Editor’s Note: Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation and a co-chair for the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
In 1764, British weaver James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, a mechanized yarn-spinning machine that enabled one person in a textile factory to do the work of eight. Industrial innovation of this kind transformed what had been a rural workforce, and among the new industrial workforce were young children often subjected to terrible working conditions.
In 1833, after nearly 70 years of economic and social upheaval, the British Parliament banned labor by children under age 9.
In other words, it took a lifetime for government to catch up to the most inhumane social consequences of industrialization.
Just as the struggles of the Industrial Revolution eventually prompted new employment standards to reflect a changed workforce, we must consciously and conscientiously shape the emerging low-carbon economy through dialogue between governments, businesses and workers. Governments should also provide strong support for displaced workers, affected communities and low-income households. This is what will ensure a just transition into a world of renewable energy.
This week, business, government trade unions and civil society leaders gather in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum in pursuit of “creating a shared future in a fractured world.”
Much like the leaders of the Industrial Revolution, they can determine how change takes place and blunt its impacts.
How can they can make the low-carbon economy a driver of social inclusion? How can they help communities avoid the social pitfalls of breakneck economic transformation? And how can they simultaneously ensure change happens quickly enough to meet the Paris goal to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius?
It is no exaggeration to say that we are now living through a technological revolution as transformative and disruptive to how people work and live as the Industrial Revolution was more than 200 years ago. In 2016, coal industry employment in the United States dropped below 50,000, while solar and wind industry jobs were approaching ten times that figure.
These trends are persistent and global, driven by the fact that, since 2010, costs of new solar photovoltaic systems (used to supply solar energy) have dropped by 70%, wind by 25% and battery costs by 40%. Worldwide, the renewable energy companies employed 9.8 million people in 2016.
Evidence such as this shows that moving toward a low-carbon economy is a good thing for society as a whole as it benefits both the economy and the environment. Worldwide, pollution is linked to an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015, according to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. Emissions reduction efforts are already improving health and economic outcomes: In the United States, investment in pollution control has returned $200 billion each year since 1980.
But depending on where you sit, these changes can feel like less of an opportunity and more of a threat. The confluence of corporate greed in the coal industry, increasingly cost-competitive renewable energy alternatives and the global response to climate change is being felt in palpable and personal ways by coal communities.
We cannot wait a lifetime for new jobs in the renewable energy sector to become good jobs with fair wages, or watch parents and grandparents dumped out of secure employment without pensions while communities die with no jobs left for younger generations.
It is entirely possible, however, to diversify local economies away from coal while providing strategic assistance and social protection. While tensions are high, the tradition of social dialogue holds the promise of just transition. In Port Augusta, Australia, for example, a community with workers and their unions at a dying coal-fired power station successfully lobbied for a solar thermal plant to be built in its stead. The plan was to allow local energy workers to transfer their skills to cleaner, more viable employment and the community to remain an energy hub.
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They are not alone. Other countries are embracing just transition policies. As China delayed or stopped work on 151 coal power plants, it also created a $15 billion fund for retraining, reallocating and early retirement of an estimated 5 million to 6 million people who will be laid off due to coal overcapacity. In the Canadian province of Alberta, the government has put in place a comprehensive just transition plan for workers and communities, developed in dialogue with them. And as Germany grapples with coal-fired power and climate targets, the government knows it must provide plans and funds for regional redevelopment and support for early retirement schemes for workers while sharing the costs of reform with the industry.
If we are to avoid dangerous levels of temperature rise, all governments must embrace the innovations that will enable us to accelerate climate action and the transformation to a low-carbon economy. But hope of a secure future for working families and communities requires the commitment to ensure there are no stranded workers and no stranded communities. The path to a sustainable future runs through everyone’s backyard. Just as it is all our responsibility to tackle climate change, it is also all our responsibility to ensure that a sustainable future holds a place for everyone.