Where the work is

The economic crisis is decimating workforces around the world. But, out of the blackness, a huge demand is growing for climate change and carbon-reduction services. And with this comes new jobs - as the government aims to create a green economy that will pull us out of the recession, writes John Haven

The recession has been called the “downside of globalisation” as the crisis began in the United States, the most powerful nation in the world. A knock-on effect was seen in all the major economies. The collapse of global giants such as Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, Washington Mutual and other household names has seen the US unemployment figure rise above 7%, with more than ten million Americans out of work.

Despite the obvious effect on many individuals, one of the most unpredictable effects will be that of job losses around the globe. The US saw 524,000 job cuts in December 2008 alone.

Across the UK, we have also experienced substantial job cuts and many environmental initiatives and developments put on hold or abandoned. In January, London mayor Boris Johnson cancelled the Green Homes Service – a scheme committed to insulation and renewable energy in homes. This would have created many green roles in and around the London area. The GLA also announced a further £10M cut to the London Cycle Network Plus, which looked to improving the safety of cyclists and encouraging cycling in an effort to reduce carbon emissions.

The restructuring City Hall project was put on hold with no less than 50 jobs being lost in the process. Protests over potential redundancies have come from the Green Party. But these cuts look imminent, and it is not only the Greater London Authority that is tightening its purse strings and consequentially trimming back its environmental spend.

Government advisory body WRAP provides resource efficiency advice for businesses and households, and is now to become the only body to deliver government-funded recycling and waste programmes. Businesses will feel the impact of this change, as 30% of its funding is being cut – from £59M to £43.2M – along with 31 redundancies made this year already. The expansion was supposed to make it easier for businesses to access green advice and support, but there may be additional job cuts, less services provided and a fall in the overall WRAP budget.

The construction industry has been hit hard too, as the housing market has plummeted – with 50,000 job losses in 2008. A total of between 7.5% and 8% of the total workforce in the UK have lost their jobs in this market, including a high number of environmental monitors, construction waste managers and land condition experts. The unseen effect here was that of the diminished cascade to the lower margin consultancies who support the various developments, but for whom the previous abundance of work has dried up.

So how can we be positive about the environmental sector given all this doom and gloom?

In the current crisis, it is hard to stay optimistic with only 21% of CEOs confident their business will grow. The decrease in confidence has changed attitudes towards the environment. Now fewer than one in ten business leaders worry about diminishing natural resources, and fail to put the issue high on the agenda. However, M&S’s executive chairman, Sir Stuart Rose, insists that green issues remain paramount. His Plan A initiate is award-winning. And there is evidence showing that corporate responsibility (CR) is on the up, as more firms instigate their push towards environment and energy improvements. Tarmac, the Co-Op Group and Samsung are just some of the large corporates that see the crisis as an opportunity to focus on CR and grow their business, establishing new positions in their markets above their competitors.

“It is no longer the altruists that are telling people about their sustainable strategy,” says Joe Heppenstall, a business manager with environmental recruitment consultants Allen & York. “It is becoming more and more commonplace in the boardroom. By no means is everything looking gloomy.”

Remaining optimistic is difficult but there is evidence that careers in the environmental sector are showing some elasticity and could drive new economic growth. Careers including ecologists, hydrologists, environmental chemists are expected to grow 25% over the next decade – jobs that are required and continue in demand when there is no extra discretionary money to spend.

Construction roles may have been reduced but this reduction is being counteracted by huge demand for climate change and carbon-reduction services – with the government’s newly introduced low-carbon strategy aiming to create a green economy that will pull us out of the recession.

Boris Johnson hopes to create 15,000 jobs in an effort to cut energy and tackle climate change. Targets have been established to reduce London’s carbon emissions by 60%, contributing £600M to the capital’s economy by 2025.

Meanwhile, the NHS has announced a major campaign to reduce its carbon footprint. The organisation employs 1.5 million people and both in-house and contracted environmental professionals will lead the campaign. With low-carbon targets and various campaigns in place, the new worldwide low-carbon economy is worth £3 trillion, employing 880,000 people in the UK.

The UN’s proposal for a “global green new deal” was touched upon at the recent G20 meeting in London, where all countries were expected to devote billions of public spending to green projects.

The US economic stimulus has amounted to more than $2,800B (£1,770B), with around $430B (£270B), which is 15%, to be spent on green measures.

The UK is only allocating £535M (7%) of its economic stimulus, which many MPs argue is too small. They suggest the Treasury should spend £11B on a green stimulus package as this would lead to net job creation, emissions-cutting and an improvement in energy security. Greenpeace suggested that, if £5B was invested in energy-efficiency measures, 55,000 jobs could be created. These jobs would range from those involved in the science behind clean energy systems, to their physical installation – and every function in between.

EU diplomats have viewed the election of President Obama as a positive change. He has committed the US to cut emissions by 16% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050. Obama also plans to spend billions of dollars on renewable energy. Meanwhile, in the UK, the government is proposing the creation of the Office for Renewable Energy Deployment to deliver targets of sourcing 15% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. Governments are realising that, by committing to energy efficiency projects, their labour-intensive nature creates construction sector jobs, as well as energy sector jobs – reducing energy use, saving money and helping to create a sustainable future – the best route to economic recovery.

“Lets face it, the US needs a boost and if building a better, bigger environmental industry is what Obama brings then good for them,” says Heppenstall.

“In the UK, we have a great industry and for us it’s about how we adapt to these times in both the public and private sector – and what we can do to change in the face of the market conditions.

“The consultants in the UK are some of the best in the world, and have a habit of being able to switch strategy to meet demand through retraining, recruiting new skills and refocus on sectors that are very much alive.

“Similarly, the blue-chip organisations are recognising that the green agenda will not go away.”

The financial crisis has had large implications on the environment industry but at the same time created huge economic, social and environmental benefits likely to arise from combating climate change and pollution, generating many varied opportunities.

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