Commentary: A changing climate for jobs

This article was posted in Euractiv on December 2, 2015. 

A changing climate for jobs

By Sharan Burrow and Paul Polman

Sharan Burrow is the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Paul Polman is the CEO of Unilever. Both are members of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

With the start of the COP21 climate change summit in Paris, we have the opportunity to create a new model where we can both tackle climate change and create jobs. There are some who still believe that the two are in conflict. Our experience, however, suggests that inaction on climate change is the real job killer.

We are already witnessing the rising costs of climate change, both human and economic, to businesses and families. Extreme weather events, changing seasons and their impacts along the value chain are threatening livelihoods and jobs in ways previously unimagined.

A structural transition to a green economy will create – not lose – jobs and is a necessity for our environment. If we act now, we can make sure that the transition is a just one, respecting the rights of workers and creating opportunities for communities moving away from fossil-fuel intensive industries.

Investment in a sustainable economy is already creating jobs. Globally, the number of people employed in the renewable energy sector soared to 7.7 million in 2014, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

In the United States, there are already more solar workers than coal miners. According to The Solar Foundation, the U.S. solar industry is creating jobs 20 times faster than the overall economy.

The world’s largest renewable energy job market is in China, with 3.4 million working in the industry. In Germany, 370,000 people are employed in renewable energy, the largest number in Europe.

Beyond the added jobs in the near term, the vast potential for innovation in a sustainable green economy will deliver the productivity gains and growth of the future. This is important to both unions and businesses, and means that we can maintain growth without exceeding the planet’s boundaries.

While the evidence is clear that there won’t be a net loss of jobs, there will be changes in the numbers and types of jobs, as well as movement between different sectors. For example, some coal miners and power station workers will have to leave their current positions. Past experience shows that economic transitions like these can leave workers behind. It’s important to respect the workers in the fossil fuel industry who have brought us the prosperity of today, and help them to secure professional opportunities in a low-carbon economy.

What does a just transition look like? It should encourage all companies to plan ahead for decarbonisation, ensure that workers have the opportunities and skills required to take on new jobs, enable employees to plan for the future, and invest in community renewal. 

Education will be extremely important. We need training programmes to provide new skills that equip workers for change. But assisting workers is harder where job losses are concentrated in particular geographical regions, such as a remote coal mining town, or where losses hit older or less skilled workers. Recent experience shows that these workers can end up among the long-term unemployed for many years, or drop out of the labour force altogether.

In these cases, governments may need to provide unemployment benefits, resources for job-hunting and relocation assistance, as well as other measures such as improving the flexibility of the housing market. In cases where long-term workers are unlikely to be able to retrain or relocate, the provision of social protection to ensure they receive adequate retirement income and health insurance is key to a just transition and to overcome the fear of change.

Innovative finance models such as a percentage of a carbon price or the reinvestment of fossil fuel subsidies could deliver the funding for these measures and secure the trust of vulnerable workers and their communities.

Workers play an important role in determining our future but often have little choice – it is in all our interests to make sure that they have a seat at the table and a say in their future. Governments, businesses, unions, investors and community representatives all have a role to play.

We’re starting to see positive examples of actively managing economic transitions around the world. Germany has a plan for phasing out coal fired power stations, Senegal has a national climate panel that includes all stakeholders, and France has legislated measures to help create a circular economy where sustainability and growth go hand in hand. Success is possible where there is political will. Likewise, in forward-thinking companies, social dialogue is shaping and supporting transformational change. This must be expanded everywhere.

We must stop framing the debate over climate action in terms of jobs vs. the environment. The two priorities are not at odds. Our economies and societies now and in the future depend on it. Once policymakers, employers, and workers recognise this, we can start moving on to the real work and ensure the transition to a new climate economy provides justice for all workers. 

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