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Green Jobs and Global Youth: Can Clean Energy Power Positive Youth Development?

February 15, 2023

Challenges in areas ranging from education to the environment, gender to governance, health to housing don’t exist in a vacuum. Each month, Abt experts from two disciplines explore ideas for tackling these challenges in our monthly podcast, The Intersect. Sign up for monthly e-mail notifications here. Catch up with previous episodes here.

Clean energy is not only essential to combating climate change, it creates proven economic benefits—and opportunities to engage the untapped potential of the world’s future workforce. Dr. Nicole Goldin and Lindsay Foley discuss the vital role youth can—and must—play in the green economy.

Read the Transcript

Eric Tischler: Hi and welcome to The Intersect. I'm Eric Tischler. Abt Associates tackles complex challenges around the world ranging from improving health and education, to assessing the impact of environmental changes. For any given problem, we bring multiple perspectives to the table. We thought it would be enlightening and maybe even fun to pair up colleagues from different disciplines so they can share their ideas and perhaps spark new thinking about how we solve these challenges.

Today, I'm joined by two of those colleagues, Lindsay Foley and Dr. Nicole Goldin. Lindsay is Abt's director of climate and energy, and she leads large, complex international energy and climate change programs and covers economic and policy issues in the areas of renewable energy, climate finance, economic resilience and sustainability, and climate change mitigation. Nicole is Abt's head of inclusive economic growth and she brings 25 years of experience and strategic and technical management, policy research, communications and collaboration, and global and local economics. Her emphasis is on youth as well as inclusive and sustainable growth and gender equity. Welcome.

Lindsay Foley: Thanks so much for bringing us together, Eric.

Dr. Nicole Goldin: Great. Thanks Eric. Great to be with you.

Eric: The promise of clean energy is both deep and broad. Obviously it's a necessary tool to combat climate change, but implementing it also offers opportunities to revitalize community infrastructure and economies. The latter have been touted as a way to create new jobs and a more upwardly mobile workforce domestically, can green jobs also harness the world's youth, who are a vital but critically underutilized resource in countries around the globe? Lindsay, I'm going to ask you to kick us off. Can you tell us about Abt's work and clean energy, and particularly the economic benefits?

Lindsay: Absolutely. Thanks, Eric. For more than two decades, Abt has really worked to foster the conditions for clean energy investment that’s critical to providing reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy access for all. This is doing work, including for the Environmental Protection Agency, designing clean energy guidance and implementation resources for various state, local, and tribal governments to working with USAID and its partner countries to strengthen national and subnational policy and regulatory frameworks, mobilizing private capital for renewables and facilitating partnerships that build more resilient power systems for all.

This work is really working on the front lines of the just energy transitions and, really, the reasons for doing so are plentiful. Not only do cleaner, more efficient energy systems improve access to reliable modern energy services for people and businesses, but they often do so at a lower cost and with substantially reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, recent studies by Bloomberg show that new onshore wind and solar projects cost roughly 40 percent of those than coal and gas plants, and the gap is widening. In fact, U.S. coal plants actually require more cash on hand to operate than it would cost to replace them with new wind and solar. So for this and many, many other reasons, the IEA predicts that, by 2025, renewables will become the largest source of global electricity generation, surpassing coal. But in addition to the cost and emissions benefits of clean energy, they also provide a multitude of co-benefits, including those to economic growth, to public health and to job creation.

And Abt has worked extensively to quantify these financial and economic benefits in ways that inform decision makers, that inform local governments, businesses, and regulators to make appropriate decisions. We're coming out of a global pandemic, which has really ravaged labor markets, exacerbating inequities and increasing levels of poverty around the globe. But driving decarbonization offers us a unique opportunity to address the dual challenges. Studies show that we can reach more than $26 trillion in economic gain and generate 24 to 65 million new jobs globally through 2030 compared to the business as usual, this will significantly lift global economic growth, build more resilient communities, and support our goals of reaching universal energy access by the end of the decade.

Eric: Thank you. So, Nicole, when we hear those job stats, what are you thinking in terms of inclusive economic growth, looking at jobs for women and, I think, in this case particularly, youth. What's the opportunity you're seeing here?

Nicole: Well, let me start by noting that against the backdrop that Lindsay mapped out, any conversation about youth and jobs should be grounded in the fact that youth today are still experiencing the effects of the 2008 recession. They are and have been up to three times more likely to be un- or underemployed than older workers, and youth were disproportionately impacted by the covid economic shutdowns that Lindsay mentioned. Young women were especially hurt as the burdens of care fell largely upon their shoulders. So we need to keep that in mind and as we think about the demographically younger developing countries especially, labor markets have just failed to keep up with the pace of the number of new entrants.

