Is the Paris agreement bad for the average worker?

Last night, President Trump dealt a major blow to an agreement worked on for years to protect the environment by helping control carbon emissions. The reason, we were told during his late night speech, something he oft repeated while on the campaign trail, was to ‘bring back jobs’. The agreement, he said, resulted in “lost jobs, productivity, shuttered factories and vastly diminished economic production”. This blog digs into that claim.

What is sure is that the greening of industry will require substantial shifts in industries. Green fuel will require moving away from non-green fuels, such as coal, and away from the mining that goes with that.

cover-pageBut these shifts are not bad news for workers, or those out of work looking for employment, as the Prosperity publication we released at this year’s World Economic Forum showed. Green industries, and the greening of industries employ vast numbers already – – 3.5 million in Bangladesh, 1.4 million in Brazil, 2 million in Germany and, in the United States, 2.5 million in the private sector and almost 900,000 in the public sector. By contrast, there are only 50,000 workers in US coal industry at the moment.

The numbers of workers employed in green industries are also expected to grow significantly as demand increases and innovation unfolds. For instance, renewable sources may account for almost half the total increase in global electricity generation between 2015 and 2040, with growth especially strong in China, India, Latin America and Africa.

The greening of industries is not confined to rich countries. Green industries in developing countries may receive more than US$6.4 trillion in investment between 2015 and 2025, with China and Latin America each receiving nearly one-quarter of the total.

There is no doubt, then, that green growth will greatly affect employment. And certainly this means considerable job redefining, which will cause hardships, but Trump should not run from this, especially when forecasts indicate a positive net result. A review of cross country and national studies by International Labour Organization (ILO) indicates that the adoption of environmental reforms leads to net job gains of 0.5% to 2% of the workforce, translating to 15 million to 60 million additional jobs globally. In South Africa, the potential for new green jobs was estimated in 2011 at 98,000 in the short term, 255,000 in the medium term and 462,000 in the long term, especially in natural resource management such as biodiversity conservation, ecosystem restoration, and soil and land management.

green skillsOne reason for the positive impact on employment is that green industries tend to be more labour-intensive. For instance, sustainable farming requires more labour than conventional farming, with more diverse crop rotation, integration of crops and livestock to recycle organic waste as soil nutrients, and reliance on biological processes for pest and weed management.

Such changes in employment and job definitions accompanying green growth will create huge demand for skills development. The creation of green industries will rely on higher skilled workers with technical training; the greening of existing industries will require continuing education and training for low and medium skill workers, often on the job or in lifelong learning centers. The balance of skills required will vary across countries and industries – but in every context, skills policies can facilitate this transition.

What this should mean for policy makers is not to run away from the challenge and bow out of hard-fought climate agreements, but to face the challenge head on and define which skills need to be taught, even as economies are undergoing rapid change. Signing global agreements doesn’t take away control, it demands a strong governing hand. It calls for careful balancing of current and long-term priorities, deciding, for example, how much focus to give to redefining initial education and training as opposed to up-skilling and retraining the current labour force.

This is not the end of the Paris Accord. The Accord agreed at the Climate Change Conference, the COP21, two years ago was a bold, international agreement aimed at accelerating progress, but also to be revisited in five years time, in order to accelerate ambitions even further. If President Trump has put a halt on the US’s progress over next five years, he has urged others, notably the EU and China, to dig down further and get on with the job. Educators, and education policy makers should do the same.

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