By Isaac Stovell
Sustainability is probably the largest and most complex challenge facing economic policymakers at all levels today. For years there has been indisputable scientific consensus that human activity is a major contributing factor to a range of environmental problems, such as the collapse of threatened ecosystems or inexorable global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. To face these problems in the long run will take technological innovation, extensive industrial and sociopolitical restructuring, and radical changes to individual lifestyles, especially in the privileged high-impact Western economies.
The International Labour Organisation’s priority on this front is, obviously, jobs. Paid employment, in some form or other, is central to the economic life of almost every individual alive: and if our economies are to become greener then so must jobs. But following the United Nations’ adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and the COP21 agreement in Paris last December, it seems international policymakers are starting to realise how practically difficult environmental issues are to tackle: achieving sustainability is not something that one department can do as a standalone project, it entails deftly coordinated action across all areas and between all levels of governance. So while the ILO rightly retains its focus on decent work, at its 326th Governing Body there was discussion of how as an institution it must work in deliberate congruency with other international policy aims on sustainability.
Approaching the issues as densely interconnected is even more essential in light of how unpredictable the whole situation is. Reasonable forecasts of the global economic transition to lower carbon industries do predict that, not surprisingly, as unsustainable industries are discouraged and shrank, there will be many jobs lost. However, an ILO study stated that “ambitious climate change policies can lead to potential net gains of up to 60 million new jobs by 2030”. This is encouraging news: in the next couple of decades, on a global level, we should expect to see green industries expand rapidly as the supplies of non-renewable resources run short and the ecological damage caused by their use run rampant. “In essence, green jobs are also decent jobs”, says an ILO brief on the subject. Green industrial activity does tend to take place on a much smaller scale, making it better-suited to providing a significant sector of employment for small- to medium-size communities. Also, since they are, by nature, sustainable, these jobs can be relied upon as permanent economic fixtures, rather than non-renewable extractive industries that have historically left entire regions underdeveloped once the resource runs too low to maintain viable profit margins (for example, the string of ex-coal mining towns across mid- and northern England).
One cheerful example of where green jobs have successfully reinvigorated a struggling economy is that of Grimsby. The east-coast town had thrived on fishing for centuries, but since the 1970s had experienced industrial collapse that led to its sad reality as a place where unemployment was so endemic that even second- and third-generation unemployment were not uncommon. Today, however, a large offshore windfarm nearby provides over 1500 jobs, and enables the town to boast the country’s highest rate of renewable energy (28%) as it recovers from decades of deprivation.
Grimsby’s example is clear: going green can yield considerable socioeconomic benefits. Admittedly, these have been markedly without drawback here as the windfarm didn’t have to elbow any non-renewable activities out of the way, which on a global level we would have to expect. Transitioning to a sustainable economic system will entail enormous industrial restructuring; powerful vested interest groups, in particular key carbon-intensive industries like fossil fuels and manufactured consumer exports, will have to be challenged as their impacts are only reducible by substantially lessening their output – in the case of fossil fuels, perhaps by making the entire industry redundant. This will put many people out of work, and while the ILO admirably intends to work with employers’ organisations to stimulate green investment and thereby job creation, I personally am pessimistic about how far top-down solutions can succeed. Sustainable development is so complex and large a project that a truly holistic approach must not only include governmental and corporate policy recommendations; it requires individual people, who (it is too often forgotten) constitute all economies, to adapt to a lower-carbon lifestyle. That means improving their domestic energy efficiency, massively reducing petrol use and consumption in general (especially imports, high-tech manufactures, and animal products like meat), and of course taking the greenest jobs they can.
I’m not suggesting that the ILO has to directly work toward promoting all of this – their ground-level work in promoting green jobs around the world already entails a healthy degree of engagement with participating employers and workers. Given the magnitude of the threat of climate change though, I feel it is essential that we don’t rest on our laurels and presume that policymaking bodies will be able to restructure things adequately to avert disaster, because history bluntly proves that they tend not to: even the Paris agreement “does not go nearly far enough” in practical steps “endeavouring to limit [global warming] to 1.5°c” (widely considered to be a safe maximum, with geographical projections for 2°c or higher putting the world at considerable risk of hitting ‘tipping points’ that would greatly exacerbate, maybe irreversibly, the effects of atmospheric warming). Alongside the work of the ILO in promoting green employment, and the efforts of national governments and the United Nations to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, if we want a greener world we need to go green ourselves too.