Guest Article #20

Climate change and the labour market - friends or foes?

Less than one hundred days before the Copenhagen climate change conference, the prospect of a prolonged increase in unemployment, underemployment, worsening poverty and inequality and the continuing closure of enterprises due to the global economic crisis form a threatening cloud over the talks.

Despite some signs of economic recovery, the global jobs crisis is likely to linger. Some 300 million additional jobs will be needed from now to 2015 just to return to pre-crisis levels of unemployment. The impact of the crisis on poverty is even more challenging.

There are widespread indications that mounting concern over jobs and the state of the economy are eclipsing other concerns and priorities. This threatens successful negotiations on a climate deal and the translation of an eventual global agreement into national law and implementation. So, we potentially face an old dilemma: Can the political will for urgent action on the environment only be mustered when the economy and the labour market are doing well?

The ILO has long argued that such a ‘dilemma' is based on a false dichotomy.

US President Obama captured this when he declared: ‘Now the choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline. .. We can allow climate change to wreak havoc across the landscape, or we can create jobs working to prevent its worst effects.'

World leaders and decision makers, business and labour are increasingly seeing opportunities for win-win approaches to greening the economy.

In the world of work, governments and employer and worker organizations of the ILO's 183 member States are unanimous: greening the economy is not an option—it is indispensable and the time for action is now.

The economic and the jobs crises are opportunities to speed up the transition.

In June this year the International Labour Conference focused on a productive and people-centred response to the economic crisis. It adopted a Global Jobs Pact where the proposals include a shift to a low-carbon, environmentally friendly economy that will help accelerate a jobs recovery, consistent with the work we have been doing in this area.

The International Organisation of Employers (IOE) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) together with UNEP and the ILO are core members of the Green Jobs Initiative.

Partnerships under this Initiative are expanding and generating change in countries and workplaces. Brazil's President Lula and I have signed a Cooperation Agreement under which we committed to join forces to promote green jobs. The ILO Global Programme on Green Jobs, our contribution to the UN-system strategy on climate change, started last year and ten countries have already joined. They include emerging economies like China, India and Brazil, which are interested in generating green jobs from clean growth, as well as those struggling to adapt to the impact of climate change like Bangladesh, Haiti and Somalia.

Under this Programme, governments, workers and employers are seeking to shape approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation to help create a high-employment, low-carbon economy. This requires boosting green sectors, particularly clean energy, and environmental services, but just as importantly a greening of all enterprises to reduce energy consumption and emissions, use of raw materials and pollution.

Decent green jobs hold the promise of a triple dividend: sustainable enterprises; poverty reduction; and a job-centred economic recovery. They are not a panacea for economic recovery and for overcoming the jobs crisis, but they can be effective components of a short-term strategy and are indispensable if we are to put the world on a path to sustainable development. Examples from China, Germany, Brazil, Denmark, France and elsewhere show that, with coherent policies, hundreds of thousands of green jobs have been created and have more than outweighed losses in emission-intensive sectors. A sound dialogue with industry and trade unions and provisions for a just transition for those who lose jobs will buttress the political resolve. There is so much more to be done. Inaction on climate change will be to the detriment of labour markets. It is sure to destroy many jobs and enterprises.

Urgent action is required now to boost economic recovery and job creation in a way that responds to the needs of people, the economy and the environment, whilst helping to achieve a greener, fairer and sustainable global economy. Sealing the deal in Copenhagen in December 2009 to underpin this goal will send the right signal.

For more information on the Global Jobs Pact, see: http://www.ilo.org/global/lang--en/index.htm; on the Green Jobs Initiative, see: http://www.ilo.org/integration/themes/greenjobs/lang--en/index.htm