Jobs, nature and the Green New Deal: lessons from the global South

A new article in the 'Journal of Philosophical Transactions B' explores how experiences from large-scale social protection programmes in the global South could help us link two important elements of ideas for a Green New Deal, creating local jobs for a just transition while increasing ecosystem stewardship. 

Andrew Norton's picture Clare Shakya's picture
Insight by 
Andrew Norton
Clare Shakya
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022, Clare Shakya ([email protected]) is director of IIED's Climate Change research group
30 January 2020
a young man walks along an irrigation channel

An irrigation channel built via Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Programme, which provides cash or food for work on infrastructure or environmental schemes. (Photo: Nena Terrell/USAID Ethiopia, via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

Notions of a ‘Green New Deal’ that can both tackle the climate crisis and give citizens hope of a better life have been around since the global financial crisis of 2008. In recent times they have spread rapidly since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put forward a resolution in the US Congress.

Although many are exploratory and a long way from implementation, Ursula von der Leyen’s proposal for a European Green Deal moves the debate from the hypothetical to the practical.

Green Deal proposals vary in content: some are for a global framing, others for a national one; some include proposals for nationalisation, while others do not.

But there are some common elements. They all promise to promote equity and job creation alongside the reskilling needed for a ‘just transition’ to a green economy.  They all aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preserve biodiversity and ecosystems.

The European Green Deal promises a ‘just transition for all’ and to preserve Europe’s natural environment, stating: “Our environment, our natural jewels, our seas and oceans, must be conserved and protected.” Its proposed actions go beyond Europe and encompass taking a leading global role in combating the climate crisis and global biodiversity loss.

The resolution Ocasio-Cortez put forward has extensive provisions for urgent action on the ecological crisis, in terms of reducing emissions, building resilience and “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems through locally appropriate and science-based projects that enhance biodiversity and support climate resiliency”.

A strikingly radical element in the US context is the proposal to guarantee “a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States”.

But all the proposals avoid one important question: how far can we link the two important elements of a Green New Deal, creating jobs for a just transition and creating employment opportunities in ecosystem stewardship?

Learning from the global South

In a special edition of the Royal Society’s Journal of Philosophical Transactions B, IIED researchers and partners review experience from three large-scale work programmes in the global South – India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Nets Programme and Mexico’s Temporary Employment Programme – to explore the potential of paid employment schemes to promote effective ecosystem stewardship.

MGNREGS includes a labour guarantee, a concept that has been implemented at scale in India for many years but (in the form of the jobs guarantee) has proved contentious in the US proposal. The available evidence suggests that large-scale work programmes can offer multiple improvements in local ecosystems and natural capital, carbon sequestration and local biodiversity conservation. 

Forging new models of ecosystem stewardship

But there are considerable challenges ahead. To transform people’s understanding of effective action, institutional systems for delivering social assistance will need to combine social and environmental objectives more effectively.

This will involve moving away from models for environmental action that reflect technical understandings of the mid-20th century – such as exclusionary single-species woodlots or ecological spaces protected from local communities – towards effective local cultural ecosystem stewardship models that reflect the scale of current challenges.

To bring together poverty reduction, climate change and biodiversity programmes, governments have two options. They can integrate all these objectives into their social assistance programme and invest in strengthening local technical expertise. Or they can aim for convergence between programmes, so that one provides the technical expertise and materials while the other provides the labour.

By making additional investments in environmental planning and geographic information system-based monitoring programmes, for example, they could make their social assistance programme more effective.

Blending traditional knowledge with contemporary understanding

Whichever approach they choose, governments will need to work with local peoples and institutions. This will be more effective if they strengthen local institutions that blend traditional technical knowledge with contemporary understanding of ecology and climate to enable agile, responsive solutions.

Indeed, this is perhaps the biggest prize of all, as it would shape new cultural models for managing landscapes to address the severity of the triple challenges of global inequality, climate change and biodiversity loss.