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Green Jobs Transition Must Accelerate

By Sheila Oviedo | October 15, 2008

CREDIT: Green Jobs Now (CC).

Jobs will be created by the transition from a high-carbon economy to an energy-efficient one, but the transformation will have to be rapid and global to make an impact on climate change along with poverty and employment patterns.

Such were the conclusions of Jill Kubit and Sean Sweeney of Cornell University's Global Labor Institute, and Michael Renner of Worldwatch Institute, authors of a new ILO-UNEP "Green Jobs" report released late September. The report forecasts that millions of cleaner careers could be generated by 2030, with as many as 20 million new jobs in the energy alternatives sector alone. The authors presented their findings at the Carnegie Council on September 30, 2008.

"There is really no single definition [of green jobs]," said Renner during a panel discussion of the report. "But it refers to employment that substantially contributes to preserving or restoring the environment." These jobs range from environmental research to housing retrofits to fuel-efficient vehicle assembly.

According to the study, having a green job means not only working in a green industry but also having a job that provides adequate compensation, job security, safe working conditions, and labor rights. "People's livelihoods and sense of dignity are bound up tightly with their jobs. A job that is exploitative, harmful, fails to pay a living wage, and thus condemns workers to a life of poverty can hardly be hailed as green," the report stated.

The concept of "green jobs" has gained popularity in recent years and even more so in recent months in response to record oil prices, the rising cost of food, and the slowdown in the real estate and construction sector. On the U.S. presidential campaign trail, Democratic candidate Barack Obama has a plan to spend approximately $150 billion in the next 10 years "to catalyze private sector efforts to build a clean energy future." Obama anticipates that this would create five million new jobs by 2018. Republican nominee John McCain's plan is less concrete, but he nonetheless notes that "green jobs and green technology will be vital to our [U.S.] economic future."

The bright prospects for green job creation are widely recognized, but the overall impact of the global transition to a low-carbon economy on global employment trends remains mixed. On the positive side are job creation and the substitution or transformation of current jobs. But on the negative side the ILO-UNEP report states that some jobs may be eliminated, such as those in the fossil fuel sector, with serious consequences for a large number of workers.

China's transition to a recycling economy includes dirty jobs such as sifting exported American IT waste.

At present, employment in the extractive industries easily surpasses the current number of green jobs. The International Labour Organization estimates that the oil and gas sector employs about 2.5 million workers worldwide, while as many as 200 million people rely on mining for a living. The elimination of jobs in the extractive sector alone will affect the livelihoods of a significant number of workers and their dependents, many of whom are in the developing world.

Moreover, the present and future pool of green jobs is concentrated in the industrialized world, particularly in countries such as Germany, Japan, Spain, and the United States. In the United States, green jobs are expected to grow to as many as 40 million by 2030. One out of four workers will be working in renewable energy or energy efficiency industries, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the American Solar Energy Society. Despite some progress in China and Brazil, green job creation in developing countries is nowhere these figures.

"Large parts of the developing world are completely excluded from the green economy," noted Kubit. "Green jobs are not reaching those that need them the most."

A significant challenge is how to distribute green jobs globally so as to make a significant impact on global employment trends and ultimately poverty. One solution is to make green technology and knowledge available and accessible to the developing world, where going green is still considered an expensive luxury that developing countries can ill afford. Technology and knowledge transfer from wealthy countries to developing nations should be improved, noted Sweeney.

Successful international technology transfer, however, depends on a number of factors including long-term commitment by all stakeholders, institutional readiness in recipient countries, involvement of the private sector, flexibility to apply technologies to local conditions, and availability of information, according to private environmental consulting firm ICF Consulting. Technology transfer is also facilitated by technology-friendly policies of exporting states. The Center for Global Development's annual Commitment to Development Index identifies government funding, R&D subsidies, and liberal intellectual property laws as policies that enable technology transfers to developing countries.

Nonetheless, the International Energy Agency has documented successful transfers of environmental technology, with examples ranging from rural electrification in Brazil to improved capacity of Hungarian banks to finance energy-efficiency projects. In India, multilateral funding agencies supported a program to develop the domestic wind, hydroelectric, and solar photovoltaic market. Through a combination of favorable government policies, careful strategic planning, and private sector financing, India's wind-power capacity is now higher than in most developing countries.

Developing countries are also generating green jobs on their own. Mexico City's Bus Rapid Transit system, consisting of diesel-powered buses retrofitted with pollution-control devices, has enhanced the labor rights and job security of bus drivers, while the development of modern bicycle rickshaws in India has resulted in increased productivity and income for rickshaw drivers.

Sean Sweeney cautions against assuming that the transition to a green economy will be just or inevitable.

But green job creation has a long way to go, even among developed countries. The key is to increase investment in environmentally sound industries, and a 2007 Deutsche Asset Management report indicates a few promising trends in this area: The value of low-carbon energy markets is estimated to grow to $500 billion by 2050, the demand for projects generating greenhouse gas emission credits is projected to rise to $100 billion by 2030, the size of the global fuel cell and distributed hydrogen market is likely to hit $15 billion by 2015, and the worldwide investment in clean energy is expected to amount to $100 billion by next year.

These trends suggest that climate change solutions will open up attractive long-term investments. "We believe the economic forces in climate change are large enough to offer return opportunities and some diversification benefits," the DeAM report noted.

While investments in the clean energy sector have been increasing by 20 to 40 percent per year since 2001, environmental groups say they are not enough. In the United States, groups such as 1Sky and Green for All are calling for increased federal support for green collar jobs programs. The Apollo Alliance's New Apollo Program proposes an investment of $500 billion within 10 years, while The Corps Network has floated the idea of a Green New Deal.

The progressive D.C. think tank Center for American Progress is promoting a two-year, $100 billion investment plan for green technologies and industries to serve as an engine for job creation and economic recovery. The plan calls for investment in several areas—retrofitting buildings, expanding mass transit and freight rail, constructing smart energy grids, and expanding production of wind power, solar power, and next-generation biofuels. If fully implemented, it could generate as many as two million jobs within two years.

But without a substantial increase in investment and political will, green jobs will not grow as fast as needed, said Sweeney. For green jobs to make an impact in global employment and poverty patterns, the transition to a low-carbon economy has to be "rapid, global, and against existing trends," he added.

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