Global Green Jobs

“Green-collar jobs” are a hot topic these days. This is good news, certainly, 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 vs. the environment” that has defeated so many attempts at environmental protection. Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire tapped into the power of reframing with the 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 to cap and reduce carbon emissions in this country and the 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 Chief Economist of the World Bank, estimated that the cost of extreme weather events could reach 0.5-1% of GDP by the middle of the century. An increase in temperature of 2 to 3 degree 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.

Employment Opportunity

In the United States, green-collar jobs offer new opportunity 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 last 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 1 in 4 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 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 (NYSERDA) estimates that for every giga-watt hour saved, the agency’s programs create or retain 1.5 jobs. A recent report for the American Solar Energy society counts 8 million jobs created in the U.S. energy efficiency industry in 2006 alone (3.7 million directly in efficiency).

Offshoring Resistant

But building trades jobs are not the only green-collar occupations resistant to offshoring. The manufacturing sector, which has borne the brunt of job loss in this country could receive a substantial job creation boost from a substantial shift to renewable energy. The Renewable Energy Policy Project (REPP) 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 $62 billion investment required to expand wind capacity by 125,000MW over the next ten years – the amount needed to stabilize U.S. carbon emissions – the wind energy sector could create nearly 400,000 domestic manufacturing jobs. And the top twenty 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 U.S. are sited close to water and rail, like the Gamesa plant on the Delaware River in Fairless Hills, PA, or the Siemens factory on the Mississippi in Fort Madison, Iowa.

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/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 U.S. market – 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-based green industries hold to be globally competitive sectors. With the right policy supports, U.S.-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 ones. 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 pipeline 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 U.S. 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 (UNEP) 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 (