Climate change
A new contract

Current growth patterns are unsustainable and there is an urgent need for a change of course to a lower carbon path. For the unions, that means transforming the workplace too.
President of AFL-CIO and TUAC*

We hear again and again that we must choose between having a stable climate and having a strong global economy. This is a false choice.

The global economy cannot prosper unless we secure a stable climate and sustainable sources of energy. Global warming means global depression, food and water shortages and drowned cities. I have stood in New Orleans and seen that future—a future in which the poorest, the most vulnerable, the working poor suffer the most. How can we turn away from a future of global crisis and suffering for the worst off among us? Can we use these crises to build new opportunities, or will we just resume business-as-usual and wait for the next disaster?

Clearly, it is time to correct the path and change the way we think about a just and sustainable economy that works for all.

In the world of work, a number of possibilities and opportunities are at hand. A recently published study shows that in the US alone, the environmental industry created more than 5.3 million jobs–ten times more than in the US pharmaceutical industry. In Europe, a 20% increase in energy efficiency would create about a million jobs. The renewable energy programmes in Germany and Spain are just ten years old but have already created hundreds of thousands of jobs. By the year 2020, Germany will have more jobs in the field of environmental technologies than in its entire automotive industry. Germany is a world leader in solar technology: it is not a particularly sunny country, but for innovation and manufacturing craft, Germany has few rivals. For emerging and developing countries, the opportunities for change are just as tremendous.

It is an example for everyone: the low carbon economy is not just about wind or solar or reducing greenhouse gases, but about changing existing workplaces and ensuring decent work at the same time.

As unions, we are convinced that today’s workplaces need to be transformed. The “greener” economy we must have will not emerge through the production of new goods or energy sources alone, but from a transformation of the production chain itself using workers’ creativity and skills. And on top of the jobs that could be created to protect the environment, more jobs will be created in supplying and in downstream industries. Traditional jobs still need to be improved to participate in the transformation of the world of work, in its technology, organisation and final products.

The recently published OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030 expresses the organisation’s dismay at current policies regarding climate change, but also water or biodiversity, as they are clearly insufficient to protect our children’s future. One can dispute the numbers, but the message is solid: current growth patterns are unsustainable and there is an urgent need for a change of course to a lower carbon path. The following points are vital.

First, there will be no such thing as environmentally-friendly production if workers’ rights are not respected and workers are not trained continuously for the jobs of the future. Workers are in the front line when it comes to the consequences of a deteriorating environment. Its effects are felt on our safety and our families’ health. This means that workers can also act as indispensable guardians of the workplace and the planet, if we are given the right to do so.

Second, a massive transformation in our production methods won’t be possible unless we take into account those who stand to lose their livelihoods as a consequence of changes in energy and production systems. Without a clear plan for an equitable and fair transition towards a low carbon economy, we will not be able to muster the global consensus necessary to act.

And third, there can be no climate and environmentally-friendly economy without ambitious public policies to accompany the world of work towards emission reductions, greater energy and resource efficiency, and which ensure that investments, jobs and wealth shall be equitably distributed within and among countries.

“Green jobs” are the low hanging fruit of the low carbon economy. We have to go further and build a more just and sustainable development policy, in which jobs are a source of wealth and social progress, but also yield a more sustainable environment for future generations.

In building the green economy we have a real opportunity to wipe the slate clean and build a fairer, better global workplace for everyone. Scientists tell us we have very little time. Let us begin now.

*AFL-CIO is the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, at

TUAC is the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD, at

Search other articles by John Sweeney at

OECD (2008), OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030, Paris.

©OECD Observer No 267 May-June 2008

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q1 2019 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% May 2019 annual
Trade: +0.4% exp, -1.2% imp, Q1 2019
Unemployment: 5.2% July 2019
Last update: 8 July 2019

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