing (ECO Canada, 2018, 2019). In its latest reports, ECO Canada identified the sectors with the highest demand as natural resources management, environmental health and safety, and waste management. Their 2012 report used a different but overlapping classification that listed environmental protection, resource conservation and green energy as the sectors most in demand.
Our own experience shows that a large number of environmental protection positions (a subset of green jobs) are not advertised in the media surveyed by ECO Canada. This suggests such surveys may underestimate the actual number of green jobs in the Canadian economy.
Likewise, TopResume (n.d.), a career agency, has similar findings based on US data about the most in-demand green jobs:
- environmental scientists;
- green building professionals;
- solar, water and environmental engineers;
- environmental protection scientists and technicians;
- corporate sustainability professionals
Environmental awareness led to the creation of these jobs and industries. Will climate change affect this distribution or the nature of these jobs?
Influences on employment in environmental careers
The answer to this question depends largely on the evolution of policy. Renewable energy jobs in Germany were created by a 1990 policy decision, then the unexpected number of solar panel installers, wind mechanics and smart grids experts became large enough to insulate the profession from changing political winds. A similar set of policies across Canada would likewise create many green energy and energy-efficiency jobs, tilting the balance away from the more traditional environmental protection sector.
The environmental protection sector is also likely to grow as a result of climate change and the resulting severe weather. Significant droughts, for instance, adversely affect biosystems, from fisheries to natural parks, and measures to alleviate impacts will rely on data provided by environmental protection scientists and technicians.
Storms, expected to be more frequent and more severe, will also affect environmental protection practitioners. Erosion-control professionals implement measures to prevent sediment from construction sites from entering fish-bearing streams; frequent severe cloudbursts may require the development of new regulations and best practices. Large-scale flooding, as has happened this decade in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal (twice), increases the risk of contamination from mold and sewage, and exacerbates problems of contaminated sites remediation (in our observation, still a leading employment sector for environmental protection practitioners). Municipal flood-prevention programs – including those using green infrastructure – will result in increased employment opportunities, from construction monitoring to land-use planning.
Large-scale wildfires such as those recently experienced in British Columbia, Alberta and California not only produce very poor air quality, but also contaminate water resources. Once fires are under control, a huge task of environmental monitoring remains, and this will become more frequent as the climate changes.
Finally, it must be mentioned that weather extremes will put new demands on environmental protection practitioners. Field work, a large component of the job, is more physically demanding during heat waves or storms, adding to the dangers of gathering samples in tinder-dry environments or stormy lakes. Further, these environmental stressors also add to the risk of workplace mistakes. Accidental spills, for instance, require rapid action from first responders, including those trained in containing spills, reclaiming affected lands and monitoring for toxic substances.
A collective response
Climate change will likely create many opportunities for environmental practitioners, both in traditional fields such as environmental monitoring and in newer fields such as energy auditing. While this may seem to be good news at first glance, the prospect of increased employment in this sector is contingent on a well-functioning economy and governance system that can respond effectively to the challenge of climate change. This challenge is immense and requires a response from environmental professionals of all kinds.
Melissa Drury is the Co-operative Education Co-ordinator and Paul Richard is the Chair of the Environmental Protection Technology Program, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, in Greater Vancouver.
Burrow, Sharan (2015) “How will climate change affect jobs?” World Economic Forum. Retrieved from weforum.org/agenda/2015/12/how-will-climate-change-affect-jobs/
ECO Canada (2019). Environmental Job Market Trends in 2018. Retrieved from eco.ca/research/report/environmental-job-market-trends-2018/
ECO Canada (2018). Environmental Job Market Trends Mid-2018. Retrieved from eco.ca/wp-content/uploads/ECO-Canada-Environmental-Job-Posting-Trends-Mid-2018.pdf
International Labour Organization (2019). Working on a Warmer Planet: the Impact of Heat Stress on Labour Productivity and Decent Work. Retrieved from ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_711919.pdf
Knowles, Angie (2012). “The Top Green Jobs in Canada.” ECO Canada. Retrieved from eco.ca/blog/the-top-green-jobs-in-canada/.
Montt, G., Wiebe, K. S., Harsdorff, M., Simas, M., Bonnet, A., & Wood, R. (2018). Does climate action destroy jobs? An assessment of the employment implications of the 2-degree goal. International Labour Review, 157(4), 519–556.
Scott, Mike (2014). Climate change: implications for employment. European Trade Union Institute. Retrieved from etui.org/Publications2/Guides/Climate-change-Implications-for-employment
Top Resume (n.d.). “The Number of Green Jobs are Growing by the Day.” Retrieved from ca.topresume.com/career-advice/new-green-jobs