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The future of work and the ecological transition

Philippe Frémeaux, 4 février 2015

[français] [français]

The transition to a genuinely sustainable economy appears today as an absolute necessity. We must not only greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the extent of climate change, but also reduce the drain on the planet’s non-renewable resources and put an end to the degradation of the ecosystems that are the very foundation of human life. The challenge is now to make these constraints desirable for all.

The seminar organized Tuesday 27th of January – at the initiative of the Veblen Institute, the magazine Project and the Collège d’études mondiales’ Chaire Reconversion écologique, travail, emploi et politiques sociales (Chair in Ecological Reconversion, Labor, Employment and Social Policies), headed by Dominique Meda – helped to advance the issue by bringing together a large number of stakeholders (policy makers, employment and vocational training specialists, trade unionists, local actors and of course, researchers and academics). The goal was to reflect together on the employment consequences of an ambitious ecological transition policy.

In a society where income is derived from employment and the level of employment is closely correlated to the level of activity ; it is permissible to worry when we are told that we need to consume and produce less !

Main conclusion of this day : the level of employment that will result from future changes remains largely undefined. Existing modeling studies on the subject can be used to test the impact of a given measure, explained Xavier Timbea of the Observatoire français des conjonctures économiques (OFCE - French Observatory of Economic Conditions). However, they cannot measure the impact of a systematic transformation that would specifically change the implicit regularities that underpin these models. In fact, at medium to long term, the level of employment is the result of multiple social and conventional arrangements that, as History has thought us, can change radically.

Other sectoral studies, presented by Philippe Quirion of the Centre international de recherché sur l’environnement et le développement (CIRED - International Center for Researchon Environment and Development) or Thomas Gaudin and Gael Callonnec of the Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie (ADEME - Environment and the Energy Management Agency), allow to measure the impact of an ambitious energy transition. However, lacking macroeconomic closure, they leave relatively open the question of the final effects on the level of employment. In fact, and as illustrated by Cécile Jolly’s intervention, France Strategy’s policy makers reason more along a “continuation of past trends” logic. A line of thought well suited to a vision of the future in which “business as usual” logics still dominate.

The statistical services of the State nevertheless endeavor to accurately measure current evolutions – a task that is complicated by the inadequate character of the employment and qualification nomenclatures. The quantification of green jobs is also subject to question. By listening to Sophie Margontier of the Commissariat général au développement durable (CGDD - General Commission for Sustainable Development), it was found that these statistical services readily mix up new jobs linked to the emergence of another sustainable economy – that of organic farming and renewable energy – with jobs whose number could be led to decline as the economy becomes more sustainable – jobs linked to the recovery and treatment of waste, including nuclear waste !

In fact, as recalled by Jean Gadrey, adapting to the challenges of climate change opens the door to multiple new activities. Strong examples of this include construction sector craftsmanship, renewable energies, organic farming, recycling and services related to the development of an economy of functionality. If, in the same movement, we took advantage of the ecological constraints to move towards a more inclusive, more democratic, more egalitarian society – where the economy is at the service of individual and collective well-being – other sources of employment would undoubtedly flourish, including all the activities related to care work.

Up to us to handle the indispensable reconversions. And, on this level, the difficulties linked to the ecological transition clearly emerged from this day of discussion. More specifically, they include the imitations and difficulties of the employment, training and career path securing policies that have been implemented for the past forty years, in a context mass unemployment and growing heterogeneity of employment situations. The need for action at the local level, in a form that is not limited to a deconcentration of national policies, was emphasized by Marie-Pierre Establie d’Argencé of the Alliance Villes Emploi, Eric Kniaz of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais Regional Council and Geoffroy de Schutter of é The present union leaders – Bernard Gérin of the French trade-union FCE-CFDT and Joel Decaillon, former vice president under the French trade-union CGT, the European Trade Union Confederation and President of Lasaire – called for a more flexible system for job-linked social protection and benefits, thus allowing workers to change jobs more readily without risking to loose their job-linked benefits and social protection. They also highlighted the difficulties associated to securing reconversions given the gaps in income, working conditions and in status between the lost jobs and the recovered ones. For their part, Nathalie Tessie of the CGDD and Paul Santelmann of the Association pour la formation professionnelle des adultes (AFPA - Association for Adult Vocational Training), highlighted the limitations of current policies in light of these issues – whether it be securing career paths for employees, or providing the transitioning sectors the skilled workers they need.

It is understandable in these circumstances that Julien Dourgnon, from the magazine Alternatives Economiques, had to advocate for the establishment of an unconditional basic income for all. He argued that the return to full employment expected of an ecological transition, involving redistribution of employment and reduction of working time, is still far from certain.

Translated from French by Julien Moity

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