Jobs and the Future of Work

Climate action and AI can create more and better jobs. Here's how

Focusing on equality to ensure a just transition means change can be successfully managed and better jobs can be created.

Focusing on equality to ensure a just transition means change can be successfully managed and better jobs can be created. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Veronica Nilsson
General Secretary, Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD
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Jobs and Skills

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • This decade is set to be transformed by the shift towards a carbon-neutral economy and the roll-out of artificial intelligence.
  • Both of these factors will disrupt and change the nature of employment.
  • Focusing on equality to ensure a just transition means change can be successfully managed and better jobs can be created.

The shift towards a carbon-neutral economy and the roll-out of artificial intelligence (AI) look set to be two of the great transformations of the 2020s.

Both will certainly disrupt and change employment. Some 14 million new clean energy jobs could be created by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But if simply left to market forces, jobs will be lost in regions dependent on the extraction of coal or other fossil fuels, and on the car industry in which electric motors need less labour to build than internal-combustion engines.

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There has been, and continues to be, a lively debate on AI’s impact on the quantity and quality of jobs. Recent advances have expanded the range of skills susceptible to automation. This could make work more engaging by automating repetitive tasks, but it could also make work more precarious.

By automating tasks previously requiring human know-how, AI could lead to de-skilling of occupations, enabling the hiring of less qualified, lower paid workers on temporary contracts. Algorithmic management tools also pose risks for workers’ health and safety and raise concerns about privacy.

Government involvement and international co-operation are urgently needed to ensure the transitions bring maximum benefit to society and workers. Climate action and AI both need political engagement and guidance backed by regulation.

While there has been plenty of political engagement in climate policy, 2023 has been the hottest year ever recorded and countries are not on track to keep the planet below a 1.5°C temperature increase. The debate about regulating AI is some years behind climate action but is now really kicking off.

Constructive government engagement needs public support, and that will not be forthcoming if people believe that jobs are at risk and the growing chasm between rich and poor will become even wider.

Inequality in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries already hit an all-time high in 2017 before being made worse by COVID-19 and wages rising less than profits and inflation in 2022/23.

There is a convincing case that it is economic insecurity that is driving voters to far-right nationalist parties and what is needed to counter them is a focus on equality.

With the right policies and process, change can be successfully managed so that social strife can be avoided, and more and better jobs can be created.

Leaving no-one behind in a just transition

The starting point on the right path is for governments and business to accept the need for a just transition.

"Just transition" is an internationally agreed concept endorsed by the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, G7 and G20 initiatives, and reflected in the UN Global Accelerator on Job and Social Protection for Just Transitions.

Guidance on what it involves is set out in the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) guidelines for a just transition, which emphasise the need to guarantee workers' rights, access to social protection, training opportunities and job security for all those affected by policies to tackle climate change. These principles should also be used to navigate technology development and deployment.

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Just transition is a process as well as a set of policies (which may vary from country to country). It is about partnership between government, business and unions to manage change fairly.

This means social dialogue – on regional and industrial policies, employment policies, education and training policies and social protection – and collective bargaining between employers and unions on managing change, including restructuring.

At company and workplace level it means information and consultation about change as well as negotiation on the conditions.

How countries are committing to a just transition

This is not just wishful thinking. In Canada, the 2023 Sustainable Jobs Act establishes a Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council with trade unions and industry, while in Scotland, The Just Transition Commission “provides independent scrutiny and advice on how to put justice at the heart of climate action”.

In Spain, a pact was signed by government, trade unions and the Federation of Coal Mining Businesses to phase out coal production, and in Italy, unions and energy company ENI reached an agreement to face the energy transition together.

In Australia, the federal government announced in May a Net Zero Authority to support workers in emissions-intensive sectors to access new employment and skills and support regions to attract new clean energy industries.

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How is the World Economic Forum promoting equity in the workplace?

In the United States, the recent strike of Screen Actors and Writers Guild highlighted the potential for costly strife over AI and its impact on jobs and pay.

Meanwhile, an executive order on AI from US President Joe Biden emphasises that “all workers need a seat at the table, including through collective bargaining, to ensure they benefit from these opportunities” and that the “next steps in AI development should be built on the views of workers, labor unions, educators, and employers to support responsible uses of AI”.

Spain's Charter of Digital Rights includes labour rights, dealing with working conditions, informing workers’ representatives on technological change and involving them in decision-making.

How to create more and better jobs

Policies for a just transition include:

  • Investment in education and skills; better social protection such as unemployment benefits and minimum wage or living wage policies to prevent poverty pay; active employment policies and support.
  • Industrial/regional policy to create jobs (especially in areas hit by job losses) including good labour standards as a condition for government credits and incentives like under the US Inflation Reduction Act.

These principles and examples show the way forward. I urge the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, focused on new technologies and their implications on decision-making, to ensure that business leaders and policymakers support and commit to a just transition.

After all, a socially just transition to a climate friendly and digital future is far less likely to be controversial with citizens and would create public confidence that opportunities are being created for more and better employment for future generations.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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