Sustainable work and just transition

wind farm

Decades have passed since science established that climate change is real and due to human activities. Some big fossil fuel companies received the first scientific reports about the negative effects on the climate of producing and burning fossil fuels already in the late 1970s. The first UN climate change conference, Conference of the Parties 1 (COP 1) took place in 1995 in Berlin, Germany. The first agreement on emission reduction, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed at the COP3 in Japan in 1997. Many more agreements followed. In 2006 the famous Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (Stern 2006) was released for the UK government. The report, although heavily focussed on the economy, was alarming. Meanwhile COP 27 took place in 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. The results of all that are more than meagre. According to the latest report by the IPCC global net anthropogenic GHG emissions1 in 2019, were about 12 percent higher than in 2010 and 54 percent higher than in 1990. The highest rate of growth of the emissions was 2000-2009 with an annual increase of 2.1 percent it slowed down in the period 2010-2019 to an average annual rate of growth of 1.3 percent. 42 percent of historical cumulative net CO2 emissions since 1850 occurred between 1990 and 2019, while climate change and measures against it were broadly discussed. 17 percent of historical cumulative net CO2 emissions since 1850 occurred even between 2010 and 2019, when several agreements were in place to stop or mitigate climate change. (IPCC 2022, 6). The debate on sustainability has also been ongoing for more than 30 years without leading to ecologically and socially sustainable societies. On the contrary. The use of non-renewable resources is increasing faster than sustainable production and consumption; inequality has increased in almost all countries, as well as the gap between the global North and the global South.

In January 2016 almost all states signed the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), with 17 goals to be achieved by 2030, including the goal of decent and developmentpromoting, sustainable work (UN 2015). Sustainable work was supposed to be included globally in national policy agendas. Nevertheless, the topic is hardly ever explicitly addressed in government policies or public debates. Jobs and employment are a main subject in debates and policy proposals regarding the transition to socially and ecologically sustainable low or zero carbon societies, but rarely the social organization of work, other forms of work or value orientations. Technologies or their usage, on the other hand, play a central role. The policies promoted by governments and the private sector focus almost entirely on a “technological fix”. Trade unions tend to privilege the aspect of social sustainability and to neglect the ecological sustainability, aspects of the transformation of the meaning and organization of work and (especially in the Northern hemisphere) the issue of global just transition. Ecologically-oriented sustainability discourses in exchange, tend to pay little attention to the social sustainability of work, and rarely address work in general. They focus on consumers and companies as main actors. The influence on the work-oriented societies of developments such as demographic shifts (aging societies), migration, digitalization, flexibilization, and globalization is broadly discussed. But the ecological aspects of certain types of work and what they mean for labour and the labour market are widely neglected.

Why focus on work when human life on our planet is threatened by climate change and mass extinction? The radical transformation of production and consumption patterns alone (which does not happen anyway) will not lead to the required social and ecological transition. Employment and the labor markets are changing and we have to make sure that work itself becomes sustainable in all its aspects. It can also be reasonably questioned if the transformation of production and consumption is even possible without the transformation of the work-oriented society (and vice versa). The work-oriented society as such has to be transformed. Some alliances between trade unions, and social and environmental movements (see this report), as well as discourses in academia (see Jochum et al. 2019; Littig 2018; Räthzel, Stevis, and Uzzell 2021) aim at making work the focus of sustainable development. We live in work-oriented societies and work is considered the medium for satisfying individual and social needs (Jochum et al. 2020). The reconceptualization, reorganisation and revalorization of work as sustainable work is therefore a decisive tool from below to push for and guarantee a just transition.
Let us first introduce three terms central to our debate: Sustainable Work and just transition as concepts for a transition to socially and ecologically sustainable societies, and green jobs as most common term in politics, administration, private sector and media regarding work for and in an ecological transition.

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