The Wrong Debate on Green Jobs

Andrew Winston
October 21, 2010

Andrew Winston

Director of the Corporate Environmental Strategy Project at the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

The following post by Andrew Winston first appeared on TriplePundit.com. Andrew is an environmental policy expert who helps companies find sensible, profitable ways to go green.

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In the heated discussions about climate change and the clean tech economy, it's hard to avoid arguing about whether green jobs are "real" or if they can replace traditional fossil-fuel jobs. On the one side, think tanks such as the Center for American Progress issue reports on the potential for creating millions of new jobs as we build the clean economy. With a different perspective, the forces aligned against climate action often create a false trade-off between economy and environment. They make the argument that doing anything to tackle climate change, like putting a price on carbon, will destroy oil, gas, and coal jobs in particular. But this debate is moot on two counts.

First, we're not facing a choice between the growth of old economy jobs and the expansion of new energy jobs, but between decline and prosperity. One global economy, the clean one, is growing, and the global battle for the new jobs is on. Some countries - such as China, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and many others - are going after these jobs aggressively. The other part of the economy - the dead fuel economy - is not going to be a growth engine (with the important exception of natural gas, which may provide a useful, medium-term bridge to the future). Oil is basically at peak production globally, and coal plants are nearly impossible to build in the U.S. anymore. Even as the world demands more energy, and even as fossil fuel production continues, these companies will continue to get more efficient with labor. So don't count on the fossil guys to create new wealth and jobs.

So the choice is between a growing industry and a flat or shrinking one. That means it doesn't really matter if the growth area is growing fast enough to "replace" the old one or not - we have to go after that growth no matter how big it is.

But, second, and more importantly, we've been talking about the new economy jobs entirely the wrong way. Admit it, what do you picture when you hear the phrase "green jobs"? Mainly solar installers and wind turbine mechanics, right? In a recent, skeptical Newsweek article, the author laments that "green-tech workers - people who do things like design and build wind turbines or solar panels - now make up only 0.6 percent of the American workforce." When described this way, pursuing green jobs doesn't seem like much of an economic growth plan.

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