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Climate change and the world of work: ILO Director-General outlines ILO role in new “Green Jobs Initiative”

As global leaders gather in New York this week under the leadership of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to breathe new life into international efforts to tackle climate change and other environmental issues, the ILO is presenting a plan aimed at meeting the climate challenge in the world of work. ILO Director-General Juan Somavia explains the role of the ILO in this process and outlines a new plan for a “Green Jobs Initiative” that will promote environmentally sustainable development and make sure workplace issues are part of the debate. ILO Online reports from High-Level Event on Climate Change, New York, 24 September 2007.

Article | 24 September 2007

ILO Online: How is climate change affecting workplaces around the world?

Juan Somavia: The world of work is sensitive to changes in the environment. As climate change sweeps across the globe, governments, workers and employers are facing its incremental effects as well as searching for solutions to offset them. The inconvenient truth is that production and work consumes energy and other resources and leaves behind waste and greenhouse gases at a rate dangerous for our planet and our health. Addressing the threat of climate change will entail a transition to new patterns of production, consumption and employment.

ILO Online: What is the significance of this new effort to push the climate change issue?

Juan Somavia: The decisions of the summits in Rio in 1992, Johannesburg in 2002 and the Kyoto Agreements have built a framework for action. The event here in New York will seek to facilitate an exchange of views between governments on this global challenge and to galvanize political will for the upcoming United Nations climate change conference in Bali in December. As the Secretary-General stresses in his introductory note to the meeting, the threats posed by climate change are a huge challenge to our political capacity to organise an integrated international policy response across the economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainable development. Furthermore our strategies must be politically sustainable and stretch across generations of leaders and electors.

ILO Online: What’s the role of the ILO in this?

Juan Somavia: Adapting to and mitigating climate change will entail adjusting to new patterns of natural resource use and conservation. The ILO’s constituents of employers and workers organizations and governments accept this challenge and are determined to play their part by building our capacity to anticipate change, prepare and then implement an efficient and just process of adaptation. We are doing this through ILO’s “Green Jobs Initiative”.

ILO Online: Can you tell us more about this initiative?

Juan Somavia: Huge opportunities exist to create green jobs through energy and industrialization policies which reduce emissions. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that the market for clean energy technology could be worth 1.9 trillion dollars by the year 2020. Investments in energy efficiency, clean energy technology and in renewable energy have enormous potential to create productive and decent work.

A new generation of green jobs will contribute to sustainable economic growth and help lift people out poverty. They are central to the positive link that needs to be established between climate change and development. We must also prepare for job losses and support workers and enterprises in shifting to new ways of working that substantially reduce emissions. We also need to invest much more in low emissions strategies for development that do not slow progress in poverty reduction. On all these issues, we must act preventively and develop the policies that can ensure a smooth transition for all involved.

ILO Online: What is the link between the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda and climate change?

Juan Somavia: Making our societies more resilient to the impacts of climate change is to a very large extent about ensuring that workplaces and labour markets are not disrupted. Experience of environmental as well as financial crises shows us that if people on the margins of poverty lose their livelihoods it can take years to climb back out of deprivation.

Policies which anticipate the need for transitions in labour markets and which seize the opportunities for generating new and sustainable sources of employment and income have the potential to produce better economic and social as well as environmental outcomes. They also provide the social support and consensus required to embrace the necessary changes. The ILO’s Green Jobs initiative aims to provide the vital decent work dimension to the UN’s drive for a comprehensive strategy on climate change.

ILO Online: Employers and workers are vital actors in facilitating the achievement of sustainable development…

Juan Somavia: Tripartite social dialogue between employers and workers organizations and government holds the key to the development of the ILO “Green Jobs Initiative”. Our aim is to support workers and enterprises through the transition to a much more environmentally sustainable process of development. An important first step this year was the adoption at the ILO’s annual conference of a worldwide policy package for sustainable enterprises.

ILO Online: What are the next steps?

Juan Somavia: The potential for creating decent work is enormous, but experience teaches us that it is not realized automatically. The kind of broad-based, inclusive growth which benefits the millions of workers, small holder farmers, small businesses and informal economy operators who need more and better jobs, does not happen by default. It will take deliberate steps, policies for energy, industrialization and climate change designed to explicitly include green jobs as a goal and as a way of delivering development.

The ILO is working with its own constituents – governments and the organizations of employers and workers – to document and promote the good practices that have been emerging in industrialized and developing countries alike. The ILO is also partnering with other agencies in the UN system and beyond and will actively support the initiative of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a system-wide focus on climate change.

One of the most important foundations for an integrated international and political sustainable strategy on climate change is a focus on productive and gainful employment and decent work. This provides both a conceptual and an operational way of integrating policies and programmes as well as means of reaching out across borders to workplaces all over the world.