Latin America and Caribbean show way to green COVID-19 recovery

Greening the world of work post-COVID-19 could create millions of jobs in the most bio-diverse region on the planet. However, the right policies need to be put in place to ensure they are decent jobs.

Catherine Saget, ILO Research Department

COVID-19 has focused attention on zoonotic diseases – those which jump from other animals to humans.

The transference of diseases like COVID-19, Ebola, SARS and MERS, shows what can happen when we treat nature with insufficient respect, and how this can undermine not only our health but, longer-term, our societies and future.

Used correctly, our environment provides oxygen, food, medical products and the basis for many aspects of culture. One of the few positive things to come out of this challenging time is that it has reawakened our understanding of how inextricably the natural world is linked to our daily lives, including the world of work.

Our challenge now is to seize the opportunity that post-COVID rebuilding provides to rebalance our relationship with the environment in a way that will create employment that is sustainable, growth that is inclusive, and social systems that are equitable.

Greening the world of work can and must play a central role in building this new, better, future.

A recent ILO-Inter-American Development Bank joint report focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean (Jobs in a Net-Zero Emissions Future in Latin America and the Caribbean) – the most biodiverse region on the planet – shows that the transition to an economic model based on net-zero carbon emissions could create 15 million new jobs (net) for the region by 2030: This would consist of 22.5 million new jobs in agriculture and plant-based food production, renewable electricity, forestry, construction and manufacturing, while 7.5 million jobs in animal-based food production and fossil fuel extraction and electricity would disappear.

In the Amazon’s tropical forests, de-carbonization efforts would bring a double benefit – generating employment while also capturing carbon. Public employment programmes including reforestation and other measures that help protect or restore ecosystems, would play a crucial role.

But the jobs in emerging green sectors will not automatically be decent jobs unless they are shaped by the right policies. We already know the agricultural sector has stubborn decent work deficits. Shifting employment from the informal to the formal sector is also not a simple solution; for example in the public transport network in Bogota, Columbia, every new official bus (which is linked to jobs with better working hours, safe conditions and social protection) displaces seven informal minibuses, leaving many drivers unemployed and uncompensated. We must not simply replace one problem with another.

A lower carbon economy that is not just and equitable will also not deliver the post-pandemic model we need. For example, currently about 80 per cent of new jobs created through de-carbonization are in traditionally male-dominated areas; this could undermine progress towards gender equality.

Current social protection structures – unemployment benefits, pensions and health care – will also have to adapt.

Designing climate-friendly solutions that contribute to sustainable development goals and are also accepted by local stakeholders is tricky. But an old, and proven, tool is available to help with this – social dialogue. For example, in Costa Rica the government negotiated with numerous stakeholders to create a broadly-accepted National Decarbonization Plan that includes labour strategies for a just transition, which aim to ensure that no one is left behind in the national move to a green, sustainable, economy.

The road to a net-zero emissions future will not be easy or smooth, but it is the only path to a future that is economically resilient, socially just, and environmentally sustainable.

– See United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, General Assembly of the United Nations, 30 September 2020, New York.

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