Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Growing a green economy: How are we doing so far?

By Gary Green and Yifei Li, University of Wisconsin-Madison

As a community development specialist at the University of Wisconsin, I work with many rural communities that continue to be interested in strategies for promoting a green economy. The promise of an economy that creates good jobs, promotes social justice, and improves environmental quality is an alluring one.

Wind turbine factory in Newton, Iowa.
Proponents assume there are strategies for overcoming many of the contradictions and conflicts between economic, social and environmental goals (what some people refer to as the triple bottom line). Yet, the green economy is an enigma because there is little consensus on what these jobs are and how many currently exist.

Over the past several years, we have been looking at the size of the green economy and how communities can be more effective in creating green jobs.

What is a green job?

There is a general consensus in the literature that green jobs have three defining characteristics:
  • They contribute to improving environmental quality. Such contribution can be accomplished in many ways. Some jobs deliver products that enhance the environment. Other jobs, such as smart grid operators, involve innovative production processes that reduce environmental harm during production. 
  • They are decent jobs. Green jobs are decent not only in economic terms, but also with respect to working conditions, upward mobility, and other factors that impact an employee’s job satisfaction. 
  • They require moderate training. Green jobs have relatively low barriers to entry; they are available to individuals with modest skills. The poor can therefore directly benefit from green job initiatives that bring them back into the labor force. Some green jobs require similar sets of skills as traditional blue-collar jobs.

These defining features do not correspond directly to actual job titles, making it difficult to assess the current state of green jobs. As a result, many academics and government agencies have tried to operationally define green jobs, and in so doing, to measure the number of available green jobs.

Barron County, Wisconsin, uses biomass to heat schools.
Examples of green industries include retrofitting, renewable energy, public transportation, and environmental resources management.

Current research

The State of Washington’s Employment Security Department has conducted annual surveys of green jobs since 2009. The Washington studies identify jobs that support four core green areas of activity – increasing energy efficiency, producing renewable energy, preventing and reducing environmental pollution, and providing mitigation or clean-up of environmental pollution. Data are collected from surveys in which employers are asked to self-identify green jobs in their establishments. The most recent wave of the Washington State study (2011) found that green jobs represent a small percentage (4%) of the labor force, and the total number of green jobs has declined.

Several other states, most notably Michigan and Tennessee, have replicated the Washington State study. These studies, however, have reached the opposite conclusion. They note that while green jobs currently constitute a very small portion of the total employment, the growth has been rapid in recent years.

At the national level, green jobs have been estimated with two different approaches.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Green Job Initiative has developed a comprehensive list of 333 green industries, using the North American Industry Classification System. Two types of jobs are considered by the BLS to be green – jobs in businesses that produce goods and provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, and jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.

The second approach is the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), which estimates green jobs from an occupational perspective. The analytical focus is thus placed on the “greening” of occupations, that is, the extent to which occupations have changed in the green economy: 
  • "Green increased demand occupations" involve the same set of work routines, but the demand for such occupations increase in the green economy. A total of 64 such occupations were identified.
  • "Green enhanced skills occupations" require a re-tooling of skills to better function in the green economy. Sixty occupations fall into this category. 
  • "Green new and emerging occupations" are newly created occupations in the green economy. The report identified 45 such occupations, in addition to 46 candidate occupations that were previously absent in the O*NET system. 

What we know about green jobs now

It is difficult to accurately define and count green collar jobs, but most studies indicate that the green economy has yet to produce many jobs. The green sector grew at a slower rate than the rest of the economy during the Great Recession. Few of the green jobs are likely to be filled by unemployed or minority workers.

The green sector tends to be concentrated in manufacturing and export industries. These industries are vulnerable to international competition and deskilling like other manufacturing jobs. There is anecdotal evidence indicating green jobs are being outsourced and shifted to low-wage sites.

Green industries are also limited by existing subsidies to fossil fuels, especially to the oil industry. Investments and policies supporting the green economy are generally lagging in the U.S. compared to Europe and East Asia. China, for example, has six of the ten largest green companies in the world and accounts for about one-half of the world’s green jobs today.

Questions to consider for the future

A more fundamental issue is whether a green economy can be based on an economic model that assumes that growth is necessary. Is a green economy only changing the source of energy from fossil fuels to renewable energy or does it have larger implications?

A more sustainable approach to greening the economy needs to consider alternative models that are not as dependent on growth. The issue of green jobs and social justice is complicated by the fact that there also may be conflicts between workers and consumers over the benefits of a green economy. How can we promote a green economy that takes into consideration these conflicts?

About the authors
Gary Green is a professor in the Department of Community & Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yifei Li is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

Photos provided by the author.

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