Putting the ‘Green’ Back in Greenbacks: Economic Stimulus Package Misses Mark
Last week, the leadership of the House of Representatives and the Bush Administration announced a tentative agreement on a $150 billion stimulus package to jumpstart the U.S. economy. But they could have done far better—by designing a green stimulus package with the potential to boost the economy and create jobs while minimizing environmental harm.
Imagine if the announced economic stimulus package focused on facilitating investments in innovative green technologies, including wind and solar energy. Imagine providing funds to retrofit buildings so they no longer require heavy air conditioning in the summer and expensive heating in the winter. Imagine launching an effort to wean us off our debilitating addiction to automobiles by investing in public transit and encouraging developers to build communities that are less sprawling and more walkable. Imagine spawning a revolution in industrial technologies to reduce not only carbon emissions but also air pollutants and toxics.
“Green” increasingly means creating jobs by re-circulating materials through the economy. Walter Stahel of the Product-Life Institute in Geneva recognized decades ago that the bulk of industrial energy use goes into the mining or production of materials like steel and cement, while only about 25 percent is used to convert the materials into finished goods like machines or buildings. But for labor, the opposite is true: roughly three times as much labor is used to convert materials into value-added products than in the original mining. The lesson for policymakers today: an economic stimulus package designed to recondition or reprocess old products, rather than make new ones, would help the environment and create more jobs.
Green employment is on the rise, but far more needs to be done. This week, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report, co-authored by the Worldwatch Institute and Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute, showing that renewable energy, sustainable transportation systems, and green buildings hold considerable potential for job creation.
Among the findings:
- Renewable energy provides jobs and livelihoods for at least 2.3 million people worldwide. Wind power employs 300,000 people, solar power more than 100,000, and solar thermal more than 600,000.
- For every 30 million kilowatt-hours of energy saved, 40 to 100 jobs are created, according to energy efficiency studies conducted in North America and Europe. For every 1 million Euros invested in energy efficiency in the residential building sector, the British Association for the Conservation of Energy estimated in 2000 that 11 to 13 jobs are created.
- In Germany, 140,000 jobs were either saved or created in the building sector to retrofit approximately 200,000 homes. And there are currently 43,000 LEED Accredited Professionals in the United States trained in green building design and construction or operations and maintenance.
A green stimulus package would scale up these numbers. As the youth climate movement has suggested, there is a dual opportunity in rebuilding the United States’ polluting economy and crumbling infrastructure: it would not only be a boon to the environment, but would also expand economic opportunity and create jobs. Greening the economy demands highly skilled professionals and “green collar” workers. Environmental skills and literacy need to be improved, across industries and occupations, to create and maintain jobs.
The confluence of a pending recession, the U.S. presidential election, and increasingly urgent scientific warnings about climate change may present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move toward a bright green future. Such big ideas need more visibility and support; only with strong bottom-up pressure will they become reality.
Michael Renner is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and co-author of the UNEP report Green Jobs: Towards Sustainable Work in a Low-Carbon World. Additional writing for this piece was provided by Gary Gardner and Zoë Chafe.