By Mayor of Johannesburg and Co-Vice Chair of C40 Cities for the Africa Region, Mpho Phalatse

We’ve heard about green jobs, but what are they?

Is it working for a solar power company instead of a coal mine? Or riding a bike instead of driving a car to deliver packages to people’s homes? Would you have to give up city life and work in a national park? 

The answer is all – and none – of the above. In Johannesburg, a green job is not only a job with a positive environmental impact; it also spurs cleaner innovation and promotes greater employment equality, by increasing wages and opportunities for those historically excluded from the job market. In addition, a green economy results in greater food security, improved public health, and a stronger social safety net. 

In short, a green job is a sustainable one – environmentally, economically and socially – that puts people first and ensures that the most vulnerable groups in our society have access to basic services.

Two African men install solar panels neatly on a residential roof of a house near the ocean. Sustainable living.
© nattrass / Getty

As Mayor of Johannesburg and C40 Vice Chair for the Africa Region, I firmly believe that Johannesburg’s slow economic growth prior to the pandemic, as well as the city’s pandemic recovery prospects, depend on working towards a greener future. We must create a resilient, adaptive society, while enhancing inclusivity and reducing inequality. This future starts by ensuring people feel more economically secure; Joahnnesburg’s multi-party government has committed to this through its Golden Start programme, which includes a strong environmental component.

Building a healthy green economy that works for everyone requires something called “a just transition.” A major focus of Johannesburg’s transition is retaining current jobs while simultaneously improving the distribution and diversity of employment, particularly by including more women and young workers in the economy. Creating an inclusive economy is beneficial for everyone; it leads to better employment opportunities, wages and benefits; more worker protections, enhanced innovation and greater social equality.

The transition to a sustainable and equitable economy ensures that anyone at risk of losing a job dependent on fossil fuels is given opportunities to work in other sectors essential to a sustainable economy and society. It also offers better options for those working in the informal sector and helps secure affordable access to basic public services, especially for the most vulnerable communities, while providing better social protection for transitioning workers and communities.

How can we bring about the transition to a healthy, green economy?

The first step involves having the relevant policy, legislation, by-laws and regulations in place, for example, Johannesburg has approved its Climate Action Plan (CAP) and is mainstreaming it into all city processes, systems and operations. Another important step is investing in sectors that will bring good-quality, green jobs to residents and deliver a more liveable city while also improving the delivery of municipal services. Recent research from C40 Cities found that increasing investment in rail infrastructure in Johannesburg would create 76,000 green jobs, while prioritising environmentally friendly construction would create 143,000 green jobs. 

In addition, replacing petrol- and diesel-fuelled vehicles with electric ones would protect existing transit-related jobs, while reducing the financial burden of refuelling. The implementation of these measures would also improve air quality for residents in cities with high levels of air pollution. Similarly, phasing out coal production and investing in renewables would create new green jobs, while health outcomes for coal workers would also be improved by giving them the opportunity to transition to a job in the renewable energy sector.

Beyond the environmental benefits, green jobs also offer higher compensation and are accessible to a broader pool of workers than jobs in carbon-intensive sectors. C40’s research shows that people working in green jobs, or “jobs in demand”, have greater overall job satisfaction, particularly with respect to earnings, fringe benefits and working conditions when compared with fossil fuel jobs:

Individuals satisfied with…

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fringe benefits =
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Individuals satisfied with…

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fringe benefits =
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= 78%

The reasons for this increased satisfaction range from greater compensation to less manual labour to better benefits packages – and this is only at the beginning of the green jobs transition. As the city pursues a more sustainable future for itself and our residents, the benefits will multiply and be felt across society. As research from 2020 highlights: “Beyond technological progress, economic and societal adjustment is necessary to achieve sustainable technological change.” In other words, it takes enormous effort and societal support to implement change, but change eventually gains momentum. 

A key component of gaining that momentum is ensuring that everyone who can work receives the training and opportunities needed to do their jobs well. This could mean reskilling workers from one sector to another. It could also mean developing a framework to give new workers the chance to learn important skills, not just at the beginning of their careers, but throughout their working lives. Establishing a continuous learning framework empowers people to move up in rank and gives them greater job mobility, so that they are not confined to one job or sector for their entire working lives. 

Better financial outcomes aren’t the only goal in a green economy; it is also about making our city a safer, healthier place to live. In Johannesburg, one out of every four people goes to bed without a meal. In the poorest neighbourhoods, that number increases to one in two—meaning one-half of all residents are left hungry. Food insecurity is a serious problem, which is why the city has invested in a food resilience programme. The programme has already established 50 cooperatives, four new farms and an urban agri-zone, where farmers can grow and sell produce.

Washington D.C.: community garden
© Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

This programme is not just a social service. It is a critical way to expand the production of local food and generate local revenue by encouraging the growth of this sector in line with our CAP. There are numerous positive side effects: increasing jobs in agriculture and food production results in increased self-reliance and more local produce, better nutrition, and healthier and more sustainable communities with greater social equality, which may increase the ability of people to participate in the economy. 

This is just one way that green jobs promote both sustainability and equality. We can see the same circular aspects in other sectors, ranging from energy and manufacturing, to waste management and healthcare. The more people who are willing to participate in the green economy, the better off everyone in Johannesburg will be.  

Green jobs are about much more than creating a more environmentally friendly Johannesburg. They are also critical to achieving a more equitable future, so that people can reap the benefits of a greener, healthier and more liveable city.

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