Could cutting carbon emissions create good jobs in San Diego County?

Switching San Diego off fossil fuels onto green energy will require careful efforts to preserve and create high quality jobs, experts told the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Wednesday.

The county’s decarbonization framework to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions before mid-century will involve creating a workforce plan to make sure skilled employees are ready to work on those projects and training is available for well-paid, long-term jobs, officials said.

“We all have a motivation around the noble goal of trying to save the planet and decarbonization, but in the process of saving the planet we can’t destroy the middle class,” said Board Chair Nathan Fletcher. “We have both environmental justice and economic justice issues.”

Carol Zabin, a labor economist with the UC Berkely Labor Center’s Green Economy Program, presented a report prepared by the consulting group Inclusive Economics which described steps to building pathways for green energy, transportation and construction jobs in San Diego.

Most positions in energy and transportation sectors are blue-collar, trade and construction jobs, said Murtaza Baxamusa, the county’s program manager for regional sustainability and climate action. Those positions range in pay from $62,000 per year for positions such as truck drivers to an average of $181,000 for jobs in fossil fuel operations, such as welders, electricians and pipe layers.

New jobs in alternative energy, transportation and green building construction won’t automatically provide good pay and benefits though, Zabin warned.

“Our economy produces many, many low-wage jobs,” Zabin said. “Unless we are intentional that will simply repeat itself. Most jobs that contribute to greenhouse emissions reductions are blue-color jobs, often in construction, because of new infrastructure. They’re not always good jobs.”

To ensure that the region creates high quality positions in its campaign to cut carbon emissions, San Diego should focus on “high road jobs,” she said. Those are defined as positions that offer family-supporting wages and benefits, high health and safety standards, long-term career pathways and worker protections, including the right to organize.

The framework should establish training and apprenticeship programs to prepare workers with broad occupational skills and avoid creating niche “green jobs” that involve limited skills sets, she said. It also needs to support projects that will employ those workers for the long run, she said.

“Training is important but not sufficient,” she said. “You have to create the demand for the workforce.”

Gordon McCord, an associate dean at the UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy who is coordinating analysis and research for the decarbonization framework, described several strategies for achieving net zero emissions, defined as a state in which the amount of carbon emissions that people create equals the amount that we capture from the atmosphere.

Developing utility-scale solar facilities could meet the region’s energy needs economically, but that would generate a large land-use footprint that could impair other priorities, such as conservation, agriculture and preserving ecosystems that naturally sequester carbon, he said.

By contrast, expanding rooftop solar and community-level infill solar projects, such as those on government buildings, schools or businesses, would have far less impact on land use. But they would be more expensive and provide only about 35 percent of the region’s energy needs, McCord said.

A blended approach of combining small-scale solar along with carefully sited solar farms could avoid disturbing undeveloped land while providing for the region’s energy needs, but that would be the most expensive of the three options, he said.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said she hopes to see the county and other agencies maximize development of infill solar, by adding solar arrays to public buildings. That could reduce fossil fuel use while building labor markets for green energy workers, she said.

“There’s a role for us to play as a government in creating a market for those good jobs,” Lawson-Remer said. “We can’t just do training, we have to have standards and expectations on our side as a consumer.”

The county expects to approve a final version of its decarbonization framework in August. In the coming months it will hold community meetings and workshops on portions of the plan and confer with experts, industry and labor groups and other agencies.

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