• Opinion
  • October 21, 2019
  • 8 minutes
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How to protect jobs on a heating planet

Opinion: Where do the coal miners go in a zero carbon world?

This article is written by Moustapha Kamal Gueye, Coordinator for the Green Jobs Programme, at the International Labour Organisation (ILO).


Climate change is disrupting all aspects of human life, including the time we spend at work. As the world adapts to this challenge, some jobs will disappear and others will emerge, and it’s up to policymakers to lead that transition. 

Fighting climate change is therefore also a question of securing and future-proofing jobs. 

Indeed, economic activity and jobs depend on healthy ecosystems and a stable natural environment. Around 1.2 billion jobs, or 40% of world employment in 2014, were in industries that depend on nature in some capacity. The impacts of climate change on economies and societies are reaching levels serious enough to warrant urgent action. 

Beyond economic losses on industries, business assets and infrastructure, the growing toll on human lives can longer be tolerated. 

Just consider that between the years 2000 and 2015, some 23 million working years were lost annually because of environment-related hazards caused or aggravated by human activity. 

there are no limits to the sustainable jobs we can create

Natural disasters continue to increase in frequency and intensity, as we have seen recently with the flooding in Southern Africa, hurricanes in the Caribbean Islands, or the severe heat waves that hit most of Europe this summer. 

The mere fact of warming temperatures, and the related heat stress it causes, are matters of concern. It is estimated that if we allow global warming to continue, by 2030 over 2% of total hours of work could be lost due to heat stress. This amounts to a loss in productivity equivalent to no less than 80 million full-time jobs. In comparison, Walmart — the world’s largest employer — had 2,2 million people working for them in 2018, and that’s including part-time staff. 

Leaving no one behind

The good news is that ambitious policies and measures to confront the daunting challenges on our environment can yield social benefits. 

Studies by the International Labour Office suggest that achieving the 2-degree target of the Paris Agreement on climate change could generate 24 new millions jobs by 2030. However, as a result of this transition, 6 million jobs are likely to be lost in the coal, oil and gas sectors notably. 

This process presents us with a challenge: there are no limit to the sustainable jobs we can create, but sustainable policies will inevitably lead some into unemployment. 

This is why the Paris Agreement on climate change refers to “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities”. Such a combination of environmental and social policies is entirely possible. It is indisputably necessary. 

This was also a major theme at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019 in New York. At the Summit, over 45 countries ranging from Germany to Samoa, from Ghana to Mexico, committed to formulating just transition plans alongside more ambitious goals for climate action. 

business cannot succeed on a planet that fails

Already, several countries are on the move. In 2018, Germany established a Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment. The Commission was tasked to prepare a roadmap for the phase-out of coal, which will ensure that the short-, medium- and long-term climate targets are achieved. 

Similarly, Chile, host to the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP25), initiated a process for a programmed and gradual phase-out of coal-fired plants that do not have carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems. Spain launched in 2018 a EUR250 million Plan del Carbón for the closure of all Spanish coal mines which are no longer economically viable. Through the Plan del Carbón, the government of Spain provides incentives for new business development in the regions concerned by mining closure, training for redundant workers, and early retirement benefits.  

These just transition processes require a lot of ingredients — effective social dialogue, careful planning, coordinated policies and adequate funding — to address gaps in social protection, to support skills development that will be needed in the transition, and empower enterprises to fully take advantage of the real opportunities of the green economy.

We have to engage all actors in this process: policy-makers, companies, trade unions, youth groups (including the Extinction Rebellion) and actors in the multilateral system must come together to solve this challenge. Only through inclusive processes will solid social consensus emerge, that will make it possible to raise the ambition level, accelerate the pace of action and ensure that nobody is left behind. 

The gamble of inaction

For all these reasons, slogans have emerged claiming that business cannot succeed on a planet that fails; and that there will be no jobs on a dead planet. 

In reality, more than mere slogans, these assertions should invite us all to do a reality check and call upon policy makers and the public at large, to revisit the narrative around climate change. 

Some still think that we must choose between economic growth and jobs, social justice and environmental sustainability. If you want growth, you have to accept that the planet suffers, the logic goes. 

But to the contrary, we have learned that there is no necessary trade-off between economic growth and jobs, sustainability and social justice. It is not actions taken to fight climate change that will destroy jobs and cause massive social disruptions, but rather inaction that will lead to these outcomes. — Moustapha Kamal Gueye

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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