The impact of climate change on our everyday lives and how the world can move to a carbon neutral economy takes centre stage this week.

Can South Africa truly commit to lowering carbon emissions and fighting unemployment at UN summit without the right data?

World leaders are meeting at the United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit which is being punted as the defining political event for climate for 2019. A number of concrete commitments are expected from countries, companies and civil society to combat climate change. South Africa is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world and is coming under increasing pressure to adopt new technologies to power the country. International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor is heading up the South African delegation, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said he looks forward to holding talks with her.

South Africa’s electricity largely comes from power utility Eskom which needs coal. Job losses, job creation and the advantages of adopting new methods to keep the country on the power grid formed part of discussions at the country’s first Digital Economy Summit hosted by 4IRSA earlier this year. The concern around employment is shared by many countries, with the UN announcing a new jobs’ initiative which it has urged states to join. It provides a roadmap to ensure that people’s jobs and well-being are at the centre of the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.

The new “Climate Action for Jobs” initiative has been developed by the Climate Action Summit, together with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other members of the summit’s Social and Political Drivers Action Area, co-led by Spain and Peru. According to Guterres, around 1.2 billion jobs (40percent of world employment) rely directly on a healthy and stable environment.

“… business cannot succeed on a planet that fails. Jobs cannot be sustained on a dying planet,” he says in a press release. “We will need government, businesses and people everywhere to join these efforts so we can put climate action into a higher gear.”

The initiative calls on countries to formulate national plans for a just transition, creating decent work and green jobs and sets out specific measures for inclusion in these plans. While South Africa does have various policies on climate change, activists and labour believe that they are not being followed through nor is there enough focus on the impact on the world of work.

The UN initiative calls for a number of measures:

  • Assessing the employment, social, and economic impacts of climate action
  • Implementing skills development and upgrading measures
  • Designing innovative social protection policies to protect workers and vulnerable groups
  • Increasing the transfer of technology and knowledge to developing countries, and innovation and responsible investment
  • Fostering a conducive business environment to enable enterprises, in particular, SMEs, to adopt low-carbon production processes
  • Devising economic policies and incentives to support and encourage enterprises’ transition towards the environmentally sustainable production of goods and services
  • Creating mechanisms for inclusive social dialogue to build consensus for transformative and sustainable change

The ILO estimates that measures to green the production and use of energy will lead to net job gains of around 24 million jobs by 2030. This is in line with views by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council which says a shift to a more environmentally friendly economy tends to have “higher local content than traditional fossil-fuel-based economic activities”. This is because energy-efficient investments such as retrofitting buildings are
more location specific and require local labour. Also, most clean energy industries are more labour intensive than carbon-intensive ones. The ILO says it is crucial that all stakeholders come on board.

“The actors in the world of work – governments, employers and workers – have a key role to play in developing new ways of working that safeguard the environment for present and future generations, eradicate poverty and promote social justice by fostering sustainable enterprises and creating decent work for all” says ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.

According to South Africa’s Green Economy Inventory published in 2017, the country’s developmental challenges, which are characterised by persistent poverty and inequality, high levels of unemployment, and energy and water insecurity, can be addressed through “a just transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient and pro-employment development path”. The report was published as part of the Partnership for Action on Green Economy, which is an initiative between the UN’s Environment Programme, the ILO, the UN Development Programme, the UN Industrial Development Organisation, the UN Institute for Training and Research and the South African government.

While the document says the country is transitioning to a green economy, trade unions have become more sceptical since the country adopted a Green Economy Accord in 2011. One of the main concerns is that a “just transition” is necessary for workers and it must include a substantial focus on decent jobs and reskill in key industries – which are contained in the measures for the UN’s new job initiative. Upskilling is highlighted throughout the document, which warns that there is a “strong sense that the skills development component of green economy work is often neglected”.

“Having an increased green skills pool will enable South Africa to proactively implement and up-scale green economy initiatives,” it reads.

It says that to complement current research, it will be useful to better understand who is offering training, how to enhance training, and how green skills can be integrated into other initiatives to improve South Africa’s skills set. It warns there is very little data in the public domain on the impact of the country transitioning from what is described as a “dirty” economy. There is a general lack of information about the number of jobs created, and what are the general social and environmental benefits of green economy initiatives. However, this does not imply that the information does not exist, but instead suggests that initiatives are most likely not releasing information on their broader impacts.

“This points to the need to design research monitoring, evaluation and learning processes that enable initiatives to identify and report on the multiple returns of green investments, particularly the social and environmental benefits, in order to provide evidence that will
support the case for additional investments into greening economic sectors,” the report reads.

Another concern is how complex it is to gauge employment numbers because it is not clear in the country what constitutes a green job. It says this due to a lack of green occupations recognised in South Africa and confusion on whether an accountant working, for example, in a green economy initiative such as Bio2Watt, is a green job or just an ordinary job in a green sector. While South Africa uses the ILO’s definition of green jobs to frame national discourse, this definition and categorisation are not implemented in reporting systems.

“Given the importance of creating employment in South Africa and the inclusion of ‘pro- employment’ in one of the most commonly used definitions of the green economy in the country, one would expect a clear focus on green jobs and job creation in green economy initiatives,” the report reads.

“One of the most challenging aspects of identifying green initiatives for inclusion in the Inventory was the lack of reporting on green jobs data. While it is recognised that this data exists, it is not easy to access. As such, it is recommended that future work investigates and gathers this more granular information.”

The lack of data and access to it is a common thread as South Africa starts embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While stakeholders agree that the country needs to lower its carbon emissions and soaring unemployment figures, without the correct information, policy development and signing international accords will ultimately be a stab in the dark.

By: Amy Musgrave