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China’s renewable energy boom powers global job surge, report says

Investment in renewables in Asia reached US$345 billion at the end of 2022.

The global energy sector is witnessing a surge in job opportunities fueled by clean technologies, with China contributing over half of this growth, a Paris-based energy watchdog said, while warning that skill shortages are emerging as an increasing concern.

Energy-related jobs reached a total of 67 million in 2022 worldwide, marking a growth of 3.5 million compared to levels before the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its latest “World Energy Employment” report released on Wednesday.

From 2019 to 2022, employment growth was primarily driven by five sectors, with solar PV employing the most at 4 million jobs, while electric vehicles and batteries experienced the fastest growth – over a million jobs since 2019.

This graphic shows change in energy employment by sector and region, 2019-2022. Credit: IEA

The IEA report comes as another report, “State of Climate Action 2023,” said this week that the world was off track in 41 of 42 critical measurements to reach the 2030 climate target, with only electric vehicle passenger car sales on the right path. 

Six indicators, including phasing out public financing for fossil fuels, were heading in the wrong direction entirely, according to the report by the World Resources Institute, and others.

China boasts the world’s largest energy workforce, the IEA said in its report, with over 19 million employees - or 28% of the global workforce - in 2022. Its clean energy sector constitutes about 60% of the nation’s total energy workforce, a ten percentage-point increase since 2019. 

The world’s top carbon emitter witnessed a significant growth of 2 million jobs in the clean energy sector and a notable decline of 600,000 jobs in fossil fuel-related industries, primarily within the coal sector, between 2019 and 2022, the IEA said.

China’s clean energy manufacturing industries support about 3 million employees, representing 80% of the global workforce in manufacturing solar photovoltaic panels and electric vehicle batteries.

In 2022, global solar PV manufacturing capacity expanded by nearly 40%, with most of this growth happening in China.

Meanwhile, global wind power generation and hydropower employment surpassed 1.5 and 2 million respectively. The majority of the jobs are in Asia, especially China.

Asia leads the global race in renewables

Another report released on Thursday said renewable energy investment in Asia is growing at 23%, primarily due to China, amounting to US$345 billion allocated to wind, solar, and clean vehicles by the end of 2022.

The Asian region now contributes a substantial 52.5% to global energy capacity in 2022, attributed mainly to the significant efforts of China, India, and Vietnam, according to the analysis by Zero Carbon Analytics, an international energy research organization.

However, on a global scale, Asia is also responsible for 51% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to India and China’s extensive coal-powered energy infrastructure. 

“China is racing ahead in the shift to clean energy, this is no small feat for the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses,” said Li Shuo, incoming director for China climate hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

This aerial photo taken on Sep. 19, 2023 shows a solar photovoltaic power project under construction in Zhangye, in China's northwestern Gansu province. Credit AFP

Meanwhile, energy think tank Ember said Thursday that Vietnam drove ASEAN’s 43% per annum solar and wind generation growth from 2015 to 2022.

In 2022, growth slowed to just 15%, highlighting the need for more robust policies to sustain energy transition, said the report “Beyond Tripling: Keeping ASEAN’s solar and wind momentum,” published Thursday by the London-based energy research organization. 

Vietnam accounted for 69% of ASEAN’s solar and wind generation by 2022. It was the main driver of the region’s growth and its recent slowdown was due to a new tariff scheme. 

ASEAN’s solar capacity reached 26.6 gigawatts (GW) in 2022, while its wind capacity reached 6.8 GW. However, these figures represent less than 1% of the region’s enormous solar and wind potential, which exceeds 30,000 GW and 1,300 GW, respectively. 

ASEAN projections indicate that in 2040, solar energy is expected to add 45 GW of capacity, while wind capacity will reach approximately 9 GW. This combined capacity will account for 15% of ASEAN’s electricity generation by 2040.

Skilled labor shortages could impede expansion

A survey of 160 global energy firms by the IEA showed a problem of labor shortages, especially for skilled workers in the energy sector, due to a higher demand for jobs than the number of people with the necessary qualifications, particularly affecting vocational workers and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematical) professionals.

Meanwhile, the IEA also said Chinese factories are facing challenges in finding suitable candidates to fill positions due to a shrinking working population and a preference among new entrants in the workforce for white-collar roles rather than trades or factory jobs. 

Around 30% of all energy manufacturing positions in 2022 were located in China. By 2025, the country could potentially encounter a shortage of approximately 30 million workers for manufacturing jobs, according to a Chinese government estimate. 

“The unprecedented acceleration that we have seen in clean energy transitions is creating millions of new job opportunities all over the world – but these are not being filled quickly enough,” said the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol. 

More than a third of global energy workers hold high-skilled positions, in contrast to about 27% in the broader economy. 

The IEA said fossil fuel companies are retraining employees for low-emissions roles to retain talent, but this may not work universally, especially in the coal sector with declining employment due to mechanization, highlighting the need for policymakers to prioritize a people-centered, equitable transition and invest in job training for the ongoing shift towards clean energy.

Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA.

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