So, as Lindsay alluded to, efforts to combat the climate crisis, increase energy efficiency and reduce energy poverty alongside technological diffusion are resulting in this fast-growing green economy. As Lindsay mentioned, the global renewable energy sector could generate as many as 24 million primarily private sector jobs by 2030 and 42 million by 2050. In particular, the solar sector has a potential to create 20 million jobs while 6 million are up for grabs, so to speak, in the circular economy, and electric vehicles could bring another 10 million. We've also seen how climate smart agriculture is increasing yields and earnings and stimulating new businesses while promoting more resilient livelihoods in communities. Now, many of these jobs as we think about youth and young people in particular, will be lower or middle skill or specialized technical vocational that are suitable for entry level young workers. The ILO, for example, estimates that investments in the green economy, including clean energy and renewable energy construction and sustainable agriculture could create nearly 10 million jobs for young people alone by 2030. On top of this, there will also be increasing jobs in higher end product inputs and supporting services such as IT, logistics, or professional services, further creating downstream opportunities that new workers and young people could be well positioned to take advantage of.

Eric: We talked about a lot of really exciting numbers and we're talking about things that can happen. How do we make sure they happen? How do we harness this workforce and what other challenges we need to think about as we're trying to do that? Lindsay, you want to go?

Lindsay: Yeah, I'd say clean energy is a booming industry that not only enables us to support economic recovery, but does so by putting us on a more resilient and sustainable and just pathway for the future. But, really, where there's opportunity, there's needed investment. As I mentioned, $4 trillion in clean energy investment by 2030. The good news, though, is that we know that driving decarbonization in the energy sector is not a technological issue. In fact, we have the existing technologies needed to meet the challenge, but scaling these solutions requires a skilled and engaged workforce. And studies by the GGI and UNIDO say that for every $1 million invested in clean energy, you can create on average between 1.5 and 2.8 times the number of jobs as that exact same investment in fossil fuels.

Why is that? Well, it's because installing solar panels, constructing wind turbines and retrofitting infrastructure with efficiency improvements is really more labor intensive and hard to outsource than, say, an increasingly automated or capital-intensive fossil fuel industry. And that means they create jobs. In the U.S. and in many countries around the world, that will continue to drive a significant rise in green jobs, including direct jobs, but also indirect and induced jobs. In addition to the 14 million new clean energy jobs that Nicole mentioned, the IEA also predicts another 16 million more may be created as workers switch to new roles related to clean energy. But I think it's really critical to note that not all of those new jobs or roles for people to switch jobs will necessarily be in the same location or require the same skillset as the jobs that they replace. So it's really important that we think about how do we work with policy makers, how do we work with the private sector to focus both investment and job training and capacity building in ways that can ensure a just transition between the current state and our ideal net zero future state.

Eric: Nicole is nodding and smiling enthusiastically. Nicole, you want to chime in on some of those questions that Lindsay just raised?

Nicole: Absolutely, yes. As Lindsay was saying, there is a lot of employment upside in clean energy, but also, she alluded to, despite the opportunity, however, we see that education, training, labor market information and financial systems are not keeping up with the evolving green economy job market and also hiring youth is often seen as risky or expensive, and I think, in an emerging sector like clean energy, that is even more the case. The other point is that, for young women in particular, there may be additional STEM knowledge gaps or social cultural norms that limit their participation in what's seen in many places as a non-traditional or male dominated sector.

So we need to do a couple things to address these challenges. We need to maximize demand for youth in these new jobs in both the public and private sectors, including for example, by developing fiscal policy incentives to train, hire and maintain young workers. And on the supply side, as Lindsay alluded to, we really need to make sure that youth are ready and willing to engage in this market. We need to raise exposure, awareness, and interest in the sector, working with trade associations and career expos and engaging families and communities. And then we also need to support skill and professional development, absolutely. Particularly for these new kinds of workers and these new roles that come with renewable energy and construction and operation and maintenance of these new facilities that Lindsay mentioned, talking about on- and off-grid that requires specialized installers, technicians and, engineers.

And we're doing this and we're seeing this happen through boot camps and apprenticeships, experiential learning, supplemental STEM activities. Mentoring is really important in this space, as I said, especially for young women, but working with and engaging the private sector with skills councils and curricula and standards reforms and harmonization that importantly allow for youth mobility in the labor force. An evaluation of career training and workforce development programs in the U.S. that was targeted to low skill and disadvantaged workers found that some of these short-term modular programs can be effective again, especially when combined with the basic and work-ready skills and strong employer connections. And we see that this has important implications for interventions in low- and middle-income countries with low levels of education or skills.

The last piece I'll just note is that the other exciting thing we talked about is the opportunity for entrepreneurship and startups that could be led by youth. We know that these markets have a structure and systems that might be more amenable to local entrepreneurship and that young people have such an entrepreneurial zeal that we can help realize if we're providing the finance, supporting climate smart entrepreneurs with the business knowledge and the acceleration services and sometimes even the tools and inputs that they need. For example, we've been doing some of this support to young entrepreneurs in climate smart agriculture in Cambodia in our work with the Feed the Future Harvest II and now the Harvest III program, for example, and it's really exciting to see on the ground.

