Climate change and its impact on employment and production

The impact of climate change on employment and production has been the topic of the international symposium held on the 26th and 27th May 2017 in Bressanone and organised by the Bolzano based association Arbeiter-, Freizeit- und Bildungsverein (AFB) and the European Center for Workers' Questions (EZA). Over 70 participants from South Tyrol / Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and Serbia attended this year's conference. The symposium was supported by the European Union.

Climate change, partly caused by human activities, is impairing habitats and living spaces. CO² emissions and temperatures on the rise as well as more frequent unpredictable extreme weather events evidence that the ecological balance is worsening. For the future, life threatening scenarios are foreseeable around the world unless we succeed in reducing harmful emissions while redirecting economic activities towards more climate-neutral and sustainable models.

One of the main contributing factors to the current situation is the global interweaving of production and consumption resulting from globalization. The market-oriented concepts which are now governing economic activities and economic planning have so far failed to pay due attention to the consequences for the ecosystem. In both industrialized and developing countries, it is the socially deprived people who are more at risk of seeing their livelihoods threatened both by climate change on the one hand, and by the necessary structural shifts towards climate neutrality on the other. The Paris Climate Conference has made it clear that human activities contribute significantly to global warming. OECD studies show that doing nothing to redress the situation is not a valid economic and political option.

Climate-neutral production and provision of goods and services: this is the ideal scenario for tackling climate change in the future. To achieve that goal we must avoid harmful behaviours while proactively shaping and implementing an adaptation process for our economic activities. Notwithstanding promising approaches for a purposeful implementation of relevant political programmes worldwide, the consensus-finding process too often fails because of petty selfishness. The fact is that the impacts of climate change on agriculture and forestry, tourism, production of goods and services and living conditions (health, housing, mobility) trigger chain reactions with far-reaching consequences. Failure to cut polluting emissions and to avoid behaviours which are harmful to the environment and hazardous to health, including failure to convert our economic systems appropriately, will ultimately endanger the supply of food and goods, possibly leading to a collapse of the ecosystem.

Against this scenario, structural changes are affecting the economy. Let us consider the growth of renewable energies in Germany as an example. Between 2004 and 2014 jobs in this industry more than doubled from 161,000 to 355,000. However, while certain businesses have expanded strongly, others have suffered severe drops in jobs and economic importance. The overall net effect on employment is therefore limited, with the parties involved in restructuring going through difficult times. This is why offering a perspective to the "losers" in the shift to renewable energy is important, especially when companies in trouble are concentrated in a certain geographic area. However, as seen in job advertisements and new hires, the demand for new "green jobs" will be lower than the demand for extra qualifications to be added to existing job profiles ("greening").

For trade unions, participating actively in shaping structural change is a more successful approach than the attempt to delay it. However, major modifications in the labour market legislation and fewer chances to be actively involved in political decision-making make it difficult to enforce concepts of social justice to meet current needs. Will there still be a role for Europe as a community of values and a concerted welfare state model in the future? That is an open question. In its study on social justice released in 2011 (Social Justice Index), the Bertelsmann Foundation suggested that economic development in the future should not be measured only in terms of GDP but also on the basis of other aspects, such as access to the labour market, poverty alleviation, education opportunities, health and intergenerational justice. A study by Thomas Piketty helped resume the discussion about redistributive justice. Indeed, as a result of new framework conditions for defining work (deregulation, smart working), production (industry 4.0) and the role of trade unions, the concept of social justice needs to be restated to include the distribution of value added as one of its key elements.

A look at the future of food supply reveals that changes are expected also in that field. If the world population continues to grow at the current pace, the food demand will rise by 70 percent by 2050. Meanwhile one third of the food produced is going to waste. Already now there are strong regional differences in the security of supply and in the technical development of agriculture. According to FAO data, in 2050, 38 percent of the world's population will be overweight and 11 percent under-nourished. It is foreseeable that traditional forms of agriculture will be increasingly replaced by modern farms and industrial agriculture. Urban agriculture, i.e. agricultural production in cities and urban areas, will gain in importance. FAO data from 2008 reveal that already now 15-20 percent of food production occurs in highly specialized cultivation areas. In 2030 urban settlements will account for 80 percent of consumption.

