• Amy Musgrave, 4irsa.org

Jobs need to take centre stage as countries green their economies

The impact of climate change on our everyday lives and how the world can move to a carbon neutral economy takes centre stage this week.

Can South Africa truly commit to lowering carbon emissions and fighting unemployment at UN summit without the right data?

World leaders are meeting at the United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit which is being punted as the defining political event for climate for 2019. A number of concrete commitments are expected from countries, companies and civil society to combat climate change. South Africa is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world and is coming under increasing pressure to adopt new technologies to power the country. International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor is heading up the South African delegation, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said he looks forward to holding talks with her.

South Africa’s electricity largely comes from power utility Eskom which needs coal. Job losses, job creation and the advantages of adopting new methods to keep the country on the power grid formed part of discussions at the country’s first Digital Economy Summit hosted by 4IRSA earlier this year. The concern around employment is shared by many countries, with the UN announcing a new jobs’ initiative which it has urged states to join. It provides a roadmap to ensure that people’s jobs and well-being are at the centre of the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.

The new “Climate Action for Jobs” initiative has been developed by the Climate Action Summit, together with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other members of the summit’s Social and Political Drivers Action Area, co-led by Spain and Peru. According to Guterres, around 1.2 billion jobs (40percent of world employment) rely directly on a healthy and stable environment.

“… business cannot succeed on a planet that fails. Jobs cannot be sustained on a dying planet,” he says in a press release. “We will need government, businesses and people everywhere to join these efforts so we can put climate action into a higher gear.”

The initiative calls on countries to formulate national plans for a just transition, creating decent work and green jobs and sets out specific measures for inclusion in these plans. While South Africa does have various policies on climate change, activists and labour believe that they are not being followed through nor is there enough focus on the impact on the world of work.

The UN initiative calls for a number of measures:

  • Assessing the employment, social, and economic impacts of climate action

  • Implementing skills development and upgrading measures

  • Designing innovative social protection policies to protect workers and vulnerable groups

  • Increasing the transfer of technology and knowledge to developing countries, and innovation and responsible investment

  • Fostering a conducive business environment to enable enterprises, in particular, SMEs, to adopt low-carbon production processes

  • Devising economic policies and incentives to support and encourage enterprises’ transition towards the environmentally sustainable production of goods and services

  • Creating mechanisms for inclusive social dialogue to build consensus for transformative and sustainable change

The ILO estimates that measures to green the production and use of energy will lead to net job gains of around 24 million jobs by 2030. This is in line with views by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council which says a shift to a more environmentally friendly economy tends to have “higher local content than traditional fossil-fuel-based economic activities”. This is because energy-efficient investments such as retrofitting buildings are more location specific and require local labour. Also, most clean energy industries are more labour intensive than carbon-intensive ones. The ILO says it is crucial that all stakeholders come on board.

“The actors in the world of work – governments, employers and workers – have a key role to play in developing new ways of working that safeguard the environment for present and future generations, eradicate poverty and promote social justice by fostering sustainable enterprises and creating decent work for all” says ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.

According to South Africa’s Green Economy Inventory published in 2017, the country’s developmental challenges, which are characterised by persistent poverty and inequality, high levels of unemployment, and energy and water insecurity, can be addressed through “a just transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient and pro-employment development path”. The report was published as part of the Partnership for Action on Green Economy, which is an initiative between the UN’s Environment Programme, the ILO, the UN Development Programme, the UN Industrial Development Organisation, the UN Institute for Training and Research and the South African government.

While the document says the country is transitioning to a green economy, trade unions have become more sceptical since the country adopted a Green Economy Accord in 2011. One of the main concerns is that a “just transition” is necessary for workers and it must include a substantial focus on decent jobs and reskill in key industries – which are contained in the measures for the UN’s new job initiat