This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
A focus on greening economies has been included in the agendas of international bodies like The United Nations Environment Programme, International Labour Organisation, the European Union as well as the OECD. The green economy is considered to have “the potential to ensure the preservation of the earth’s ecosystem along new economic growth pathways while contributing at the same time to poverty reduction” (UNDESA, 2011, p.v). Discourses about greening economies usually focus on skills development, and it is assumed that the possession of green skills is one of the most important factors.
Green skills are broadly considered to be those needed to reduce negative environmental impacts and support economic restructuring—for the purposes of attaining cleaner, more climate resilient and efficient economies—while preserving environmental sustainability and providing decent work conditions. They have been classified as (i) the skills needed for newly established environmental industries, such as renewable energy, waste management and green construction; (ii) the skills for making existing operational practices more environmentally friendly (often due to the acquisition of new technologies); and (iii) the skills that are indispensable for the whole workforce (usually called "generic green skills") to ensure that everybody understands the main concepts underpinning greening practices and green processes, and which are similar across different industries (such as quantification and monitoring of waste, energy, water; procurement and selection; and material use and quantification, etc.).
Greening the economy is part of the United Nations sustainable development (SD) agenda. This narrative outlines 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that conceptualise a desirable worldview agreed upon by most of the UN countries. Green economic restructuring is often viewed as a "technical fix", as it can be instrumental in solving some environmental issues. However, another approach towards solving sustainability issues, namely "value change", should also take prominence in policymakers' discourses. The development of green technologies needs people to hold values that prioritise the SD of both the planet and societies. Thus, the transformation of these values that will come to be reflected in people’s environmental behaviour (e.g. the investment in green bonds; the development of green technologies) should be the primary focus of education and training. In other words, the focus on "technical fixes", which can be achieved by green skills development, must be complemented by values development. Values are generally characterised in terms of beliefs about what is desired.
My own conceptualisation of green skills is shown in Figure 1. The size of each section in Figure 1 indicates the significance of values vis-à-vis skills, and posits that while only certain occupations require specific green skills, values are dominant. Generic green skills are needed for all occupations, as they allow the workforce to comprehend and appreciate the demands of greening economies—and to act on them. I have consistently stressed the importance of values (that are reflected in green mindsets) and attitudes as the crucial foundation for the development of green skills.
Compared to discourses on the green economy, wherein values do not hold such a prominent place as skills, discourses on SD and education for SD (ESD) conceptualise SD as an ethical precept that is value-based. Education and training play a pivotal role in prioritising values for SD and mediating factors that do not allow values to be transformed into actions. One of the barriers for transforming values into behaviour is the lack (or perceived lack) of personal capabilities.
Figure 1: Typology of Green Skills
In order to tackle this situation education needs to equip learners with green skills—particularly generic ones—so the whole workforce develops habits of green industrial practices during training programmes. Thus, there is a very close link between values and green skills. A particular set of values, which promotes the mutual prosperity of both human and non-human nature and focuses on both individual and collective well-being, is necessary to envision a green economy and the SD of society; the development of green skills is essential if we are to transform values into actions.
Pedagogy that is focused on the active engagement of students should be applied by vocational education teachers to facilitate the effective development of green skills. Use of resources that include student worksheets that guide students’ investigation and analysis of green concepts, combined with case studies about greening industries, proved to be effective in our region. Active engagement and appropriate resources enable students to develop knowledge and understanding about the main issues and challenges associated with greening industries.
Therefore, in transitioning towards green economies and sustainable development, education and training should promote this new paradigm, whereby value orientations are complemented by green skills development. Green skills development is undoubtedly very important, but it is not sufficient if we are to achieve the desirable worldview outlined by the United Nations SDGs.