In addition, highly specialized production facilities such as agroparks (urban greenhouse establishments), skyfarming (vertical agriculture in skyscrapers) and community initiatives (urban gardening) are becoming increasingly popular. In the future, sustainable food supply and value chains will have to overcome the negative side effects of traditional industrial farming: oversized production plants with a high concentration of animals and plants and an extensive use of chemical products end up overstraining the ecosystems.

In general, thanks to its geographic position, Europe might be spared the most severe consequences of climate change, whose effects at the conference were illustrated by using the Alpine region as an example of a diverse and sensitive economic and ecological system. In the Alps, an average rise in temperature of about 2 degrees Celsius will cause disruptions in agriculture and tourism, which could also be life-threatening for some areas. Although, on the one hand, higher temperatures could allow growing new crops and cultivating plots of land at higher altitudes, on the other hand, the side effects of a temperature rise pose a number of problems. The drastic shrinking of glaciers (20 percent retreat between 2006 and 2013) and the significantly lower precipitation volumes expected for the future call for an optimized use of water, for example by expanding drip irrigation systems. In the case of viticulture, soil analyzes are particularly useful to adapt to the new conditions.

The cooperation between tourism and agriculture and embedding one’s advertising claims into an authentic experience of local culture and traditional customs also play an important role. The only way for operators to succeed in inducing long-lasting changes in consumer behaviour through supply-side practices is by paying due attention to trends in leisure activities and harness them to develop suitable marketing strategies.

Alpine areas have several options: specialize in dairy and livestock farming while focusing on animal welfare, climate-neutral and cost-effective production; further develop the successful “farm-based tourism” model and upscale it to an “agri resort” model; grow autochthonous grape varieties and high-quality apple varieties. As for professional qualifications, operators wanting to adapt to the new situation will have to develop sound agro-technical knowledge, customer orientation and entrepreneurial thinking. Farmers must expand their agricultural skills and explore the opportunities offered by diversified sources of income (for example: machinery rings- i.e. cooperative associations providing machinery, skills and labour to their members in the farming community -, arts and crafts, farm sale of agricultural products). Better division of labour in the rural family: women, who meanwhile are fully engaged in running their farms, can implement their business ideas, from the farm sale of agricultural products to farm dairies and “green care” (offers for the care of children, the elderly and social care projects). Larger fruit and grape growing farms which opt for eco-sustainable practices tend to need more seasonal helpers and permanent agricultural workers. On the other hand, a higher accommodation capacity and a wider range of tourist services provided mean new employment opportunities. So far new jobs have been created especially in the wellness industry, with growth expected in the future in the fields of wellbeing and the provision of cultural experiences. Research centres specializing in agriculture - genomics being key here - and tourism are helping companies to adapt to the change underway. The public sector can support the energy shift through ambitious energy plans; incentives for the energy refurbishment of condominiums and corporate buildings could accelerate the pace of adaptation.

The construction sector, which accounts for about 40 percent of energy consumption, has implemented a number of successful climate change adaptation strategies. Sustainable construction methods compliant with the energy efficiency standards developed by the Bolzano-based CasaClima –KlimaHaus Agency (ClimateHouse) and the energy refurbishment of the existing building stock are examples of adaptation measures with high energy-saving potential. The Climate-Neutrality Alliance, whose membership has meanwhile grown to over 120 companies from the entire the Alpine region, is an example of how the compensation mechanism can be used as a lever for advancing energy and climate policy. According to a concept developed by Prof. Radermacher, the members of the Alliance commit themselves to the progressive discontinuation of polluting behaviours with the aim of achieving a climate-neutral economy. In addition, climate protection projects in developing countries are supported on a voluntary basis to foster environmentally friendly growth in the sites involved. By voluntarily supporting projects, the rich people in the world can make an important contribution to climate protection. Finally, efforts are needed to enhance agricultural production in developing countries through projects focusing on irrigation, soil renaturation, reforestation, biogas plants, solar energy. The withdrawal from detrimental international agreements with developing countries should be considered.


EZA Educational Programme 2019

Campaign "Healthy Workplaces: Manage dangerous substances"