Environmental sustainability and decent work

S. M. Rayhanul Islam | Published: September 27, 2018 21:41:02 | Updated: September 30, 2018 21:21:44

A green economy is one that "results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities" (UNEP, 2011, p. 2).  A green economy embodies the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by, among other means, advancing climate action, protecting life on land and below water, providing affordable and clean energy and promoting decent work and economic growth. The world of work today is intrinsically linked to the natural environment. Jobs in agriculture, fisheries, forestry, tourism and other industries including pharmaceuticals, textiles and food and beverage largely depend on a healthy environment. The ILO publication 'World Employment Social Outlook 2018: Greening with jobs' examines environmental sustainability in the world of work. It focuses on how climate change and environmental degradation will impact the labour markets, affecting both the volume and quality of employment, and quantifies the shifts expected to take place within and between sectors. The report shows how social dialogue and policy coherence are crucial initial steps in ensuring that environmental objectives also promote decent work, and that advances in decent work also serve environmental sustainability. The report argues that advancing environmental sustainability is desirable for the world of work and urgent for social justice.

The report contains five chapters. The first chapter focuses on environmental sustainability and decent work. In recent decades, humanity has increased its pressure on the environment. Already by the 1970s, the world was using more resources than could be regenerated by nature and producing more waste and emitting more greenhouse gases (GHG) than could be absorbed by the ecosystem. This trend has intensified. As a result of population growth and carbon? and resource-intensive economic activities, current development models and economic activity have led humanity towards environmental un-sustainability. This chapter shows how environmental degradation (e.g. GHG emissions and the resulting climate change, natural resource scarcity, air and water pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, changes in biochemical flows and other environmental challenges) directly and negatively affects the world of work. The chapter further argues that, from the perspective of the world of work, achieving environmental sustainability is a question of social justice as women and the most vulnerable people in the world - migrant workers, youths, persons with disabilities, people in poverty, indigenous and tribal peoples and other vulnerable population groups, depending on the country and region - are particularly exposed to the risks and damages associated with environmental degradation, despite contributing to it the least.   

Chapter-2 sheds light on employment and the role of workers and employers in a green economy. A low-carbon, resource-efficient economy employs more people, is more labour intensive, and is at least as productive as an economy with a production model based on high carbon, resource and material intensity. This chapter demonstrates that achieving the 2°C goal (i.e. limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial times over the long term) can create more employment than predicted by the business-as-usual scenario. Positive results can also be expected from the adoption of certain principles of the circular economy and the promotion of sustainability in agriculture if the path towards sustainability is accompanied by policies to support the transition of agriculture workers into other, more productive sectors. The chapter concludes by highlighting the important role that enterprises and workers play in guiding and leading the transition. The next chapter examines the regulatory frameworks - integration, partnerships and dialogue. It first looks at international instruments on labour and environmental matters and then reviews international labour standards (ILS), based on their broad acceptance and universal relevance, as a means of promoting and ensuring decent working conditions in sectors most affected by the transition.  Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) are also examined with a view to identifying the labour issues that they incorporate principally occupational safety and health (OSH). The chapter then analyses how the process of the integration of labour and environmental laws has taken place at the national level. Finally, it discusses the role of social dialogue as a means to a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all and examines the different ways in which the social partners have contributed to the process of greening.

The fourth chapter titled 'Protecting workers and the environment' first discusses the close relationship between poverty, social protection, income security and the environment. It then analyses four policy areas that can contribute to adaptation and mitigation measures: unemployment protection, cash transfer programmes, public employment programmes and payments for ecosystem services. While the examination of unemployment protection and cash transfer programmes recalls the need for strong social policies to protect people from adverse environmental impacts and to ensure a just transition to a green economy, public employment programmes and payments for ecosystem services offer the potential to explore the combination of economic, social and environmental objectives within one policy measure. After reviewing experience in these areas, a macroeconomic simulation projects the impact of an increase in environmentally oriented social protection on the global economy.

The last chapter of the report draws our attention towards the skills needed for the green transition. Skills are the most important key to making the transition to a green economy that advances decent work. With a view to contributing to effective formulation and implementation of skills development measures, this chapter conducts a global review and assessment of regulations, policies and programmes implemented in 27 countries around the world, representing various levels of development and environmental challenges. The chapter is organised in three sections. Section A analyses the integration of regulations and policies pertaining to economic growth, environmental sustainability and skills development at the national, local and sectoral levels. Section B then takes a closer look at individual programmes, including the activities carried out to implement the regulations and policies introduced in section A, as well as other ad hoc initiatives. Two types of programmes are discussed, namely skills needs identification and training provisions. Section C analyses institutional mechanisms that facilitate or hinder regulatory and policy coherence and programme implementation. The chapter concludes by evaluating the current state of skills development measures against the objective of promoting a just transition, and offers policy recommendations. The challenges described in this final chapter suggest that there is an urgent need to improve understanding of the mechanisms through which a country-specific policy mix can have an impact on skills development for the green transition.

S. M. Rayhanul Islam is an independent researcher.

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