COMMENT Jobs up for grabs in cleaner economy
By Jason Walsh and Sarah White
"Green-collar jobs" are a hot topic these days. That is good news for those who
seek to alter our present course toward climate catastrophe. Greater awareness
of the promise of a green economy allows us to challenge the too-familiar
framing of "jobs versus the environment" that has defeated so many attempts at
Washington State governor Christine Gregoire tapped into the power of reframing
with a Climate Action and Green Jobs Bill, which combines a framework to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions with a green jobs initiative. After she announced it
in her 2008 budget request, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's headline
read: "Gov Gregoire announces bill to fight climate change, create jobs."
Such reframing will be key to the coming fights over legislation in the US to
cap and reduce carbon emissions and international negotiations over a successor
to the Kyoto climate accords. Certainly, we can expect the arguments of
opponents that any serious attempt to reduce carbon emissions will cripple the
global economy. (We'll need to resist the satisfying yet insufficient response
that in the absence of such an attempt unregulated financial markets seem to be
doing that job just fine).
Our counter-argument will have to begin with the increasingly apparent point
that the global economy will be devastated by doing nothing. The Stern Review
released in 2006 by Sir Nicholas Stern, former World Bank chief economist,
estimated that the cost of extreme weather events could reach 0.5-1% of gross
domestic product by the middle of the century. An increase in temperature of 2
to 3 degrees Celsius could reduce global production by 3%.
But it won't be enough to summarize the escalating depredations of the devil we
are coming increasingly to know. We'll need to show convincing evidence that
green jobs hold enormous promise for significant employment domestically and
globally, and that this promise will be unfulfilled if we do not make a
decisive shift to a clean energy economy.
In the United States, green-collar jobs offer new opportunities for low-income
and working class people who have been at the short end of persistent and
increasing inequality in this country. Despite significant boosts in worker
productivity over recent decades, median wages remain stagnant. The decline in
manufacturing jobs over the past decade gathered steam with an 18% national job
loss after the 2001 recession, plummeting with particularly devastating
consequences in the industrial heartland, which bore up to a third of the
national job loss recorded between 2000 and 2005.
Nationally, median family income has not recovered to the pre-recession levels
of 2000, and job insecurity threatens workers at all levels. This trend toward
greater inequality, wage stagnation, job loss and insecurity stems from many
factors, not least economic and trade policies that have encouraged offshoring,
real and threatened, and wage triage on a global scale.
The new-energy economy will not solve all of the problems of economic
inequality, environmental degradation and energy insecurity. But it can
contribute mightily to a resurgence of the American middle class and a
sustainable environmental ethos. By expanding existing industries and creating
new ones, the emerging green sector can retain and create significant numbers
of domestic jobs.
What are these green-collar jobs? We define the core of this sector as
family-supporting, middle-skill jobs, most of them in the primary sectors of a
clean-energy economy - efficiency, renewables and alternative transportation
and fuels. There are many ways to count them, none perfect. One respected
source, using a broad set of parameters, estimates that the renewable and
efficiency sectors may account for as many as one in four jobs by 2030. This
projection includes both the full range of jobs in these industries - from
accountants to mechanics - and those created indirectly by them. Whatever the
relative merits of such approximations, even the most modest modeling indicates
that the green economy holds much promise for urban and rural revitalization.
A large part of this promise is based on the reality that green-collar jobs are
community-based: because they focus on transforming the immediate natural and
built environment, they are harder, in some cases impossible, to offshore. No
one will ship a building from Chicago to be retrofitted in China. The energy
efficiency industry provides perhaps the most exciting opportunity.
Substantially reducing energy waste through systematic retrofitting and
upgrading of residential and commercial buildings is a key area where
environmental and equity agendas can come together to create good jobs in
plentiful numbers. The work requires a multi-skilled, local workforce, and it
feeds a building-materials industry that is still largely domestic.
Make no mistake: we are talking about a lot of jobs here. The New York State
Energy Research and Development Authority estimates that for every gigawatt
hour saved, the agency's programs create or retain 1.5 jobs. A recent report
for the American Solar Energy society counts eight million jobs created in the
US energy efficiency industry in 2006 alone (3.7 million directly in
Building-trades jobs are not the only green-collar occupations resistant to
offshoring. The manufacturing sector, which has borne the brunt of job losses
in this country could receive a marked job creation boost from a substantial
shift to renewable energy. The Renewable Energy Policy Project has published a
series of reports identifying the potential for states with existing industrial
infrastructure and skilled labor to become component manufacturing leaders for
the wind industry.
If the country can muster the US$62 billion investment required to expand wind
capacity by 125,000MW over the next 10 years - the amount needed to stabilize
US carbon emissions - the wind energy sector could create nearly 400,000
domestic manufacturing jobs. And the top 20 states that stand to benefit are
some of the most populous and hardest hit by recent manufacturing job loss.
