Remarks by Achim Steiner to the Second Trade Union Assembly on Labour and the Environment

Brizola Neto, Minister of Employment of the Federative Republic of Brazil,

 Anne Demelenne, General Secretary of Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique

And  Victor Baez, Secretary General of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) and the chair of this session,

Members of the trades unions, SustainLabour, colleagues, friends,

We meet on the eve of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20.

You have asked each of the speakers in this session reflect on three issues.

  1. What are the main challenges on social, environmental and economic arenas the world is facing?
  2. What are the specific instruments (policies, regulations, plans) that governments have to implement to address them?
  3. What need to be decided at Rio+20 to bring back hope that we can move in the right track through multilateral negotiations?

If you will allow me to perhaps just touch on the first question as I think this could preoccupy me for far longer than the allotted time.

Suffice to say last week we launched UNEP's Global Environment Outlook-5.

This science-based assessment pulls no punches and speaks of emerging tipping points in Earth systems that are likely to increase social pressures and tensions as well as significant economic impacts.

GEO-5 also points to the failure of governments to implement what they have agreed.

The experts examined 90 of the most important of these agreements for its annual Global Environmental Outlook report and came to some startling conclusions:

  • "Some" progress was shown in only 40 goals, including the expansion of protected areas such as national parks and efforts to reduce deforestation.
  • "Little or no" progress was detected in 24 including climate change, fish stocks, and desertification and drought.
  • "Further deterioration" was posted for eight goals including the state of the world's coral reefs; and no data was available for 14 other goals.

On the economy, there is perhaps the overarching issue of an urgent need to discover or rediscover a notion of 'wealth' in which human-well-being, a rich concept of prosperity versus short-term profit becomes society's barometer of economic failure or success.

Socially as we know there is the urgent need to generate jobs—decent jobs, Green jobs if you will.

I would also not to lose sight of the wider issue of social protection in the sense of public and workers health however.

One startling fact from GEO-5 is the sheer number of chemicals being used daily that are 'not tested—with the licensing of chemical production increasingly into developing countries, this is also an issue that should be on our collective radar.

Honourable delegates,

We know from the debate and the analysis of the past five years in which the International Labour Organization, UNEP and the trades unions have cooperated on the Green Jobs initiative, that there is good evidence that a transition to a Green Economy could generate real employment opportunities.

Indeed our new report "Working towards sustainable development: Opportunities for decent work and social inclusion in a green economy" estimates that the transformation to a greener economy could generate 15 to 60 million additional and new jobs globally over the next two decades and lift tens of millions of workers out of poverty.

The interesting fact of course here is the wide margin—15 million or up to 60 million.

So clearly there is a lot at stake at Rio+20—including either timid job generation as a result of a weakly enabled Green Economy.

Or a much more impressive employment scenario if world leaders act across all the issues to to generate a landscape, the governance structures and the financial pathways and policies that also engage the private sector to ensure that all parts of the world are part of this paradign shift.

In short Rio+20 is about scaling-up and accelerating the Green Economy transformation already manifest in most if not all countries across the globe.

There are many proposals on the table at Rio+20 which could play important roles in setting the world on that course that enables both a just and an a meaningful transition.

Let me mention a few.

  • Level the playing field in terms of renewable energies versus fossil fuels by really getting to grips with the up to $600 billion-worth of fossil fuel subsidizes which also work against energy efficiency measures in for example the building sector
  • Governments backing a new indicator of wealth beyond GDP that includes social and environmental factors
  • Stepping up procurement of sustainable goods and services by central and local government given the evidence that if government spending is over 23 per cent within an economy, it can tip whole markets into a more sustainable curve

Indeed one of the highlights here in Brazil on World Environment Day last week was President Dilma Rousseff signing into force just such as policy.

  • A commitment by government to see companies report and disclose in detail their sustainability footprint—transforming essentially an opt in system to a more of an op out system.

There are many reasons to suppose this will not only generate better run companies with more sustainable profiles socially and environmentally, it also opens up more opportunities for pension funds to invest in firms doing 'the right' thing.

Honourbale delegates,

Rio+20 is not like some fairy godmother going to a wave a wand and deliver nirvana.

We all know that—but it has already sparked a great deal of really quite penetrating debate and discourse about the Future We Want and many creative proposals that hold the seeds to a more sustainable century.

Your meeting here, the second Trades Union Assembly on Labour and Environment after the first held in Nairobi at UNEP in 2006, is for sure one of the most important meetings on the eve of the Summit.

I say that not as a sycophant or to generate a warm glow but as a pragmatist.

Rio+20 is attracting some world leaders because of environmental issues and others perhaps see the Summit more through the economic lens.

But there is one global issue that unites them all in part because right here and right now it is becoming so politically risky and politically charged—and that is the employment crisis not least among the young in developing and developed countries alike.

Indeed articulating the urgency of a transition towards a Green Economy through the social lens is perhaps the fastest way of bringing the world to a cooperative series of agreements in just over a week's time that will also trigger potentially profound environmental and economic outcomes over the coming years and decades.


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