Key message 4 – Building the green cities of tomorrow can provide opportunities to absorb the large pool of low-skilled labour.

The green transition in many developing country cities, particularly in urban Africa, is taking place in a largely low-skilled and informal economic environment (Acey and Culhane 2013). With inadequate formal jobs and limited social protection, work in the informal economy has become the most common option for developing country citizens (Campbell and Ahmed 2012)—constituting 81% of all urban employment in sub-Saharan Africa, and 71% in South Asia (ILO 2018). The informal economy is typically characterised by low-productivity, non-tradable activities; by contrast, many green economy initiatives happen in capital-intensive, technologically sophisticated industries that do not generate many jobs in poor settings (Lankao 2007).

However, with active public policy, low-skilled workers can play an important role in climate action at the city level. While the long-term focus should be on reskilling and upskilling workers into greener, higher-productivity occupations across the economy (Oliveira-Cunha 2022), at the outset, there is merit in greening existing economic activities that have high labour-absorption potential. One route is through building the sustainable city of 2050. In addition to the immediate employment benefits, as well as the adaptation and mitigation benefits outlined in the companion piece—(Delbridge et al. 2022), a sustainable city will also play a large role in attracting greener firms in the future, contributing to national sustainable growth objectives.

One example is greening the building and construction industry, which is often the mainstay of employment in expanding cities (Collier and Venables 2017). As the physical city grows, there is a need for builders, electricians, roofers, plumbers, and many others labour-intensive occupations. By training the workforce with more sustainable building and construction techniques, this large sector can contribute to a number of municipal objectives. For example, it can improve access to good quality and climate-adapted housing for the urban poor (ILO 2018), while also contributing to emission reductions. Buildings are currently responsible for 39% of global energy related carbon emissions—with 28% from energy needed to heat, cool, and power them, and the remaining 11% from materials and construction (Adams et al. 2019). It also provides the (green) urban jobs that are necessary to accommodate urban population growth. For example, in Zambia, a programme created a framework to boost demand for environmentally friendly building materials, products and methods. It also provided training in green building and construction for small and medium enterprises, and created an additional 2500 jobs while improving the quality of 2000 existing ones (ILO 2015).

Waste management is another example of labour-intensive sector that could contribute to generating urban jobs, while building a more climate-resilient, less polluting city. Indeed, recycling of solid waste is one of the cheapest and fastest ways to reduce GHG emissions in a labour-intensive way (WIEGO 2012). Reducing one ton of carbon dioxide emissions through recycling costs 30% less than doing so through energy efficiency, and 90% less than through wind power (Skumatz 2008). Currently, 1% of the urban workforce in developing countries is employed in recycling—including collecting, recovering, sorting, grading, cleaning, compacting, and processing waste into new products—but millions of additional jobs could be created with an active focus on this sector (ILO 2018).

Green job creation can also ultimately expand through trade in these sectors. For instance, in building and construction, cities can explore the potential for trading things like bamboo flooring panels, cross-laminate timber, clay bricks, and mycelium. These goods are all far more environmentally sustainable than cement, and draw on the abundant natural resources in many developing countries (See WTO (2014) and APEC (n.d.) for further examples). Special waste streams can also be commoditised. For example, it was estimated in 2019 that there was a US$ 57 billion industry of processing and recycling electronic devices and re-exporting their metals (Forti et al. 2020). In Ghana specifically, the e-waste economy was estimated to be the equivalent of 0.55% of GDP (Prakash et al. 2010), with the average e-waste collector earning more than four times that of the average civil servant (Amankwaa et al. 2016). Domestically extracting precious minerals from e-waste provides an opportunity for the development of a recycling industry which can generate urban jobs, as well as contribute to preserving resources and controlling pollution (Kumwenda 2022).

Other examples of local job creation in building a sustainable city include investing in public works programmes for the provision of ecosystem services, and greening local energy sources which are often used for cooking and water heating, outside of the main electricity grid.