By David Crane
Co-Chair, Net-Zero by 2050 Working Group
Generating the vast quantities of electricity needed to power our lifestyle is not easy work. Occasionally dangerous, often dirty and always hard, the work done by the men and women who operate power plants goes underappreciated by those who benefit from it, which is everyone. After interacting with these professionals for many years, I developed profound respect and keen sense of gratitude for what they did.
Early in my tenure at NRG, we ordered a large number of coal-carrying rail cars to ensure adequate transport of the fuel, the lifeblood of our power plants. To honour our people, we stenciled on the side of each rail car the name of one of our coal handlers. It was then, as the first new rail car rolled off the assembly line, that I met Bob Adams, our most senior coal handler with 37 years at the company.
As Bob stood on the podium next to me, watching his name being unveiled, he told me how very proud he was to have his life’s work recognised. He went on to mention, choking up a bit, that his only regret was that his father was not alive to share in the moment. Bob’s father, it turns out, had handled coal at the same plant for 30 years before. Handling coal was what the Adams family did for a living.
I would never forget that moment with Bob. Often, as I sat comfortably at my desk knowing that yet another snowstorm was blanketing Western New York where Bob worked, I would think of him and his colleagues persevering to keep their neighbors warm and safe.
Bob was well into his career when global warming became a prominent issue and coal plants were identified as the primary culprit. Never did I hear our coal workers deny climate change, minimize or mock the impact their plants were having on the environment. They knew that our society would not tolerate even a few minutes without electricity and that is what they were tasked with providing, using the best technology provided to them.
As renewable power scaled and beame cost competitive, our coal plant workforce supported the company’s attempt to transform into a clean energy powerhouse. It was clear that they appreciated our efforts to ensure they had access to the new jobs this transformation brought. Today, Bob’s coal plant is fully closed, but many of its operators are gainfully employed at a solar thermal plant in California.
While a net-zero future is both necessary and inevitable, what is also necessary but not inevitable is that this shift benefits all of our planet’s people. We need to ensure that the transition to the clean energy economy does not leave these workers, and their communities, behind. We need a just transition.
A key requirement of the Paris Agreement, a just transition helps build a clean energy future where no one is left behind. Jobs are healthy, well-paying and “green”. And energy poverty is eliminated, providing access to all. As we strive to reach the Paris goals, we cannot forget about the humans affected. The energy sector, in most countries, is dominated by the private sector. So it is business, not just government, that has a key role to play in ensuring a just transition.
As co-chair of The B Team’s Net-Zero by 2050 Working Group, I’m dedicated to working with companies to realise and fulfill this role. We’re partnering with the Just Transition Centre to provide the know-how. Our recently released Just Transition: A Business Guide, provides companies with tactics and tools to engage with their workers, local communities, unions and governments around facilitating a just transition.
Many companies are already stepping up. Enel, the world’s most valuable power company has included protections for its employees as part of its Net-Zero by 2050 commitment. In both its Global Framework Agreement with worldwide unions and just transition agreement with Italian unions, Enel has established apprenticeships, internal mobility and training, a commitment to retention, retraining and redeployment, early pension for older workers and more.
Companies like Enel benefit from enlightened management that recognize that a just transition is good business. It mitigates risks, increases revenue, attracts and retains talent, enhances reputational value and reinforces core values. But enlightened management needs to be backed up by informed boards.
Increasingly, corporate directors are coming to terms with the risks and opportunities climate change poses to their business. But they need to include impacts on employees and communities within their climate risk assessment as well. It’s an integral part of becoming a climate competent board of directors.
The B Team and Ceres’ Getting Climate Smart: A primer for corporate directors in a changing environment can help facilitate these considerations. This primer arms directors with the knowledge and tools to understand why climate change should be on their agenda and how they can manage the challenges associated with the shift toward a clean energy future. As part of their fiduciary duty, corporate directors need to consider climate impacts on their employees.
In September, innovators from state and local governments, businesses, communities and more will meet at the Global Climate Action Summit to demonstrate and develop the solutions needed to build a thriving net-zero world. Through these critical discussions and more, business needs to be more than a receptive follower—it needs to be an active leader. This is our time. This is our issue.