Not all green jobs are safe and clean

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In a global economy in the process of decarbonization, metals could be the new oil. According to the IMF, demand for copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium is expected to increase over the next two decades due to their importance for clean energy technologies.

This will have far-reaching implications for the countries that produce them. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, accounts for about 70 percent of global cobalt production and 50 percent of reserves. Yet the cobalt mining there also has well-documented issues with unsafe conditions and child laborers, raising questions about the human labor required to help make the global economy green.

Politicians are promising a “green jobs” boon as they prepare to meet in Glasgow for the United Nations climate change conference later this month. It’s smart policy, not least because the term “green jobs” conjures up images of people planting trees, insulating homes, and working in crisp factories to build electric cars. The investment industry also tends to confuse “good for the environment” with “good for employees”, for example by grouping categories together in ESG ratings of companies. But if the term “green employment” refers to any activity that contributes to restoring or preserving the environment, then it applies equally to someone looking for cobalt in a hole as to someone who makes blades. wind turbines.

The truth is that some jobs involved in greening the economy are dirty and dangerous, and not just those in mining. As the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has said: “We tend to associate the word ‘green’ with safety, but what is good for the environment is not necessarily good for the environment. safety and health of workers who are employed in works. “

The recycling industry is another example. While it’s important to reduce the amount of product going to landfill, recycling jobs can be dangerous, poorly paid, and insecure. Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive, the UK regulatory body, show the fatal injury rate in the waste and recycling sector is 17 times the average for all industries, just behind the agriculture sector , forestry and fishing.

Many large recycling centers use a combination of machines and humans who stand on conveyor belts in “sorting booths” and pick up trash on the move. An HSE study, which involved visits and air sampling at seven material recycling facilities, found that some workers were exposed to high levels of dust and endotoxins. Researchers surveyed 100 of the workers, 84 percent of whom reported health issues they attributed to their work, such as skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal symptoms.

This is not an argument against greening the economy. Many carbon-intensive jobs are also dirty and dangerous, and we will all suffer if we don’t tackle climate change. But smarter planning could make some of those “dirty green jobs” safer. Recycling electronics is one example. There are precious metals to be mined from the mountains of electronic gadgets that people throw away (some call it “urban mining”). But the processes involved in recycling electronic waste can release a number of toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, and brominated flame retardants.

This is a particular danger when waste is sent to developing countries such as Ghana, where it is recycled informally, but even in formal settings this can pose problems. Researchers in the United States have found workers in electronic waste recycling centers with overexposure to lead and cadmium. In one case, a worker’s young children were poisoned with lead after he inadvertently brushed lead on his clothes and in his hair (his employer did not provide showers).

These problems could be improved by encouraging manufacturers to change the design of new products so that they can be disassembled and recycled in a safer manner. Recent moves by the US, UK and EU to require manufacturers to make their products more repairable should also help.

This means designing products so that they can be repaired independently, providing manuals and making spare parts available. Applied correctly, these laws should help reduce waste and create new skilled jobs. Health, safety and employment regulators must step up their control over occupations that are set to grow rapidly as the world commits to reducing its carbon emissions.

There is a lot to be gained from the transition to a low carbon economy, but it would be a mistake to simply assume that green jobs will be good jobs. As Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labor Organization, said: “Green jobs will be made ‘decent’ not by default, but by design.

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