Jobs and the Future of Work

What impact is climate change having on jobs?

John Evans
Academic Visitor, St. Peter's College, University of Oxford
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This article is published in collaboration with OECD Observer

A structural shift to a low-carbon economy will entail gains in jobs, but also losses, and the first jobs to be lost are not those that you think. A just energy transition will be needed, but how?

Climate action is a trade union issue. That is why the international trade union movement under the umbrella of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), working closely with us at TUAC, is prioritising our advocacy on climate issues. From the protection of jobs and livelihoods that are in the front lines of climate change impacts, to organising new quality jobs in the emerging green economy, to fighting for what we refer to as a “just transition”, so that workers gain and are not left behind when their sectors move to achieve a zero-carbon world. Climate change is clearly an immense challenge for workers and their families globally, but so is the transition. Practical policy solutions and targets that reinforce and go beyond COP21 will be needed.

Make no mistake: climate catastrophes and extreme weather conditions, including cyclones, floods, drought, fires, melting glaciers, season changes, threats to agriculture and more, are increasing and impacting working people everywhere.

151202-climate change job industries sectors OECD chart

In the United States, Hurricane Sandy left 150 000 workers displaced and employment was overall reduced by 11 000 workers in New Jersey alone in 2012. In Bangladesh, Cyclone Sidr disrupted several thousand small businesses and adversely affected 567 000 jobs in 2007. Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines in November 2013 affected around 800 000 workers, with their source of livelihood damaged or displaced overnight. The effects of these weather events rippled through international supply chains, affecting workers in other countries.

Over the next 10-15 years, we will face ever more serious impacts across the board, which will destroy whole communities and their jobs, if not their lives. The disruption will be socially and economically destabilising across whole regions, and will be worse than anything we have witnessed so far. That’s what catastrophic climate change means, and unless we prevent it, then decent work, social protection and rights for all will remain an illusion, particularly for the most vulnerable.

Much has been said about the potential for climate action to deliver on job creation. The trade union movement has strongly supported this enthusiastic view. We will certainly see jobs created in renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transport and organic agriculture among others. They may even outnumber those which might be lost in sectors that are not compatible with fighting climate change. The question of their quality (in terms of wages, benefits and working conditions, unions have launched a dedicated organising strategy to ensure that the jobs we consider critical for the future bring gender impact, etc.) remains to be assessed. Still, trade unions have launched a dedicated organising strategy to ensure that the jobs we consider critical for the future bring together the social and environmental dimensions of sustainability.

Leave no one behind

All economic sectors must change. But if there is something we can learn from past economic transitions since the Industrial Revolution, it is that they have been far from fair in terms of social justice. Some might think: then there is no need to do things differently and all should just stay the same. This is a false and dangerous assumption. Governments face opposition to climate action. Often it is from actors with vested interests. Sometimes opposition comes from working people who are afraid of losing their jobs or part of their income. It is an understandable fear. However, it can be addressed and resolved. Trade unions are convinced that a proactive, fair approach to this transition can accelerate change and keep us on course to stay below the 2°C limit. We want to see the transition happen on the ground with investment in skills and lifelong learning, income protection and other social protection measures for workers in sectors hit by climate policies. We believe that dialogue and participation have to be ensured to secure workers’ involvement in the design of future jobs and adequate funding for transforming local economies and communities.

And COP21 in all of this? For the ITUC and TUAC, COP21 must respond adequately to these challenges. An agreement in Paris needs to ensure that country commitments are reviewed through an effective process so that the gap in emission reductions is absorbed fairly and quickly.

COP21 needs to make clear that financing commitments to the most vulnerable countries are not being given away as charity, but are the logical and considered international response to climate change and how it risks both undermining the development progress these countries have made in the last 20 years and hampering their ongoing efforts to achieve prosperity and decent work for all. Finally, COP21 needs to send a political message to workers: not only will governments commit to achieving a zero-carbon world, but they will also commit to a “just transition” for all workers concerned.

These three policy imperatives are still on the negotiating table. The way in which they will be addressed in December will be a crucial indicator in judging the final outcome.

For the labour movement, climate change is a challenge that puts everything we care about at risk. Workers must be fully involved in shaping that “just transition”, in which their rights and prosperity are paramount and where they are able to build and decide their own future. Workers need strong policies on climate. Low climate ambitions would be a social progress killer.

ITUC (2015), “Trade unions’ Topline demands for COP21”, September, www.ituc-csi.org/trade-unions-topline-demands-for

ITUC (2015) “Climate Justice: Unions4Climate Action”, Frontlines Briefing, May www.ituc-csi.org/ituc-frontlines-briefing-climate-16132

ITUC (2015), “Climate Justice: There are no jobs on a dead planet”, Frontlines Briefing, March. www.ituc-csi.org/ituc-frontlines-briefing-climate

©OECD Observer No 304, November 2015

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: John Evans is the General Secretary of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC).

Image: A man removes dirt from an oven to retrieve baked bricks at a brickyard. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood. 

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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkNature and BiodiversityEconomic GrowthClimate Action
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