Emerging from the Rio+20 conference this June, governments and citizens continue to discuss what a sustainable economy should look like. Some see salvation in green growth; while others argue that structural, not just technological, change is necessary. Indeed, fundamental cultural change away from materialism is critical to success.
It’s indisputable that a green economy must offer adequate numbers of good-quality jobs in order to have traction. At a time when the world needs to create 600 million jobs over the next decade, when some 200 million people confront unemployment and many others contend with insecure, dangerous, or low-paid work, sustainable and fulfilling livelihoods is a critically important goal. Thus, a focus on “green and decent jobs” has developed in recent years, which emphasizes employment that not only preserves and restores environmental quality, but also offers workers a secure income and a perspective for the future.
In my chapter, “Making the Green Economy Work for Everybody” in State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, I discuss the importance of addressing social inequities in order to achieve environmental sustainability. With deep social divisions, collaborative solutions will not develop. Policies must be more inclusive to counter the growing sense of disillusionment in a world marked by tremendous gaps in wealth and power.
Two recent studies by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) provide additional insights and innovative solutions in moving towards a green economy. The ILO’s report, Working Towards Sustainable Development [PDF], is part of the Green Jobs Initiative – a joint initiative between the ILO, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Trade Union Confederation, and the International Organization of Employers.
While the ILO report details the role of green jobs in a broad range of sectors of the global economy, IRENA’s report, Renewable Energy: Jobs & Access, focuses on the employment opportunities of renewable energy projects in rural areas of the developing world. According to IRENA, at present, more than 1.3 billion people are without electricity access and another 1 billion have unreliable access. At least 2.7 billion worldwide lack access to modern fuels, relying instead on highly polluting kerosene or burning biomass, which cause dangerous indoor smoke.
Decentralized forms of renewable energy offer solutions to the lack of energy access. Through the development of biogas, various forms of solar energy, small-scale hydropower and improved cookstoves, substantial employment opportunities are possible. Although most developing countries do not manufacture renewable energy equipment, jobs can be generated in the distribution, sales, installation, operation, and service of these systems. The IRENA report estimates if the UN target of providing sustainable energy for all by 2030 is reached, it could yield some 4 million jobs.
Small-scale renewable energy technologies are well adapted to the rural context, and the bulk of skills required for installing and operating them can be developed locally. Case studies highlight linkages between local job creation and renewable energy, such as integration of the renewable energy sector into local economies, skills and training, gender impacts, and standards and quality assurance measures.
These reports add to the literature emphasizing the importance of a green economy and the role of green jobs. Such studies are significant not only in generating better data on existing and potential green jobs, but also in attempting to improve our understanding of important qualitative aspects.