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Can you change a polluting industry from the inside? Ex aviation, mining and gas employees speak out

Is it best to leave or reform a carbon intensive job? Meet the workers making green moves
Is it best to leave or reform a carbon intensive job? Meet the workers making green moves Copyright Dan Tipney/Kody Ponds/Mazen Aboushousha supplied
Copyright Dan Tipney/Kody Ponds/Mazen Aboushousha supplied
By Madeleine Drury
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There could be 300 million green collar jobs by 2050. Meet the people leaving their carbon-intensive roles behind.

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The world will need an army of green collar workers, from solar panel engineers to public transport drivers, if net zero ambitions are to be met.

This emerging workforce is growing; by 2050, it’s estimated that there will be 300 million such jobs worldwide.

And many of those roles will be filled by people making a green transition in their own careers. It's a shift that has been rapidly picking up pace since we spoke to oil and gas workers in 2021.

Here we chat to others leaving their carbon-intensive jobs behind in favour of a greener uniform.

Two feet on the ground: The pilot turned aviation campaigner

Under the squeaky beams of a British pub sit 30 environmental activists. Dan Tipney nervously shuffles into the room, holding a secret close to his chest. He’s an airline pilot, who has been battling with his conscience.

“I don’t dare say what I do for a living - I’ll get stoned.”

It’s Dan’s turn to introduce himself. “I couldn’t lie, so I said, ‘I’m not really sure how to say this but - I’m a pilot.’” The group stop, then lean forward in their chairs.

“I was like, ‘why are you not throwing things at me?’”

It would be another year before Dan decided to leave the aviation industry. After having seen two generations of his family take to the skies as pilots, it had been Dan’s dream to follow in their contrails since the age of six. 

But this curious, welcoming group of activists began to make him feel like he wasn’t alone in feeling conflicted.

Aviation accounts for around 2.5 per cent of global emissions, but there is currently no sustainable fuel available to meet current demand.

Starting a family, Dan felt a greater responsibility for his children's future.

“I was on a [team] bus in Cape Verdi, and I thought, this is nice but why have we just burnt 18 tonnes of kerosene? I said to everyone, ‘Has anyone ever thought, maybe we should just fly less?’”

He was met with a wall of silence. “It really was like I was speaking another language.”

Dan admits that he’s had to learn to have climate conversations more effectively. “Partly for flight safety reasons! If I’m going to start saying stuff that leads them to be argumentative, it’s not good from a team perspective.”

So when he was offered voluntary redundancy during the pandemic, it was the last push he needed.

He’s decided to reform the system from the outside by working with an aviation advocacy group, Safe Landing. They work with trade unions to set up workers assemblies, with the aim to make climate-focused recommendations that form trade union policy. And to help pay the bills, he provides training courses for vets.

“My message isn’t, everyone who works in a carbon heavy industry who feels conflicted should leave their jobs. It might mean that you stay in your organisation and just ask slightly more awkward questions. But if you stop and say ‘how can I live more in line with my values?’ you’ll be happier for it and I wish I’d known that.”

A seat at the table: The electrical engineer altering mining from the inside

Supplied/Kody Ponds
Kody first worked as an electrical engineer, climbing up the company ladder to develop solar projects and a long term strategy for renewables.Supplied/Kody Ponds

For over eight years, Kody Ponds worked for one of the world’s biggest mining companies. “In Western Australia, mining is pretty much the bread and butter of our economy…I had always planned on joining for the purpose of changing it from the inside out.”

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Mining uses over eight per cent of the world’s total energy annually, and is responsible for 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Kody first worked as an electrical engineer, climbing up the company ladder to develop solar projects and a long term strategy for renewables: “It takes a lot to move these big beasts. You have to be in the room.”

It takes a lot to move these big beasts. You have to be in the room.

Growing up, Kody says a respect for nature ran deep through her household. Her grandfather is Lakota, a native American tribe and her grandmother is Fijean.

“My family brought me up to give back more than what you take and take only what you need. The passion to help has always been there.”

Last year she took a step back from her career. “I took a break and thought, how can I create a bigger impact in this space?” Before she had a chance to catch her breath, Kody was approached by Incite Energy, a company which designs and constructs large-scale electrical infrastructure projects. She now wears the badge ‘head of decarbonisation’.

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“I never chased a job description. I’ve chased a positive vision of what I wanted for the world.”

One of the biggest challenges Kody faces from within is a lack of workers. “We’re going to need all the help we can get! There’s not enough workers to help this transition. We’re severely under-resourced in Australia.”

Indeed, Kody has just come off a call with a time zone 12 hours behind her own. It’s her new colleagues in Chile, where they are opening offices to meet this shortfall.

Kody is most energised by having a seat at the table. “There’s a lot of resistance to change, but it’s also the best battle because nothing good ever came easy.”

She believes it’s paying off. “In Australia, the minds of mining are changing.”

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From gas to renewables: The graduate inspired by the challenges

When Mazen Aboushousha was in school, he pictured engineers as people with oil-stained fingers tightening cold metal. Now with a masters in sustainable energy technologies, that image is slightly less greasy. This education lit a fire within him.

But the UK’s Committee for Climate Change has found that current investment in Further Education is “badly out of step” with the scale of transition needed. They recommended funding for the sector be urgently reviewed.

“The new era of graduates are well used to change. We’re open to it, and we’re ready for it,” says Mazen.

Supplied/Mazen Aboushousha
Mazen's masters in sustainable energy technologies has helped him carve his own path to renewable innovation.Supplied/Mazen Aboushousha

“[The masters] gave me an understanding of not just the technical challenges but the economic and political challenges [of decarbonisation]. But after that I moved onto,” he chuckles knowingly, “a gas distribution company.”

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has a global warming potential 21 times higher than carbon dioxide.

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“Now the reason behind that [move] is they had a good plan: shifting away from natural gas to hydrogen. I was attracted by the engineering challenges.”

“I’m not naive enough to think I’m not gonna touch gas. I was interested in getting to know the current system, and the idea of transition kept me engaged.”

Some time later, he left to pursue something that challenged him further, and became a renewable energy engineer for a consultancy.

I’m not just passionate about the green element - of course, that’s a good side effect - but as an engineer, I’m more attracted by the challenge.

“I’m not just passionate about the green element - of course, that’s a good side effect - but as an engineer, I’m more attracted by the challenge.”

Fresh-faced Mazen has now leap-frogged into another job that simply didn’t exist when his parent’s generation entered the workforce. He works for Cool Planet, an online platform that monitors company’s energy performance to find ways they can reduce their consumption.

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“It’s a turning point in our decarbonisation journey: let’s go to green,” he smiles, “because it’s cheaper.”

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