Beyond the crisis: what is the jobs potential of shifting towards a low-carbon economy?


Opening remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at the meeting of OECD Employment and Labour Ministers (working lunch)

Paris, 29 September 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished Ministers,

It is a great pleasure for me to host this working lunch. It offers an opportunity to look beyond the current crisis and discuss the jobs potential of a shift towards a low-carbon economy and what policies are needed to realise this potential.

Your discussions yesterday and this morning have shown that there is still much to be done to assist workers and their families to weather the economic storm. But it is also important to consider where we are headed once the storm has subsided. When we raise our eyes above the horizon, few issues loom larger than the need to achieve sustainable and balanced growth. Indeed, combating climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. The discussions last week in New York and at the G20 Pittsburgh Summit made it clear that the COP15 Conference in Copenhagen in December represents a unique opportunity to address this global challenge. But sustainable growth goes beyond caring for the environment, and any transition to a low carbon economy will also need to take into account issues related to social impact and sustainability.

We stand ready to provide our support. At the OECD Council Ministerial meeting last June, we were tasked to develop a Green Growth Strategy. Such a strategy will bring a whole-of-government perspective, including the role that labour market and social policies can and should play in promoting the transition to a low-carbon economy and assisting workers in the process. I would like to make a few observations on this role.

A first observation is that certain policies can pay a “double-dividend” by contributing both to tackling the jobs crisis and to achieving green growth. For example, many of the fiscal stimulus packages OECD countries have introduced to sustain growth include considerable investments in environmentally-related projects. These initiatives often have an important jobs dimension. I am particularly keen to hear about experiences in your countries concerning the employment potential of measures to promote green growth. How big is this potential? How can it be maximized?

My second observation is that the labour market impact of the transition to a low-carbon economy will be more complicated and difficult than simply adding so-called “green jobs”. While green jobs will be created, providing new opportunities for many workers, some existing jobs will be eliminated and many others will be transformed, as skill sets and work methods adjust to the needs of a greener economy. At the same time, our understanding of how the transition to green growth will impact upon jobs and workers remains quite limited and further in-depth work is needed to guide policy-making in this area. I welcome the fact that you have agreed to give us a mandate to undertake more work in this area, I believe that we can make a useful contribution to the policy debate.

My final observation is that it will be crucial to enhance the adaptability of our labour markets, if we are to succeed in the transition towards a low-carbon economy. The OECD Reassessed Jobs Strategy provides a comprehensive framework for promoting greater labour market adaptability to achieve high rates of employment and rising job quality. We still have much work ahead of us to indentify how best to apply the general principles contained in the Jobs Strategy to the specific challenges posed by the transition towards green growth. Nonetheless, it is already clear that two broad policy areas will be particularly important for fostering a successful labour market adjustment toward greener growth.

  • Policies aimed at reconciling high labour mobility with income security – such as the need to combine adequate unemployment benefits with effective activation measures – represent a first critical area for action. These policies will be a key to ensuring that the large redeployment of workers which will be required to support the transition to green growth, can be achieved relatively quickly and smoothly. They are also needed to ensure that the inevitable costs of the transition are not unjustly concentrated on a minority of unlucky workers. This in turn, is also a precondition for building and sustaining political support for green growth.
  • Strengthening national education and training systems represents a second critical area for supporting the shift towards a low-carbon economy. Green jobs – including pre-existing jobs which will need to be re-engineered – will require new skills. Governments have an important role to play in helping workers to obtain these skills. Public training programmes can help workers – particularly those moving between jobs – to acquire “green skills”. But they cannot do it alone and will need to work effectively with employers and vocational and tertiary education institutions in anticipating future labour demand shifts and preventing skill mismatches which could slow the transition to greener growth.

The current crisis is an opportunity to take a decisive turn toward greener growth. As Employment and Labour Ministers, you have a central role to play in fostering a successful transition towards low-carbon growth. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how to meet this historic challenge.

Thank you.