The commitments made in Paris require a closer look at the quantitative and qualitative jobs dimension of the just transition to sustainability. In schematic terms, it is possible to anticipate four quantitative employment effects.
Firstly, and most positively, policies to promote greener products, services and infrastructures will translate directly into higher demand for labour in a wide range of sectors and activities, and indeed generate entirely new types of jobs through technological innovations that respond to the needs of sustainability.
The International Renewable Energy Agency reported in its Annual Review 2016 that in 2015 employment in renewable energy reached 8.1 million jobs, a 5 per cent increase over the previous year. Importantly, this employment dynamism is not concentrated in industrialized countries; emerging economies, including China and India, accounted for a significant proportion of the new jobs. Moreover, the growth in the supply of renewable energy has to date come in the form of additional employment in the energy sector rather than through the substitution or displacement of existing fossil fuel operations. This reflects the significant unmet demand for energy today in many parts of the world.
However, future acceleration of transition to sustainable energy sources is likely to trigger a substitution effect, illustrating the second quantitative employment effect – the replacement of existing jobs in high-carbon sectors by new ones in low-carbon sectors, and the move from more to less polluting technologies. Further examples are the shift from truck-based road transport to rail, from the manufacture of internal combustion engines to electric vehicles, and from landfilling to recycling and refurbishment.
Thirdly, and inevitably, some jobs will simply be eliminated – either phased out entirely or massively reduced in number without direct replacement. This can happen in the case of highly polluting or energy- and material-intensive activities, but also when production systems and infrastructure are destroyed by rising sea levels, coastal erosion, desertification, flooding or other natural disasters. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013 the economic loss was equivalent to more than 5 per cent of gross domestic product and over 5.9 million working people were affected. Of these, some 2.6 million were already in vulnerable employment, at or near the poverty line.
Fourthly, many, and perhaps most, existing jobs will simply be adapted to the requirements of the greening economy. Day by day, workplace practices, skills, product design and job profiles will be adjusted. Automobile manufacturers will produce more fuel-efficient (or electric) cars; farmers will apply more climate-resilient growing methods; and construction enterprises will use more energy-efficient techniques. That dynamic argues strongly for thinking in terms of processes to enable the greening of economies and production, rather than a dichotomy between unsustainable, dirty jobs to be discontinued, and sustainable, clean ones to be created.
Additionally, the qualitative employment dimension of the just transition process needs to be addressed from the understanding that a “green job” is not by definition a decent job; green jobs will be made “decent” not by default but by design. The fact that the Paris Agreement speaks explicitly to the issue of just transition in terms of the creation of decent and quality jobs underlines the commitment of governments to work with employers’ and with workers’ organizations to ensure that the pursuit of sustainable development is taken forward in full regard of its social and economic, as well as its environmental, dimensions.