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Geo-targeting could be the answer to a greener America

December 14, 2023
By: Jonathan Dillon

Countries participating in the COP28 climate summit agreed this week to call for "transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems…”  Earlier this year, researchers at Nature Communications said a full transition from fossil fuels could displace 1.7 million fossil fuel workers in the United States and an even greater number on the global scale.

In anticipation, employees, unions, and policymakers are seeking a “Just Transition” in which fossil fuel workers receive public support to find new lines of work. Researchers Junghyun Lim, Michaël Aklin and Morgan R. Frank ask whether fossil fuel workers need re-skilling to perform green jobs in America. The authors compare the skill requirements of fossil fuel occupations to the occupations in other industries using Jaccard similarity, a statistic used for gauging the similarity and diversity of sample sets. They found that fossil fuel workers do indeed have significantly more skill similarity to green industry occupations than they would to other industries, as shown in Figure 1.

A graph and a document

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Figure 1: Chart A compares the skills of fossil fuel workers and Chart B shows a numerical depiction of the likelihood of fossil fuel workers transitioning. (Used with permission from the authors.)

From these results, the experimenters found that of the country’s total number of fossil fuel workers, the vast majority of extraction workers (98.97%) would not transition to green jobs. In an idealized scenario where all the green jobs share the same location or facility as fossil fuel jobs, their model predicted that 13.7% of extraction workers would transition. In another idealized scenario where fossil fuel workers match green occupations’ skills exactly, and all else being equal, their model predicted that 5.51% of extraction workers would transition to green jobs. Based on these results, the researchers claimed that while both skill similarity and spatial distance from a facility play important roles, geospatial distance is the main barrier keeping fossil fuel workers from their transitions.

The authors also found that the percentage of fossil fuel workers who would transition to green jobs is greater in regions where there is existing fossil fuel employment. For example, if 1 million new green jobs were created and dispersed across regions in proportion to the amount of their existing fossil fuel employment, higher transition rates to green jobs would occur. In contrast, if 5 million new jobs were distributed across regions in proportion to total general employment, there would be a lower transition to green jobs.

The authors hypothesized that the low mobility among fossil fuel workers will have important implications for future policy design. For a comparable number of new jobs, geo-targeted interventions would create more mobility to green jobs, thus lessening the low mobility among fossil fuel workers.

They also noted the assumptions being made in this experiment, which could alter policy implications. They assume that all of today’s fossil fuel workers will want to transition to green jobs. However, they note that additional social barriers to transitioning may exist, including preferences, identity, culture, and economic outlook.

Workers from other outside fields may take an interest in green jobs and compete with fossil fuel workers to fill the industry. Additionally, the authors were looking at a subgroup of the extraction industry, but other workers in the fossil fuel sector, engineers, and lawyers, would also need to find new jobs. Beyond that, unknown occupations may emerge as the green industry grows. With these limitations in mind, the researchers’ results are meant to represent a best-case scenario for fossil fuel workers even though additional barriers exist to a Just Transition.


climate change, clean energy