We need to direct the aspirations and opportunities of a new labor market toward activities aligned with conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.
We live in a climate crisis, and scientists are increasingly detailing what to do to prevent it from worsening. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released on April 4th, brings several guidelines for urgent measures to be adopted by governments, companies, and all sectors of society. Two phrases from one of Elvis Presley’s classics are a good summary of the IPCC’s findings: “Tomorrow will be too late. It’s now or never!”
Cutting almost half of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is one of the necessary tasks for our generation. The first part of the IPCC report, released in 2021, already highlighted such a target. But the recent report adds the need to peak emissions between 2020 and 2025. The peak represents the year we will have the maximum of these emissions before they begin to fall.
Given we have already passed two years from that range, we have only three years to reach the maximum level of greenhouse gas emissions and start on a rapid reduction path. We must take this route to have at most a 50% chance of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C by 2100.
In this scenario of urgency, the IPCC shows it is possible to reach 2030 with a 50% reduction in emissions if we adopt solutions that already exist and cost less than $100 per ton of CO₂.
Such good news should guide all government decisions from now on. Every new public tender or approval of rules with climate impact should demonstrate it is adopting measures that will reduce emissions. One example is the energy sector, as the price of solar and wind sources have declined by 85% and 55%, respectively, between 2010 and 2019. Such sources should be a priority for new energy infrastructure from now on.
Another prominent topic is the need to advance with a just transition to a zero-carbon economy. Changing production patterns will impact the employment of millions of people in every country. Because of that, the Paris Agreement called for a “just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs.”
The IPCC explains that a just transition must ensure that no person, worker, sector, country, or region is left behind in the transition from a high to a low-emission economy. Governments and companies must ensure that the negative social, environmental, or economic impacts of this transition are minimized. And the most vulnerable populations deserve particular attention, with specific measures to help eradicate poverty.
But this discussion has advanced little. The IPCC highlights that only 19 countries have task forces or committees dedicated to discussing the issue. In Latin America, Costa Rica is the only country debating the topic in its national decarbonization plan. Among the labor organizations in the region that support the discussion, the report highlights a Post-Oil Transition Roundtable in Argentina, and the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), in Brazil. CUT released a booklet on the subject in 2021.
Mary Robinson, the former prime minister of Ireland, explains the challenges for a just transition in her book “Climate Justice”. She presents a case in Canada where a town prepared to decommission the mining activity. The miners union managed to secure training so that the 1,500 workers could migrate to other activities.
However, even with all the initiatives, the impacts were significant. The local commerce collapsed with the migration of several inhabitants to other cities, and part of the miners could not reposition themselves in the job market. This example highlights that governments and society as a whole have a lot to plan to secure a just transition.
This discussion still needs to evolve in Brazil, but we already have a solid base to promote this just transition: the Federal Constitution. During the historic trial of seven environmental lawsuits in the Supreme Court, which began in late March, Justice Cármen Lúcia emphasized the relationship between economic activity, human dignity, and the environment provided for in Article 170 of the Constitution.
This article determines that the country’s economic order must ensure, among other things, dignified existence and environmental protection, “including differentiated treatment according to the environmental impact of products and services and the processes for their preparation and provision”. Therein lies the basis for our just transition.
For now, a more specific but insufficient measure has emerged in Law 14.299/2022, approved in January. It created the Fair Energy Transition Program (TEJ in Portuguese), focusing on the production of mineral coal in Santa Catarina state, in the south of Brazil. The law foresees that coal production would continue until 2040, which is too late, considering the scenarios brought up in the latest IPCC report. The energy transition and the increasing investments in renewable sources can leave coal assets stranded before 2030, which will impact workers in the sector.
But since Brazil’s primary source of emissions is deforestation, especially in the Amazon, we need a just transition plan for this region. Cattle ranching occupies 90% of the deforested area in the Amazon, so an initial approach would be to focus on a transition plan in this sector. But when we look more closely at the characteristics of jobs in the region, we realize several other challenges.
Studies by the Amazônia 2030 initiative analyzed the labor market profile and revealed that deforestation has not contributed to creating suitable employment and income conditions in the region. In the agricultural and cattle ranching sector, the third most employing, there was a 16% drop in the number of jobs between 2012 and 2019 (a loss of 322 thousand jobs). In this period, deforestation more than doubled in the Amazon, and there was an expansion of pastureland.
It is also a sector with high informality in labor relations (81%), and that pays poorly: less than a minimum wage on average. In other words, the expansion of this activity is not justified in socioeconomic and environmental terms.
One of the most worrying data is the Amazon youth: 57% of those between 18 and 24 years old and 40% between 25 and 29 years old are unemployed. Such statistics are higher than in the rest of Brazil, revealing a labor market hostile to the youngest.
The transformation to a zero-carbon economy in the Amazon requires urgent measures to place young people in a market aligned with sustainability. Solutions must include a more significant professional training offer and encourage entrepreneurship linked to the green economy.
Above all, Brazil needs to build a collective ideal of success that values the standing forest, encouraging the new generations to see themselves as a fundamental part of the climate solution.
The opinion articles are the author’s own responsibility.