Urban Dynamics

Low carbon skills inhibiting smart city development: a chicken and egg situation?

Published on 17th Sep 2022

To meet its carbon emissions targets, the UK needs to do more to decarbonise its cities – and this requires a workforce with appropriate skills

Close up of people in a meeting, hands holding pens and going over papers

What comes first, the skilled professionals or the jobs that require them? A recent UK government report stated that the UK is not doing enough to decarbonise the built environment, and the green skills shortage is a key factor hampering progress. Usually, skills are market-led, but to meet carbon reduction goals both the supply and demand of skilled professionals needs to be quickly stimulated.

Research has shown that more than 60% of carbon emissions in cities comes from buildings. In order to make low carbon smart cities a reality, the necessary skills base needs to be developed. 

Tackling carbon emissions from cities

The UK Parliament's Environment Audit Committee reported in May 2022 that a quarter of UK carbon emissions comes from the built environment. The UK Green Building Council has stated that although in the last two decades UK emissions from the built environment have reduced around 30%, this is largely due to a shift to sustainable power sources, rather than cities becoming more energy efficient. (For more on this, please see our Insight.) 

Smart cities represent a positive way forward, with buildings either retrofitted or designed with energy efficiency and carbon reduction as a top priority. In a smart city, data is used to optimise everything from transport to sewage services, for example providing integrated transport platforms, monitoring air quality, pricing energy according to demand and using digital tools to help individuals manage their health. The goal is to create cities that produce less carbon and are healthier places to live and work.

This transformation will require skilled workers to design, create, deploy and maintain systems and apps for almost every element of life in a city. It will require workers with skills in areas such as ICT, engineering, design and low carbon services.

Lack of skilled workers 

The independent thinktank Green Alliance has estimated that the UK requires 300,000 more skilled workers to meet the UK’s net zero target of zero carbon emissions by 2050. This will be challenging to achieve, not least because many workers are approaching retirement age and will withdraw from the workforce in the next few decades – it estimates that 750,000 UK construction workers are due to retire or be on the cusp of retirement by 2035. 

A recent survey of UK industry professionals found that 91% believe the commercial built environment sector lacks sufficient skilled workers to achieve carbon reduction targets, with 87% saying there is a growing "green skills" gap in the commercial built environment. 

There are initiatives to help address the need for skilled individuals. The Green Jobs Taskforce was launched in late 2020 to identify ways of boosting low-carbon skills in the UK. A central part of the challenge is ensuring that people who are currently active in particular industries can adapt and develop to ensure they can access opportunities.

Local initiatives are also helping to meet skills gaps. London’s Skills for a Sustainable Skyline Taskforce is looking at how skills gaps can be filled to help deliver low carbon commercial buildings, with findings implemented in other cities around the UK. 

What can employers do to prepare for a greener future?

Organisations need to be forward-thinking and strategic in how they approach green skills and green jobs

With particular professionals high in demand, organisations will want to ensure they have an attractive offer to recruit new staff. As well as remuneration, they may wish to include green benefits and incentives such as an attractive workplace, opportunities for progression, cycle-to-work schemes, e-vehicle leasing, family friendly policies and more. 

Employers will need to be more agile in recruitment - looking beyond the most obvious candidates for a role and considering individuals with non-typical backgrounds including career gaps, less experience, moving from a different sector and those who want to work flexibly. Allowing workers the opportunity to work flexibly opens up opportunities for a greater variety of people including those with disabilities or caring responsibilities. 

Reskilling and upskilling existing employees is also a key area of focus. Anticipating future skills gaps and addressing them now by upskilling or reskilling workers (particularly those whose roles may soon become obsolete) will help to prevent problems and skills shortages further down the line. 

Osborne Clarke can help you with the legal aspects of your strategy, from managing employment issues to assisting with contractual agreements with third parties providing low carbon services. Please get in touch with your usual Osborne Clarke contact, or one of our experts below for further information on how we can assist your business with a smooth transition to the green jobs of the future, ensuring that your workforce possess the skills they need. 


* This article is current as of the date of its publication and does not necessarily reflect the present state of the law or relevant regulation.

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