How to find a sustainable job

The theme of sustainability continues to find its way into everyday life – and has recently become a fundamental aspect of work as well. The trick is to find the most sustainable of the new sustainability jobs

Home Life People work How to find a sustainable job

How do you feel about a future as an urban farmer? Using the neglected land that is always to be found in great cities, turning abandoned industrial sites or even landfills and rooftops into sustainable micro-farms that produce the fresh food that the community demands? Plenty of people are doing it. Or better still, run a vertical urban farm – something like a skyscraper with tens of floors of growing space, using low-cost renewable power to provide light? It may still be a pipe dream, but one that many people think could soon be a reality.

The fact is that sustainability-related jobs already represent the fastest growing employment sectors in developed economies, according to the US Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). And the International Labour Organization reports that many more new jobs could be created between now and 2030 by the transition to a sustainable global economy – up to 24 million if policies are put in place to limit global warming to 2°C by the end of the century, along with moves to embrace a circular economy that consumes fewer raw materials and generates less waste.

Multiple options

Which of these jobs will be about more than just working the same old way in re-branded industries? The answer is, quite a few of them.

One obvious case is the growing market for jobs in corporate sustainability – the huge push that all significant companies are now making to understand their level of sustainability, change it for the better and communicate the fact. These may look like routine corporate jobs, but the mindset is very different from the past. Sustainability officers have to stand back from their businesses, analyse their real environmental impact and plan for change. It's not just about doing business, but re-thinking it.
There are also new kinds of roles, jobs that did not exist in the past. Perhaps you would like to be a renewable energy engineer, installing the wind and solar power networks that are taking over many economies. Or designing things like wind turbine blades – you may have noticed how turbines have grown much bigger over the past 10 years, as new material technologies have allowed longer and lighter blades.

The new economics

This is a job that you were highly unlikely to be doing 10 years ago for the very simple reason that the economics were not there. Today that has changed as renewable power sources are fast becoming the cheapest form of electricity. Since 2010 the cost of solar panels has fallen by more than 80 per cent, the total cost of solar power generation has fallen by more than 40 per cent and the cost of wind power has fallen by between 29 and 40 per cent.

With these renewables already cheaper to run than at least half the world's coal-fired power plants, the jobs that come with them will continue to multiply. According to the EDF there are almost a million jobs in renewable energy in the US alone and the sector is growing 12 times faster than the rest of the economy.

There is also another part of the green job market which is in the downstream segment of energy. This is about making the way we use energy more efficient, often by redesigning systems in existing production plants or buildings. This may mean adding new technology in the form of building management systems or designing and deploying more carbon-efficient materials.

Growing sectors

For example, take the ordinary-looking work of managing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning in buildings – the so-called HVAC business. Sounds routine, but it's not. Over the past few years the industry has been transformed by new low-power and long-range communication devices that use internet protocols and networks to create intelligent building management systems, cutting energy use and reducing costs. No wonder that, in terms of employment, energy efficiency is already more than double the size of the renewables sector.

Electric mobility is another growing employer, whether through making carbon-zero vehicles or improving the technology and building the associated infrastructure. This is still far from the biggest part of the sustainable job market because mass adoption of electric vehicles remains some way off, but those electric mobility jobs will also multiply. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, electric vehicles will represent almost 60 per cent of new passenger vehicle sales by 2040. That translates into a lot of jobs over the next 20 years – jobs in self-driving or ‘driver assistance' software, alternative materials development, and in the furiously competitive new battery industry.

Sustainable jobs

Many believe these sustainability-promoting roles are the jobs of the future, not least because direct investment in sustainability has a high job creation rate. There are typically eight jobs created per $1 million of investment in renewable energy, for example, compared with just three jobs in fossil fuels. The lesson seems to be that jobs in sustainability are themselves sustainable jobs.

Or you could go back to where we started, with urban farming. After all, if you want to work in a growing sector, it's an obvious choice.