The world continues to warm, and as countries begin to emerge from the pandemic governments are considering ways to make their economic recovery greener. Yet the rate of warming remains high and climate experts warn that this year’s COP26 UN Climate Summit must result in concrete action to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Citizens, investors, and environmental activists are increasingly pressuring governments and businesses to adopt strategies to deal with climate change. Dozens of governments and hundreds of companies have responded with net-zero GHG emissions pledges which on their face look ambitious, but which may be unattainable for economic, technological, or practical reasons.

Investment in and policy support for clean energy technology is soaring in an attempt to overcome some of these concerns. There is significant buzz around “green” hydrogen, more reliable wind and solar power, sustainable jet fuels, and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) projects. While there is promise in each of these, each also faces still significant hurdles—some of which remain under discussed. Some companies are touting the potential of nature-based solutions such as natural carbon sinks and renewable biofuels, but the capacity of these solutions is limited.

The clean energy transition is upon us and it is accelerating at a dizzying pace. Not only does this mean we will have to recognize and address policy, innovation, and development challenges to the issues above, but it also means we have to consider the human cost involved in this transition. Determining exact numbers of global employment reliant on fossil fuels is difficult, but employment numbers directly related to the extraction, transport, refining, and sale of fossil fuels alone numbers in the tens of millions. Moreover, while clean energy job numbers in some countries outstrip fossil fuel job numbers, income levels favor fossil fuel work. Part of managing the energy transition will have to include managing this mass job displacement, helping individuals find new employment despite having a relatively siloed skillset.

We also have an opportunity to examine and redress social challenges long associated with the energy industry. Women and minorities are underrepresented in the traditional energy industry broadly, and this underrepresentation gets worse as the level gets higher. Furthermore, pollution from the traditional energy industry has tended to impact minority communities and women more than other demographic groups. Finally, studies find that diverse boardrooms result in more sustainable strategies, and often more profitable strategies. In the cases of both raw employment numbers and of employment diversity, there is both an economic argument and a justice-oriented argument for confronting these challenges as we move further into the energy transition.

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