A climate work visa to unlock global cleantech talent

Guest Author
Engraving of immigrants arriving in New York harbor in the 1800s, people on a ship with the statue of liberty in the background.
A late nineteenth century depiction of an ocean steamer of European immigrants passing the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor after crossing the Atlantic. Image credit: Keith Lance via Getty Images.

A shortage of skilled professionals entering the manufacturing space in the United States and Europe poses a significant challenge for startups and new companies in these countries trying to decarbonize key industries, like cement and steel production.  

In contrast, countries such as India, China, Nigeria and others are experiencing a surge in industrial engineering and manufacturing graduates. India alone produces 1.5 million engineering graduates each year. 

To bridge this talent gap and accelerate global efforts toward a greener future, the Global North, including the U.S. and Europe, should implement a climate-focused visa program.  

Manufacturing employment in the U.S. has declined by about 7.5 million jobs since 1980, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This skills gap in U.S. manufacturing could result in over two million unfilled jobs by 2030, according to a study from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.   

It’s not just the U.S. In the United Kingdom, 85% of businesses in the manufacturing and engineering industry are facing an acute shortage of skilled workers. And 43% of manufacturers in Germany also reported skilled worker shortages, according to a 2022 survey.  

Meanwhile, the global demand for steel, cement and other manufactured goods is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades, likely resulting in a proportional increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  

As we approach the climate tipping point, we must address emissions from these hard-to-abate sectors to prevent climate disaster. Today, cement and steel production are responsible for approximately 8% and 11% of global carbon dioxide emissions, respectively.   

That’s where an immigration program comes in, one tailored to climate professionals in hard-to-abate manufacturing sectors. 

A climate visa would enable the mobilization of skilled climate professionals and allow countries to bridge the talent gap in manufacturing during this critical period. Such a program could also drive economic growth and job creation in the host country, contribute to social and economic equity and strengthen the manufacturing sector overall.  

This initiative could resemble other immigration efforts, including the U.S. immigration program established in the 1980s to address nursing shortages. The Immigration Nursing Relief Act of 1989 introduced the H1-A visa category specifically for nurses. The act also provided a clear path to permanent residency for international nurses with three years of work experience in the U.S.  

Another existing initiative the climate visa could be modeled after is the EB-5 Permanent Residency program for immigrant investors in the U.S., which has the dual benefits of creating jobs and scaling innovations. 

The success of a climate-focused visa program would rely on its capacity to provide a pathway to permanent residency. This, in turn, offers a compelling incentive for individuals to immigrate permanently and furnishes employers with the necessary long-term certainty to hire these immigrants. 

Such a program would benefit immigrants and companies, but host countries would also gain. 

Implementing a climate-focused visa program would foster global knowledge sharing. By attracting talented professionals from diverse manufacturing backgrounds, countries could facilitate the exchange of ideas, expertise and best practices. This collaboration could lead to the development of new technologies, improved policies and more effective strategies for mitigating emissions from challenging sectors.  

A climate-focused visa program also has the potential to empower emerging nations in their pursuit of sustainable development. Professionals returning to their home country can play a crucial role in implementing home-grown climate solutions by leveraging the knowledge acquired from working overseas.  

To be sure, immigration reform in the Global North faces numerous challenges. In the U.S., for example, political polarization, economic concerns surrounding job availability and wages, national security considerations, varying priorities between lawmakers and voters and the time-consuming complexities of the legislative process all make it hard to even consider a climate-focused visa program, let alone pass one.  

But those challenges pale in comparison to climate change, which by definition transcends national borders. Immigration policies need to be aligned with climate policies to enable the massive global mobilization needed to combat climate change 

Editor’s note: Harshita Venkatesh was a participant in the Fellows Program at Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher.