Jobs and the Future of Work

How will climate change affect jobs?

Sharan Burrow
Visiting Professor in Practice, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
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This post is part of a series of interviews on the impacts of climate change and the COP21 talks in Paris.

How is the global organized labour movement responding to the threat of climate change?

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has campaigned relentlessly for a global agreement and just transition measures to mitigate climate change. “There are no jobs on a dead planet” is our global rallying cry. But it’s more than just a slogan: we’re already witnessing the loss of lives and livelihoods because of extreme weather events and changing seasons. Working people are on the frontlines of climate change, with more than 2.5 million people displaced from their homes. And workers will be on the frontlines of the industrial transformation that is a necessity for a zero-carbon future.

Switching to a decarbonized economy will inevitably lead to structural unemployment – at a time when the global economy is weak. How do you reconcile this impact on workers’ livelihoods?

Investment in climate action is already creating jobs. In renewable energy, the US solar industry is creating jobs twenty times faster than the overall economy, while 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.

I see this positive trend continuing, as the move towards a circular economy where we live within our planet’s boundaries will spawn new technologies, businesses and jobs. It’s an argument supported by research from the OECD, which found that ambitious climate change mitigation policies could create more jobs in the future.

Figure 1: Sectoral changes in employment with ambitious climate change mitigation policies, OECD countries
In % deviation from the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario in 2030


Of course, there will be a transition from fossil fuels and the related energy companies. Their supply chains will be disrupted if businesses don’t plan for this industrial transformation. We demand respect for fossil fuel workers who have contributed to today’s prosperity and just transition measures for workers to ensure skills training and redeployment with secure pensions for older people. We also want to see investment in economic renewal for vulnerable communities. A percentage of a carbon tax or the transferral of part of fossil fuel subsidies to a fund for the security of displaced workers is essential.

Will the increased security in Paris make it harder for public opinion to influence the outcome of the meeting?

Public opinion must be heard. Governments are accountable to the people and the ITUC global poll shows that the general public is ahead of governments, with 90% wanting climate action in the coming 12 months or less.

Finding a balance between security and freedom of speech will be a challenge during the Paris talks, but citizens’ demands for climate justice have already been heard at over 60 marches in 150 countries on the eve of the talks.

Labour unions and many business groups have called for an “ambitious” climate deal in Paris: is this shared commitment being leveraged to the full?

The business community is divided. But along with trade unions and civil society, those businesses calling for an ambitious binding agreement, a carbon price and just transition are helping to put pressure on governments. This coalition has also called for a dialogue on how to achieve a just transition. The next step is for businesses to engage in social dialogue with their workers to plan for decarbonization and how this will affect jobs.

On our side, we’re also demanding that workers’ capital ‒ our pension funds ‒ are only invested in those companies that have a transition plan consistent with the boundaries of a 2°C temperature rise.

Securing a sustainable future will take all of us working together.

What one single reform would you most like to see come out of Paris?

A binding global agreement with a commitment to a just transition to give people hope that both jobs and the planet will be secured.

Author: Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

Image: A worker inspects solar panels at a solar farm in Dunhuang, 950km (590 miles) northwest of Lanzhou, Gansu Province September 16, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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Jobs and the Future of WorkClimate Action
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