News of effective vaccines give us hope that soon, the pandemic will be behind us. Global leaders are now asking: how can we prepare for a better future?
The pandemic and the climate crisis: rooted in the same social vulnerabilities, leading to similar social impacts
A better future cannot simply mimic the pre-COVID world. This crisis has revealed how socioeconomic inequalities make nations vulnerable to environmental shocks – and make no mistake, the pandemic has an environmental origin.
For instance, one in every two persons in Latin America and the Caribbean has an informal job. Informality often means no access to social protection and health services, harsh working conditions, and poverty. Take street vendors and owners of informal tourism-oriented restaurants. During the lock downs, they cannot work from home. Most are self-employed, meaning that if they do not work, they do not bring money home that day.
The same inequalities that made the region vulnerable to COVID make it vulnerable to climate change impacts. With climate change comes more frequent and devastating hurricanes. In the Caribbean, one consequence is shorter tourism seasons. For example, the 2017 hurricane season (which featured 17 named storms and six major hurricanes) resulted in an estimated loss of more than 800,000 visitors to the Caribbean. These visitors would have generated US$740 million for the region and supported about 11,000 jobs if there had been no hurricanes. The workers most affected are those involved in the seasonal and informal activities related to tourism.
A new approach is needed. To stop climate change, governments around the world are seeking to transform their food, energy, and transport systems to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – what science tells us is necessary to contain climate change. The basic buildings blocks of a carbon-free economy are known: renewable energy to replace natural gas, diesel and coal power plants; electromobility to phase out gasoline consumption; public transport, walkable neighborhoods and organized telework to reduce reliance on private transport; a shift in diets to free land and enable the reverting of deforestation.
And decarbonization can be good for the economy. During the recent launch of the cost-benefit analysis of the National Decarbonization Plan, President Alvarado of Costa Rica emphasized that far from being a drag on development, decarbonization can build economic growth. The study found that getting to net-zero emissions in the country would bring more than US$40 billion in net benefits to the country, with energy savings, the economic value of lives saved thanks to fewer road accidents, time saved thanks to less road congestions, improvements in ecosystem services and agriculture yields more than compensating the required investments and the forgone value of land used for conserving and reforesting forests.
So can countries reap the benefits of a carbon-neutral economy while creating good jobs?
Workers, governments, and businesses: team up to choose and build a better future
A recent book published by the IDB and the International Labor Organization shows that Latin America and the Caribbean could create 15 million net new jobs by 2030 on the road to a net-zero emissions future. It shows that governments will need to take two key steps to link climate change and socioeconomic recovery goals. First, they will need to ease the impacts of phasing out polluting activities on jobs and communities. In Chile, for instance, 4000 people work in coal power plants – the most polluting source of electricity. In some towns, the power plant is an economic landmark, employing up to 8% of the local workforce. The government has a goal to close all coal power plants by 2040, while managing social impacts. To seek solutions, it has convened discussions with all affected stakeholders. Caribbean islands could do the same about diesel and natural gas power plants.
The other side of the coin is ensuring that climate-friendly activities developed during the transition provide good living jobs with decent conditions. For instance, ecotourism — that promotes responsible travel to natural areas and conserves the environment — can help improve living conditions in coastal and rural areas and at the same time contribute to low-GHG emission growth. However, the tourism sector faces decent work challenges such as seasonal fluctuations, informality, poor working conditions, and in extreme cases, abusive treatment. The expansion of the tourism sector, if not well managed, can disrupt local communities, for instance if foreigners buy up land next to the ocean for resort development or contribute to increasing drug use and prostitution. Ensuring a just transition means using complementary policies, such as local capacity development and providing platforms for social dialogue, to ensure that the promotion of ecotourism does not result in adverse social impacts on local communities.
These examples provide a broader recipe to building good jobs while transitioning to a carbon-free economy: first, identify which economic activities need to be phased out, and which ones need to be developed to reach a carbon-free future. Second, provide help to workers and communities negatively affected. Third, assess current social challenges in the sectors that will grow in a net-zero emissions future, and work on a plan to solve them.
The key to harvesting these potential benefits and delivering an inclusive carbon free economy is to build climate plans based on social dialogue, that is relying on coordinated inputs from the government, civil society, firms, and workers.
Featured Image: Constructing our common future by Helen Yu