California and Texas lead the list, followed by the Great Lakes states: New
York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Industrial capacity and transportation networks are key assets to turbine
production. Wind turbines are massive and extremely heavy machines. The towers
alone are up to 250 feet tall, 16 feet in diameter and weigh more than 100
tons. An assembled nacelle - the fiberglass case that sits on top of the tower
and houses the gearbox and generator - weighs around 70 tons, and the rotor
assembly with blades, each of which can be up to 200 feet long, weighs in at
around 40. It is no surprise that most new facilities in the US are sited close
to water and rail, like the Gamesa plant on the Delaware River in Fairless
Hills, Pennsylvania, or the Siemens factory on the Mississippi in Fort Madison,
The United States is playing catch-up to others, especially the Europeans and
the Japanese, who have invested heavily in developing the expertise and
manufacturing base for this production. But there are good reasons to believe
we can and should catch up. Transporting huge turbines overseas is unsound from
a carbon perspective; with oil periodically breaching $100 per barrel, it is
financially irrational as well. Soaring shipping costs (and a foundering
dollar) are already driving greater domestic production. Some of the key wind
turbine manufacturers serving the US market, such as Vestas (Denmark), Siemens
(Germany), Gamesa (Spain), Mitsubishi (Japan), and Suzlon (India), have already
started to produce turbines locally.
The siting by foreign companies of manufacturing facilities in the United
States, and the potential of US manufacturers to be the links in a supply chain
for the wind industry, are signs of progress. They should not obscure the
additional promise that US-based green industries hold to be globally
competitive sectors. With the right policy supports, US-based renewable energy
and energy efficiency industries can capture large shares of these rapidly
expanding global markets and export their products, from solar cells to energy
efficiency appliances, to consumers around the world.
Sound national policy
The possible future, then, is compelling, as long as we demonstrate the policy
smarts and political will to achieve it. This means crafting sound national
policy to create stable domestic markets for renewable energy and using related
energy standards as green job creation tools.
It also means promoting green industry clusters in which networks of firms can
pool resources for coordinated strategies that include joint marketing,
commercializing and diffusing new technologies, and workforce training and
recruitment. And it requires the development of a coherent green manufacturing
agenda that helps firms convert to the most energy efficient technology while
also realigning supply chains in declining industries to feed emerging green
Finally, all of these policy strategies will require forging solid links
between economic and workforce development efforts, and constructing clear and
accessible pathways out of poverty for American workers. For example,
Washington State's Climate Action and Green Jobs Bill creates "green industry
skill panels", broad public-private partnerships that are charged with
identifying good career-track green jobs and ensuring that channels exist to
connect workers, particularly low-income or dislocated workers, to those jobs.
The United States needs to think strategically about its emerging green economy
and not just assume that clean energy programs will generate jobs, or that they
will be good jobs. A greener vision for the future can be a more inclusive
vision as well, but only if we consciously design it to be so. In the coming
years, massive green investment and policy innovation need to be wedded to an
opportunity agenda that extends the greener pathways to all.
And the extension of these greener pathways cannot be limited to US workers
alone. Neither global warming nor capital respects national borders. A serious
effort to transition to a green economy, and to connect good green jobs to the
people who most need them, must cross borders, as well.
The United Nations Environment Program in collaboration with the International
Labor Organization and the International Trade Union Confederation has begun an
initiative "to assess, analyze and promote the role of employment in climate
change". Their preliminary report, "Green Jobs: Towards Sustainable Work in a
Low Carbon World", defines and analyzes green jobs in a range of industry
sectors in the global economy. It provides the first estimate of global
employment in the renewable energy sector; in countries where data is available
the number of people employed in this sector is around 2.3 million, which is a
conservative figure given gaps in information.
By way of comparison, total employment in the oil and gas and oil refining
sectors in 1999 was just over 2 million. Given the strong and necessary growth
of the renewable energy sector in the coming years, the report suggests that
total employment for renewables could exceed $20 million by 2030.
But as with domestic strategies, smart policy choices will be required to make
such job growth possible globally and to ensure that these jobs are accessible
to those who need them. This will have to involve good development policy by
advanced economies as well as in the developing world and a clear focus on
inclusive green economic development by multilateral institutions like the
World Bank. On both national and international fronts, the principle should be
the same: we need to build a green economy strong and equitable enough to lift
people out of poverty and into prosperity.
Jason Walsh is national policy director for Green For All. Sarah White
is a senior policy associate with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. Both are
contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus . Adapted from Sarah White and Jason
Walsh, "Greener Pathways: Jobs and Workforce Development in the Clean Energy
Economy" (Center on Wisconsin Strategy, The Workforce Alliance and Apollo