Coal’s days are numbered, but governments must make plans to ensure workers do not suffer from the energy transition.
China and India face the brunt of global coal industry job losses, which new research warns could amount to nearly 1 million redundancies by 2050.
That’s without any further pledges to phase out fossil fuels, according to the US based think tank Global Energy Monitor (GEM).
Hundreds of labour-intensive mines are expected to close in the coming decades as they reach the end of their lifespans and countries replace coal with cleaner low-carbon energy sources.
“Coal mine closures are inevitable, but economic hardship and social strife for workers are not,” says Dorothy Mei, project manager for GEM's Global Coal Mine Tracker.
Governments must ensure workers do not suffer from the energy transition, she adds, as most of the mines set to shut down have no plans to move to a post-coal economy.
How many people work in the coal industry?
To assess job prospects in the coal industry, GEM looked at 4,300 active and proposed coal mine projects around the world covering a total workforce of nearly 2.7 million.
It found that more than 400,000 workers are employed in mines set to cease operations before 2035.
If plans were implemented to phase down coal to limit global warming to 1.5C, only 250,000 miners - less than 10 per cent of the current workforce - would be required worldwide, GEM estimates.
China's coal industry, the world's biggest, currently employs more than 1.5 million people.
Of the 1 million job global job losses expected by 2050, more than 240,000 will be in the province of Shanxi alone.
Is China closing its coal mines?
China's coal sector has already undergone several waves of restructuring in recent decades, with many mining districts in the north and northeast struggling to find alternative sources of growth and employment following pit closures.
"The coal industry, on the whole, has a notoriously bad reputation for its treatment of workers," said Ryan Driskell Tate, GEM's program director for coal.
"What we need is proactive planning for workers and coal communities ... so industry and governments will remain accountable to those workers who have borne the brunt for so long."
How can coal workers be employed elsewhere?
Achieving a fair energy transition is a core part of the UN process governing global climate action.
At COP27 in Egypt, governments agreed to launch a ‘just transition work programme’, which the International Trade Union Confederation called a “major step forward”.
This should help to oversee and unlock the finance that is needed to reskill national workforces.
It builds on the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) mechanism created at the previous COP, whereby wealthy countries support developing world emitters to come off fossil fuels, including through retraining workers.
As the world transitions to renewable energy, there are plenty of new green jobs being created.
12.7 million people are working in the global renewable energy sector as of 2021, according to a recent report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). China is the country with the most renewable energy jobs in the world, holding a staggering 42 per cent of the global total as it ramps up solar and wind capacity.
And China and India provided more than half of hydropower jobs worldwide that year.
IRENA’s study - in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO) - estimated that the green jobs boom could increase worldwide employment in renewable energy to more than 38 million by 2030.