EU promotes ‘green jobs’ as way out of crisis

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Plans to create a generation of 'green' jobs will involve low-skilled as well as high-skilled workers, and could therefore play a key social function in addressing Europe's unemployment crisis, EU officials and MEPs told a Brussels conference yesterday (10 June).

The debate, organised by the European Greens, sought to assess the state of play in the EU's drive to "green the economy," particularly as it relates to the creation of low-carbon jobs.

Former Socialist MEP Gyula Hegyi, introduced as 'Mr. Green Jobs' in EU Employment Commissioner László Andor's cabinet, refuted the notion that the green agenda would only create elite science and high-tech jobs.

Instead, he emphasised that workers from all skill levels would require retraining to adapt to the green era. "Green jobs will also mean low-skilled jobs, and millions of them," he claimed.

He cited as an example a major project in his home country Hungary – a canal which will link the Danube with another major river, providing agricultural irrigation and improved transport emissions. This project would require 100,000 workers to build, and 40,000 workers to maintain, he said.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) definition is the ideal benchmark for how we should view green jobs, Hegyi said, adding that the promotion of low-skilled, low-carbon employment "can have a very important social function, particularly in a time of crisis".

No transformation without investment

The Commission official argued that if successfully promoted, the advent of the green jobs era in the EU could be compared to the advent of the computer era 20 years ago, in that scientists and tech experts will initially hold most of the knowledge, but it will rapidly become common currency among all citizens.

However, other participants at the debate cautioned that this hopeful scenario could only become reality if policymakers as well as big business leaders put their money where their mouth is.

German Green MEP Elisabeth Schroedter, who in April 2010 produced a draft report on the subject, argued that without significant investment in the "green transformation" of European industry and the retraining of European workers, more jobs would be lost than created.

This point was echoed from the industry perspective by Judith Kirton-Darling of the European Metalworkers Federation (EMF). "We have heard a lot of rhetoric about green jobs, but the lack of real investment worries us," she cautioned.

Kirton-Darling said that the scale of the transformation was "mind-boggling" and would fail without huge investment, specifying that many industrial players and trade unions favoured the introduction of so-called "green bonds" – Euro bonds earmarked for investment in green technology and training.

Hegyi, too, mentioned green bonds as a potential investment tool, and also drew attention to the new UK government's mooted green investment bank, which he viewed as a positive idea.

He concluded by arguing that both EU structural funds and the European Social Fund would have to play a part "if we are serious about greening our economy".

According to an ILO definition (see p.5), "green jobs reduce the environmental impact of enterprises and economic sectors, ultimately to levels that are sustainable".

The ILO report defines 'green jobs' as work in "agriculture, industry, services and administration that contributes to preserving or restoring the quality of the environment".

"Green jobs are found in many sectors of the economy from energy supply to recycling and from agriculture and construction to transportation," it notes.

In her draft report on green jobs and sustainable employment strategies, German Green MEP Elisabeth Schroedter called on the Commission, EU member states and EU social partners to "ensure that everyone across the EU benefits from a sustainable jobs strategy," with particular attention being focused on "people furthest from the labour market, the most vulnerable and low-skilled workers".

Speaking at yesterday's debate, Schroedter argued that the greatest transformation would take place within as opposed to between jobs, i.e. a majority of workers would learn new skills and training while keeping their current job. This would ensure healthy labour markets while bringing about the type of changes needed to green the EU economy, she claimed.

Judith Kirton-Darling of the European Metalworkers Federation (EMF) argued that EU social partners have been very active in coordinating a "social response" to climate change. She went on to contend that the EU can't have a strong sustainable low carbon strategy without a strong industrial base.

She claimed that other major world economies, including the emerging BRIC countries, were making signficantly higher investment than Europe in restructuring their economies. EU industry is "existentially concerned" as a result, she said.

Creating jobs in low-carbon sectors – so-called 'green jobs' – is considered key to the implementation of the EU's climate and energy package adopted in December 2008 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

The overall EU ambition is to slash greenhouse-gas emissions and boost renewable energies by 20% by 2020.

The green jobs issue has proved a divisive one, however.

On one side, leading trade unions in 2009 argued that "greening the economy" would threaten more jobs than it would create (EURACTIV 25/06/09).

In contrast, a June 2009 WWF report claimed that the European economic stimulus packages were not "nearly green enough," and the EU was failing to kick-start the transition to a low-carbon, competitive economy (EURACTIV 17/06/09).

This point was echoed more recently by Green MEPs, who argued that the EU needed to increase its emission reduction target if it was realistic about creating the promised new generation of  green jobs (EURACTIV 16/03/10).

  • 17 June 2010: EU leaders expected to endorse 'Europe 2020' strategy in Brussels
  • Autumn 2010: European Commission expected to publish paper on green jobs.

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