Eric: So I guess my question is, given all the economic benefits we've already described that accrue with clean energy, is that something we are using or can use to gain that buy-in for training? In other words, people are maybe not ready to trust youth with some of these jobs or invest in youth. Is the possible return on investment that we're talking about a way to incentivize investments in youth that private sector might otherwise be reluctant to make?

Lindsay: Absolutely. So I think where I talked about the critical economic and financial analysis that Abt does through its programs globally, I think that's a really important piece to provide the private sector with policy makers, whether it's at the local subnational or national levels, really to be able to understand how investments in clean energy not only drive these benefits to greenhouse gas emissions and costs, but are also improving economic opportunities and livelihoods for targeted populations.

And you can really design programs. As Nicole mentioned, our evaluations with the U.S. Department of Labor have very targeted skillsets to understand where the returns are. And again, those are both monetary and non-monetary benefits, and I think having that information is so critical to understanding the full scope of the picture and to really drive more private capital into workforce development and green jobs, particularly those engaging youth and women and other marginalized populations.

Eric: Nicole? Yeah, please go ahead and chime in.

Nicole: I just wanted to add on to what Lindsay was saying and bring up the data piece because, in this industry, we're starting to see more data and that can really be helpful in our targeting and understanding who is benefiting from these investments and from these programs. And I think that's really going to help that targeting going forward. And that's something, as Lindsay said, that Abt--being so evidence-based and analytical in our work--is really, I think, driving that forward.

Eric: And so presumably engaging youth is its own kind of renewable energy. An increase in youth participation could drive support for a net zero world, right?

Nicole: Yeah, indeed, Eric. Survey after survey shows that youth worldwide, and especially in small island or developing states that have been most impacted by climate change, have an eco anxiety and rank it among the most important challenges facing their communities and affecting their lives. But, really at the same time, yes, for sure there are economic, environmental, health, and social dividends to increase youth engagement in the transition to net zero. We are seeing young people leading climate action, making real positive change, bringing their talent, their innovation, their enthusiasm to the cause, and inspiring and contributing to more inclusive development.

In fact, expanded youth engagement could also help crowd in much needed private capital and finance, catalyzing a virtuous cycle of investment and income. Another really interesting aspect to this question, I think, is that we see that today's youth are increasingly impact driven and climate conscious consumers whose socially responsible spending is becoming highly influential on corporate and market revenues and their behaviors, going back to your earlier question about how does this incentivizes private sector to invest in young people. And just more generally, the more young people have climate and sustainability literacy, the more they can apply this knowledge to any job or to any aspect of their lives and help create greener, healthier economies and act as what we might think of as green intrapreneurs for organizational or community change. So it's a really exciting time.

Lindsay: I couldn't agree more, Nicole, and I think it was so exciting this past November at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to see an elevation of youth voices. Typically at these COPs we see negotiators, we see governments, we see the NGO community, and I think, increasingly, we're seeing youth delegates be able to join as observers and gain access to the high level representatives and really inform and accelerate action around climate change.

And while youth are disproportionately affected by climate change and often a climate that they didn't create, they're also an incredible brain trust for finding solutions and driving action. I think critical to seeing that is proactive education and equipping youth with the knowledge and skills to not just overcome climate impacts and build resilience, but also harness the economic opportunities of an expanding green economy. And that's going to be critical for us being able to meet our collective long-term climate goals. Abt is doing a lot of this work through some of our existing programs, including a USAID-funded energy governance program in Mongolia where we're designing outreach and education programs that are targeting youth, women, and other disadvantaged groups to build skills for green jobs and to really mobilize the next generation of leaders.

Abt is also working to integrate climate across our global programming. So when we think about green jobs, we often think about just things related to climate change and clean energy, but it's really so much more than that. From better addressing the spread of vector-borne disease, which is impacted by changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, to strengthening education programming. These are the interventions that will significantly benefit youth in the near and long terms. For instance, in the education sector, when we partner with ministries of education to integrate climate themes into primary, basic, higher education and youth workforce development curriculums, and we support youth through technical and vocational education in partnership with the private sector to build skills for green jobs, we're also engaging communities to drive solutions from the ground up and to build the capacity of local communities, really, to not only benefit from that climate action, but to be stronger stewards of it.

I think localization is a key piece of Abt's approach in engaging with youth, women, marginalized and disadvantaged populations. And that's because this approach really elevates these voices as engines for equitable and inclusive social impact, ultimately moving people and the planet from vulnerability and into security. And I think the most important thing about all of these actions is that they create virtuous cycles that not only sustain, but also grow climate friendly economic opportunities that benefit youth but also generations to come.

Eric: Wow. Well, you just managed to invoke Abt's mission, which I think tells us we have wrapped this up in a nice bow. It's great that there are so many dots that we're able to connect in your respective work. Thank you both for joining me and sort of illustrating how we can do that together.

Lindsay: It was such a pleasure. Thanks, Eric, and thanks, Nicole.

Nicole: Thanks to you both. I'm really glad we're able to have this conversation on clean energy and how it can help power positive youth development.

Eric: And thank you for joining us at The Intersect.

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