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How AI can create green jobs

Automation will lead to a “re-shifting” of roles in the move to clean energy, says Philippa Nuttall Jones, editor in chief of Energy Monitor

By Philippa Nuttall

Certain regions, particularly those with a heavy reliance on one industry such as coal mining, will see job losses in the move away from fossil fuels. But overall employment figures related to the green transition are bullish. The move to clean energy will mean a net gain in jobs globally of 18 million by 2030, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN agency. The Abu Dhabi-headquartered International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that as many as 42 million jobs will be created in the renewables sector by 2050.

Digitisation, and indeed automation, will be an important enabler of this shift. When it comes to concerns that an increased role for artificial intelligence (AI) will mean fewer opportunities for human brains, most experts are sceptical. 

Rather than putting predictions of job creation at risk, “digitalisation can be a net job creator, including in the context of rapid technological change towards a zero-emission economy”, says Marta Wieczorek, spokesperson for economic affairs, jobs and social rights at the European Commission. 

AI is already used to produce parts of solar panels and wind turbines, and is expected to play an increasing role in managing the production, transmission and consumption of variable renewable energy in electricity grids. Engineers are also exploring how AI can help repair offshore wind turbines, or how it can work with drones to inspect power facilities and identify potential faults.

Ensuring AI helps solve the “complex problems of climate change and does not leave humans without employment, while producing positive social gains, means having the right policy frameworks”, says Camilla Roman, policy specialist at the ILO.

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“We also need large investment in retraining and re-skilling workers,” she adds. Data on skills gaps globally is scarce, admits Roman, but the information available suggests these gaps are “widespread, especially in less developed countries”. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills are especially lacking, she says, and these voids could “act as a constraint to sustainability”.

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Many issues relating to AI, jobs and the green transition are “being ignored or not reflected properly”, says her colleague Ekkehard Ernst, chief macroeconomist at the ILO. “Governments are aware lots more skills are needed. This does not mean everyone has to be an engineer, but people need basic digital skills.” If countries don’t invest in these skills, “the private sector may simply move production to where these skills exist, and this could slow the energy transition in some regions”, he warns.

Economists disagree about how many jobs will be displaced by AI and whether work that will be automated will be replaced by new or alternative work, says Devashree Saha, senior associate at the World Resource Institute, a US-based think tank. She believes that rather than net job losses there will be a “re-shifting of jobs”. In the energy industry, AI will generate more roles for humans and machines, says Saha, with AI leaving space for “human creativity and judgement, and machines doing routine, iterative tasks and jobs where they outperform humans such as in predictive analytics”. She also envisages hybrid roles, where humans and machines “augment each other’s capabilities”.

Saha recognises AI, like the energy transition, will cause “significant job displacement in certain sectors, geographies and even socio-economic groups, raising concerns about exacerbating existing inequalities”. Ultimately, though, she is confident “that AI is likely to create more jobs than it destroys”. 

This article first appeared in the Spotlight supplement on AI and automation. Click here to download the report.