What Are Green Jobs — and Why Do They Matter in Eastern and Southeast Europe?

TEXT: Anastasia Bekish – 10. December 2020

Fortunately, the disruptive 2020 is coming to its end. But humanity still has to not only neutralize the effects of the “perfect storm” but learn from it and use this unique opportunity to rethink and reset the systems. Frankly speaking, by the beginning of 2020, way before the pandemic started, the world was already in an existential crisis. For the first time, all the main global risks to the world economy, well-being and stability, according to the estimates of the World Economic Forum, were concentrated in the field of climate change and nature loss. At least half of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) and billions of jobs that are directly dependent on the well-being of the main natural systems were at risk. And although the climate crisis was firmly entrenched at the pinnacle of political and economic priorities for many governments, businesses and financial institutions, the speed of transformation was far from what was really needed to be on track to decarbonizing our economies by 2050.

According to popular belief, the COVID-19 pandemic has showed us the climate crisis in an accelerated format. In a short time, we have been able to fully get the feeling of how fragile seemingly well-established social and economic systems really are. Same as in the case of the climate crisis, COVID-19 disproportionately affected those who are the worst protected and prepared for global threats: the poor and the disadvantaged all over the world.

For now, it’s clear that the consequences of the pandemic will exceed the 2008 economic crisis in scale, and that recovery will require significant investments and reforms. However, it is also clear that overcoming this crisis in a stand-alone format will not bring the necessary results. We must use the unique momentum to tackle all-in-one and address the climate crisis by overcoming the damage of the pandemic, reconsider our relationship with nature and seize the opportunities that the green transition offers us, instead of returning to unsustainable business-as-usual practices that led us to the 2020’s “full house” crisis.

The contradistinction of economic development and green transformation has long been taken for granted, but this way of thinking is becoming a sign of the outdated past. Thus, the EU Green Deal was named by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, "our new growth strategy – for a growth that gives back more than it takes away". Green growth appears to be the driver for economic development that can not only reduce the risks associated with the climate crisis and nature loss, but also become an incentive for the modernization of entire industries, responsible investment and decent job creation.

The World Economic Forum, in its new report The Future of Nature and Business, has identified 15 systemic transitions in nature-based systems with annual business opportunities worth $10 trillion that could create 395 million jobs by 2030. According to WEF estimates, this will account for about 20% of total job growth in the next 10 years. These transformations are affecting three major socio-economic systems that already account for two-thirds of existing jobs around the globe: the food, land and ocean use system; the infrastructure and the built environment system; and the extractives and energy system. The 15 sectors with the highest potential for transformation include advanced manufacturing, food production, ICT, tourism, retail and transportation, banking and other areas, in complex covering all the aspects of our everyday life.

How we understand the concept of “green jobs” is also important. Thus, according to the United Nations’ Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) definition, “green jobs are both environmentally sound and also ’decent‘ in social terms”. It is assumed that such forms of employment not only contribute to the decarbonization of the economy, the efficient use of resources and energy or the protection of biodiversity, but also offer safe working conditions, social protection and fair income. Thus, “green” employment contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Green job creation is at the heart of RECONOMY, a regional inclusive economic development program, which is being implemented by Helvetas in partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) in 12 countries in Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and the Western Balkans. All 15 key areas of transformation are applicable to the region, however, in this article, we will focus on key industries that are important employers in all countries and provide opportunities for further economic growth and employment according to the Market Systems Analysis conducted by the program.

Green Jobs in IT and Digital Communications

Digitalization and the EU Green Deal go hand in hand. The current pandemic crisis has only increased the focus on this industry in the context of changing attitudes in lifestyle, ways of doing business and manufacturing. Cleantech is gaining popularity among IT entrepreneurs globally. Digital technologies are helping to make progress in a variety of nature-connected industries, such as renewable energy, sharing economy, circular manufacturing and recycling and sustainable mobility. Agriculture has already introduced significant changes under the influence of digitalization too, such as “smart” planning, monitoring of crops, optimization of fertilization - which can not only increase efficiency, but also reduce the impact on the environment. The COVID-19-related shift towards e-meetings and platforms for “remote offices” to some extent reduced our environmental impact as well.

