Climate change meets labor productivity

A crucial need in building and deploying climate solutions

In his book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates puts forth a playbook for a new wave of climate tech funds, investors, and individuals. Through a technocratic worldview, Gates lays out very large concepts of what we “need” to do. His suggestions? Decarbonize buildings, transportation, heavy industry, agriculture, etc. The list goes on. 

Broad decarbonization is crucially important for hitting our climate targets. We need both new and better technological solutions, and we also need to concurrently deploy what already works at a massive – trillions of dollars – scale. However, there is one critical element still missing from the popular conversation: labor. 

If you need to build it, they will have to come

Decarbonization (and avoiding a climate disaster)  means an exponential increase in manufacturing. Everything from wind turbines, batteries, solar panels, and EVs will need to be manufactured. And from there, they will still need to be properly installed.

Unfortunately, there is a massive workforce mismatch between the labor force we currently have available, its projected growth, and what is actually necessary to meet this demand. This labor force is not currently available in the U.S. or the E.U. and has been an oft-cited advantage that China has. Though even China is starting to wrestle with its own labor shortages, and this will be magnified by the demographic consequences of its one-child policy.

The ongoing global push to reshore manufacturing and stop relying on China for these things makes one thing glaringly obvious: we simply do not have the manpower available to keep up with the projected demand for job openings for this level of manufacturing, much less the additional laborers needed to install these renewables. 

The powers that be

Currently, there are some truly outstanding efforts focused on developing the workforce by retraining from other industries and sectors. One such effort, Solar Ready Vets, is a great example of this. As described on their website, Solar Ready Vets is “a program that connects transitioning military service members and veterans with career opportunities in the solar industry.” We need to support these and other efforts to train and equip a new workforce ready to tackle the challenges of electrification and decarbonization. However, it turns out some of the actual jobs may not be all they are cracked up to be.

Still, the demand needed to fill job openings isn’t going to be met by taking one labor force and redirecting it to another. At the end of the day, further automation will be needed for deploying renewables at the global scale we are targeting. We are on the cusp of a climate change and labor shortage nexus—and we’re already endemic in a number of sectors that are being continually exacerbated by demographic trends.

Innovate me to your leader

It’s a serious culmination of ongoing issues, all made even worse by other ongoing problems: a disrupted supply chain, instability in China, re-shoring efforts, and more only further complicate things. Even still, we can more magically “robotocize” production and just “do it that way.” 


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Consider solar for a moment. Many analysts appear to be working under the assumption that the labor costs are fixed—or worse, that they decrease when looking at projected real wage growth.  (Um, hello inflation!) 

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In the example above, we’re only looking at installation labor in this example, not manufacturing. This means we would need to fill 1 million jobs by 2030 for solar in the U.S. alone. None of these numbers are accounting for the manufacturing or transportation of these renewables. 

When we consider our options for filling these roles, we need to be honest with ourselves. There is no magically timed baby boom that will increase populations and our opportunity to fill these roles. There is only automation. 

Automation is coming for these job openings. The idea that Robots are coming to take jobs away from humans is outdated and untrue. Instead, automation is the only way we can improve the productivity of our existing workforce and effectively meet the labor force demands needed for deploying renewables, building massive amounts of low-carbon infrastructure, and tackling climate change. 

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