Green Jobs and Rio+20: The Dirty Work of Transitioning to a Green Economy

By Hanna Thomas

The first step in transitioning to a green economy, is to realize that we actually have to do some work to get there. Work to make our buildings more energy efficient, to improve our transport systems, to make the shift to renewable energy, and to green existing jobs and sectors to make them more sustainable. The need to do this work is two-fold – to tackle climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation; and to provide green and decent work to the many millions of unemployed and underemployed people around the world. But, looking at the Future We Want text here at the Rio+20 summit, you’d never know that. There is no sense of urgency, there is no ambition, and at its very basic level, there is no respect for those people who are eager to do the work of shifting to a green economy, but are still not being given the opportunity to do so.

We came into the negotiations thinking that countries might agree to implement national strategies for green job creation, especially for young people. But all we have is policymakers’ commitment to ‘encourage’ the private sector to contribute to job creation, and share best practices on ways to address the high levels of youth unemployment. ‘Encouraging’ is not committing. ‘Encouraging’ is not, well, that encouraging.

We need national policies. We need strategies to create green jobs to match up the people that need the work with the work that needs to be done. But the one reference to the greening of existing jobs has been deleted from the draft outcomes, and the term ‘green jobs’ is now mentioned only once in the text. The issue is one of definition, and this is a challenge at the local, as well as international level. People are suspicious of new categories and new concepts. There are many definitions out there, but to me, a green job is one that provides a living wage, opportunities for further training and progression, a safe and healthy work environment, and has environmental stewardship at the core of it.

And yet, still, countries here can only agree that they “view the implementation of green economy policies by countries that seek to apply them for the transition towards sustainable development as a common undertaking.” Which basically translates as ‘we will give anyone a pat on the back that tries to attempt anything.’ This approach is a clear signal that the answers aren’t to be found here in the UN. If we want to create a skilled and knowledgeable green workforce, we will have to continue to push our local and national governments once we return home. That is what I plan to do with the East London Green Jobs Alliance. We are a coalition of labor unions, NGOs, community representatives, and local businesses to create opportunities for East London citizens. We are creating practical demonstration projects, aiming to take young people from unemployment, through training and into green and decent work. We are lobbying the Greater London Authority to make green economy a priority over the next 4 years. We are supporting the launch of the Green Skills Manifesto later this year. We are rolling up our sleeves and wading in. Someone has to.

[Image credit: Hanna Thomas, CreativeCommons]

Hanna Thomas is Green Jobs Director at The Otesha Project UK, leading the work of the East London Green Jobs Alliance. She has an MSc Climate Change & Policy. And she is following the UN Earth Summit as a Rio+20 Fellow for the Adopt a Negotiator project.

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