The ICT sector is one of the fastest-growing in all of the Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership countries and creates high-paid and competitive jobs for young people. Nevertheless, the topic of “clean technologies” for the community of startups, venture investors and well-established IT companies in the region is still quite new, although there are already very successful examples, such as Belarusian startup OneSoil which uses AI and satellite systems for crop analysis and field monitoring and is already helping farmers save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Specialized startup accelerators have already begun to operate in some of the countries of the region such as, for instance, the ClimateLaunchpad by EIT Climate KIC which helps to tackle climate change with innovative technological entrepreneurship in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Cleantech projects can receive support from impact investment funds (e.g. Green for Growth Fund, operating in Southeast and Eastern Europe), as well as free coaching and investor communication assistance (in the Private Financing Advisory Network administered by UNIDO). However, the popularization of the green agenda among the IT community and the expansion of entry points for young people who would like to combine work in the digital sector and the green economy are still underdeveloped in both Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans.

Green Jobs in Manufacturing

According to the “New Textiles Economy” report by Ellen Macarthur Foundation, textile waste already generates $500 billion in annual economic losses. However, with the growth of population and income, as well as the popularity of the “fast fashion” approach, the production of clothing and footwear remains a fast-growing industry. It is assumed that without the introduction of circular models, the share of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the fashion industry will increase by more than two times in the next 30 years.

Light industry is one of the largest employers in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, but employment in this area does not meet the definition of green jobs. The production of clothing and footwear in our region is strongly associated with both low incomes and social insecurity of workers (especially women workers), and a huge negative environmental impact. While there is a growing demand among consumers for sustainable clothing, which motivates manufacturers to consider adopting circular patterns in production and supply chains, the opportunities are limited at this stage. There is practically no textile waste management system in the region, including collection and recycling, accompanied by a large shortage of qualified personnel despite the existing demand from businesses, the opportunity to acquire skills in textile waste management in existing education institutions is limited or not available at all.

However, according to a report by the World Economic Forum, an increase in the global average rate of circularity of textile waste from 14% to just 30% could generate savings worth $130 billion annually by 2030. Greening the textile industry allows to turn the existing jobs “green” and to create new ones, including in the areas of collection and processing of such waste, and eco-friendly fashion.

Green Jobs in Built Environment

High rates of urbanization have become a characteristic feature of the time. In Belarus alone, 75% of the population already lives in cities and the share continues to grow. A similar situation is observed in other countries of the region. Innovative urban planning based on energy efficient construction and renewable energy sources, nature-based solutions in the management of water resources and urban infrastructure is becoming critical and can significantly reduce the cost of financial resources and improve the quality of life, while contributing to the sustainable management of natural resources.

Already now, as noted in the World Employment Social Outlook by ILO, at least 7% of the population, globally, are employed in construction. For Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and the Western Balkans, the construction sector is also one of the largest employers with the prospect of employment growth, which in turn creates the potential for green jobs. The demand for professionals with competencies in energy efficient construction and services, such as “smart home” systems, as well as integration of renewable energy in both the residential and commercial sectors, is constantly increasing. Nevertheless, the sector is accompanied by systemic problems, such as a lack of qualified personnel and insufficient access to financial instruments, including credit resources at affordable rates for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and consumers.

However, the expansion of the European Renovation Wave program in the region under the EU Green Agenda for the Western Balkans and similar instruments in the Eastern Partnership countries will create additional opportunities for intensive growth of green employment. It will also create a sustainable future for capacity building programs for SMEs working in the sector, including ESCO companies, and programs for upskilling personnel and creating new - and green - jobs.

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The outgoing “terrible 2020” ruined the fates of millions (if not billions) of people around the globe, taking lives and destroying small businesses, undermining economic opportunities and our common efforts to build a prosperous and equitable society. And yet, the main lesson that we must learn is that systems that lead to an unsustainable future and do not address global challenges must be transformed. We still have time for this, but this time is limited, and right now we’re facing a unique one-in-a-generation opportunity to invest right and achieve sustainable change.

European recovery means green recovery: the EU is taking the lead in ensuring that we do not waste such valuable time and resources and arrive at a future in which no one is left behind in the face of the climate crisis, inequality and global insecurity. Countries in the Neighborhood and Enlargement region shouldn’t miss the opportunity and take advantage of this outstretched helping hand of the EU Green Deal in its pan-European dimension: it’s a chance to ensure that we’re moving forward to a better future for all.

Anastasia Bekish is the Environment and Climate Change Manager of the RECONOMY Regional Program.

This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of Helvetas MosaicSubscribe to never miss an issue.

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