Over the past centuries, we have irreversibly changed the delicate balance of our planet by living beyond our ecological means. Today many of the earth’s resources are scarce - clean water, fresh air, our mineral resources.
Communities are being devastated by mining and logging, and species are becoming critically endangered due to hunting and deforestation. We also face the threats of climate change and are already seeing its impact.
For Greens, the wellbeing of the economy and the environment go hand-in-hand. We believe that our best chance of building lasting, decent employment prospects for future generations is to create jobs that are consistent with sustainable development.
Now is the perfect time for this transformation to get underway. Everywhere we look, the world of work is being disrupted. Traditional industries are in decline, the workforce is becoming increasingly automated, and for many people a ‘job for life’ is a distant memory.
This poses challenges, but it also offers an opportunity we simply can’t afford to miss. It’s well documented that a shift to a green economy will, on balance, have a positive impact on employment. Back in 2012, the European Commission claimed that up to 20 million jobs could be created in the green economy by 2020.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has agreed - ‘greening’ the economy could generate up to 60 million additional jobs globally over the next two decades.
Seizing this momentum could help to radically improve the way we live, and the world we live in. It would also be fully in line with the new sustainable development goals which cover EU countries. However, it is beset by a fundamental problem - right now we simply don’t have the skills we need to grasp this opportunity.
If we want a genuine shot at creating a greener economy, we need to bring issues of sustainability into the classroom and the workplace.
We should think carefully about how states can update their curricula, encouraging students - and young girls in particular - to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and IT skills.
According to the NUS, 60 per cent of first-year university students surveyed are interested in learning more about sustainability, regardless of their course of study.
We need to capitalise on this positive movement. The Commission’s ‘new skills agenda’ has introduced a blueprint for sectoral cooperation on skills, with the commitment to include green technologies and renewable energies in its second wave of implementation this year - its only specific commitment in this area.
An engaged workforce is also critical to the success of this project. We want to see a ‘just’ transition to ‘green’ jobs, which are defined by the ILO as those that “help reduce negative environmental impact ultimately leading to environmentally, economically and socially sustainable enterprises and economies”. Importantly, these must also be decent jobs - offering good pay and long-term prospects.
In order for this to be a success, we’ll have to refocus our priorities. Just because you work in recycling doesn’t mean your job is rubbish. It means you’re on the frontline, providing an essential service for your community and your planet. This attitude should extend through supply chains, out of major cities and into rural and former industrial areas.
In June 2015, I helped to raise these issues and many more in the European Parliament through my role as rapporteur on the ‘Green Employment Initiative: Tapping into the job creation potential of the green economy’. Cross-party MEPs voted in favour of the resolution, which sent a strong signal to the European Commission - it’s time for coordinated action.
However, change is still not happening fast enough. In December 2015 the Commission adopted a revised circular economy proposal, injecting funds into measures to minimise the generation of waste and create 580,000 jobs in the process. It has recently acknowledged the importance of keeping up this momentum into 2017 and beyond, to make the circular economy a reality with benefit for all Europeans.
The EU has also been funding various local projects to help ‘green’ the economy at local level, including helping small businesses in my constituency of London to clean up their operations. But in reality, we’re barely scratching the surface of what needs to be done to truly safeguard our people and planet.
It is currently EU Green Week, an annual opportunity to debate European environmental policy. This year, the focus is on green jobs. It’s the perfect chance for the Commission and member states to reflect on our proposals and act on them.
I am calling for fresh thinking, genuine policy coherence, ambitious goals, binding targets and detailed outlines on how these will be achieved. This cannot be a niche sector - we need fundamental change across our economy and the world of work.
We need an economy that is fit for the world we live in. There’s no time to waste.