General Motors and Biden Administration’s Climate Initiatives Signal a Need for Conversations About Diversity in Green Jobs

General Motors (No. 30 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020) topped headlines this week with its promise to be carbon neutral by 2040. Its groundbreaking commitments include making 40% of vehicles produced by the company carbon neutral by 2025 and the elimination of gas-powered, light-duty vehicle production by 2035. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden signed a slew of executive orders to tackle the climate crisis both at home and in foreign relations.

Over the past few years, a large number of companies have announced goals to become carbon neutral, meaning they plan to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as they produce. Johnson & Johnson (a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Hall of Fame company), Target (No. 13 in 2020 as well a a Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top Company for ESG) and Microsoft are among the top corporate promoters of the concept. But, despite what corporate advertising and communications might suggest, carbon neutrality is not singlehandedly going to solve the climate crisis. The work of saving the planet is multidimensional and requires a broad change in how we view jobs, the economy and our connection to the Earth. What these business and government moves do suggest is a readiness to enter conversations about green energy and how to successfully shift our energy model.

Clean Energy and the Job Market

The argument that clean energy will take jobs away is largely a fossil fuel company fallacy. As far back as 2018, renewable energy jobs already outnumbered fossil fuel jobs 3-to-1.

Biden’s executive actions were framed as job growth plans as well, citing the large number of green jobs that will become available and acknowledging the need to aid coal, oil and gas workers in the transition.

“We’re going to make sure that nobody is left behind,” the White House National climate advisor Gina McCarthy told reporters on Jan. 27. “We need to put people to work in their own communities. That’s where their home is. That’s where the vision is. So, we are creatively looking at those opportunities for investment, so that we can get people understanding that we are not trying to take away jobs.”

Who these jobs already include — and should include — prompts discussions about the importance of diversity and inclusion in this growing sector.

A 2019 Brookings Institute report outlined the prospect of advancing inclusion through clean energy jobs. As of now, the sector is not diverse. Occupations within it are mainly older, whiter and more male than other occupations nationally. According to the report, fewer than 20% of clean energy production and energy efficiency jobs available in these sectors are filled by women, and Black workers fill less than 10% of those positions. There is a definite need to grow inclusion in renewable energy fields.

Luckily, there’s also some very promising potential for growth in these areas. For starters, workers in clean energy tend to earn higher wages on average compared to workers in other occupations. Hourly wages exceeded national averages by up to 19%, according to the report. Those at lower ends of the income spectrum are still earning up to $5–$10 more hourly than other jobs. Even higher paying jobs within the sector tend to have lower educational requirements, which might increase the accessibility of these jobs. Within clean energy production and energy efficiency sectors, the report found that roughly 50% of workers have just a high school diploma, but still earn higher wages than those in other industries with the same education level.

Filling these positions, however, may also require systemic change — especially since women are often underrepresented in STEM fields, which are prominent throughout the clean energy sector. In January 2019, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published its first report on gender diversity. Out of the small number of women working in renewable energy, the majority did not work in STEM-related fields.

Promoting diversity and inclusion within these areas, the Brookings report suggests, will likely require improving education and training in renewable energy and increasing initiatives designed to reach underrepresented workers and students within the sector.

“The key will be seeing clean energy as more than just a way to combat a scientific phenomenon, but also an economic opportunity, and one that can benefit the labor market by promoting economic inclusion,” the Brookings report said.

In addition to potentially increasing wages and employment for diverse populations, the shift toward green energy will likely have other broad benefits for diversity, inclusion and social justice as well. Communities most heavily impacted by climate change tend to be predominantly low-income Black, Indigenous and Latinx people of color. Meaning, the fight to stop climate change is not just a scientific or sustainability issue — it’s a human rights issue as well.

Although the green energy sector has a long way to go in terms of diversity, the recent push to address climate issues by businesses and the Biden administration suggest the conversation will soon be forced to the forefront as more green jobs are created.