Climate neutrality in 2050 is difficult to achieve due to staff shortages

Climate neutrality, the net-zero sum of carbon emissions released to the atmosphere, needs to be urgently implemented to avoid a climate collapse. According to the Paris Agreement, atmospheric emissions must be limited to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels by 2050. However, there are operative and logistical obstacles in the transition towards that target, and one of them is limitations in the human workforce, at least in the construction and built environment sector. In this regard, the Economic Institute for Construction (EIB) released a study in May arguing that ‘the objective of being climate neutral by 2050 is not realistically achievable for the built environment in the Netherlands’.

The EIB, a research agency for applied economic analysis related to construction and built environment, is quite direct regarding the 2050 climate neutrality target: ‘There is simply no credible path for labour capacity that would lead to this.’The study says that, while the objective could be financially achievable with an investment of €375 billion, the actual problem lies in the amount of labour available, or rather unavailable, to achieve the immense necessary changes to the built environment. In the Netherlands, for example, 7 million houses and 480 million square kilometers of office, schools and building space still need to transition from natural gas to cleaner types of energy.

Right now, there are 60,000 full-time workers in the Netherlands dedicated to the sustainability transition of the built environment. Although this seems a large amount, the EIB estimates that in order to achieve neutrality climate goals by 2050, that number should rise to 150,000 in the coming years. Where that amount of human power would come from is not yet clear, especially when considering that the number of students in technical subjects is decreasing rather than increasing. According newspaper Het Parool, there are currently 75,000 vacancies in technical jobs in the country, as well as 28,000 in construction. Foreign workers in these sectors may fill some of these positions, but the study states that they will be equally required in all parts of Europe, thus making the competition harder to attract them.

This problem is not new, and the effects are already being felt in the Netherlands. Already in 2023, knowledge centre warned that infrastructure plans in the country were not carried out due partly to personnel shortages. At the time, 39 percent of job vacancies related to the energy transition were unfilled. The staff shortage in the energy transition sector is thus considered much greater than in the general labour market.

The EIB report offers a contrary view to a study published by the Dutch Environmental Planning Agency (DPL) in April, which more optimistically estimated that climate neutrality by 2050 is indeed possible with a “not either-or, but both-and” mentality, meaning that all resources and methods should simultaneously be used to achieve the objectives, including a policy acceleration and measures to achieve negative emissions from CO2 capture and storage. However, as the EIB report points out, the DPL study only took into account technological and geophysical feasibility, but not socioeconomic factors, including labour availability. Energy transition work such as insulation, roofing, electrification, heating, charging stations, plumbing and gas, and civil and hydraulic engineering, among others, need human workers that are simply not available enough at the moment.

Therefore, there is a complicated tension between the 2050 climate targets, and the urgency they necessarily demand, and what is achievable in terms of human labour availability. While the Netherlands had already reduced emissions by 30 percent in 2022, and by 40 percent specifically in the built environment sector, climate neutrality by 2050 still seems a rather difficult target, if not unachievable, according to the EIB. This naturally extends to Europe’s ambitions to be 90 percent climate-neutral by 2040. Instead, the EIB deems 2060 a much more realistic goal for climate neutrality. Even in this longer scenario, intensive resources, policy, technology and human power need to be devoted to the task. For the latter, a young and immigrant workforce will be crucial, and so will be a sizable portion of students and workers willing to start or transition to a career in technology and technical knowledge.

Written by Juan Álvarez Umbarila