A future green economy will not be truly sustainable if it is not also inclusive and just.
Imagine this scenario: You have worked at a coal power plant for 20 years. You do you job well and you try to keep it that way as there are not many other opportunities around.
One day you suddenly discover that your municipality plans to switch to 100% clean energy in the next five years. You care for the environment, but you care even more about feeding your family and it looks like you will soon be out of a job. The government says something about creating new jobs, but you know that unemployment is on the rise. You hear people talking about protecting their jobs. A fired-up speech from one of your coworkers convinces you to act and you start going for protests against the closure of coal-fired plants like yours.
This scenario is hypothetical. Yet similar ones keep repeating over and over across industrial towns around the world as coal-plants are getting pushed aside in favor of renewables. Subsidies to the coal industry are still a norm in many countries around the world, slowing down the transition, even though power-plants are closing in the US despite President Donald Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement.
Still, solutions for a more socially benign transition exist and a new paper in Climate Policy suggests an effective way forward.
Focusing on particular geographical areas, the author, Francesco Vona, explains that it is small but vulnerable groups of people who are usually hit the hardest by climate policies. Often workers in brown industries need a lot of extra investment to join the new economy and have few alternatives even as the job market is full of opportunities for highly skilled specialists in the emerging green economy. The situation is also complicated by the priorities of the workers who often value stability over new opportunities and better health.
To avoid the rise of unemployment and social resistance, Vona argues that both economic and public acceptability are crucial when developing climate policies. The importance of “just transition for the workforce” is mentioned in the Paris Agreement and Vona suggests providing fair compensations (lump-sum transfers have shown to be particularly effective) as well as planning transition periods and providing effective retraining in affected industrial regions.
It looks like the European Union is starting to get the idea: the European Parliament has just endorsed a proposal for allocating €4.8 billion to help coal-dependent regions transition to the green economy.
Many other alternative scenarios are also on their way. In the Ruhr region in Germany, the competences of mining workers could be adapted to renewable energy production and recycling facilities. Meanwhile, in Appalachia, in the US, people who once couldn’t imagine their life without coal are turning to tourism, wine-making and computer programming. Switching to renewables is also favoured by an increasing number of coal plants in the US and UK, while the Just Transition Fund is helping thousands of people to avoid social displacement.
It is quite clear already that the green economy is likely to create more jobs than will be lost in the brown industries. It is not so likely, however, that every new green job will welcome a former miner with little relevant training. Thus, the success of climate policies in the long run ultimately depends on how we care for people who suffer from the transition. A future green economy will not be truly sustainable if it is not also inclusive and just.