U.S. Election Brings Green Jobs in Focus

U.S. presidential electionWith less than a week until the United States elects its next president, and at a time when Americans are losing their jobs in record numbers, the two leading candidates are suggesting that the financial crisis can be resolved by addressing the country's worsening energy crisis.

Combining job creation and energy policy into one economic stimulus plan is gaining steam among political and environmental leaders worldwide. Yet despite similar rationales, the plans presented by the Democratic and Republican candidates offer distinct options. And not all of the proposed jobs would truly be "green."

Democratic Senator Barack Obama touts "green jobs," the catch-phrase for high-quality, environmentally sustainable employment, as a key pillar of his campaign platform. These jobs range from retrofitting buildings with energy-efficient technologies, to manufacturing solar panels, to maintaining wind turbines.

"There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy," Obama said in a recent Time magazine interview. "That's going to be my No. 1 priority."

Obama's plan [PDF] would inject $150 billion of government aid into programs that support renewable energy and energy efficiency over the next decade. He estimates the program would create 5 million jobs "that pay well and can't be outsourced, jobs building solar panels and wind turbines and fuel-efficient cars," according to a statement he made at a "jobs summit" last week. Obama also advocates a national "renewable energy portfolio standard" that would mandate that utilities supply 25 percent of their electricity from clean energy sources.

Yet Obama comes from Illinois, a state with heavy reliance on nuclear and coal energy. Before running for president, he sponsored legislation that would subsidize coal-fired power plants, but Obama has since stated that he supports coal only if the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants are stored underground-an unproven technology known as carbon, capture, and sequestration (CCS). Obama says he is "not a nuclear proponent," but nuclear may be included in his energy portfolio if a solution to store nuclear waste is discovered.

Republican Senator John McCain supports scaling up renewable energy and energy efficiency as well, although his plan excludes details about how he would expand these green jobs. He has been much more enthusiastic about the additional 45 nuclear plants he advocates by 2030, which he estimates would create 700,000 new jobs.

"If we really want to enable technologies of tomorrow, like plug-in electric cars, we need electricity to plug into," McCain said earlier this year in reference to nuclear power. More recently, however, the candidate has downplayed the environmental concerns related to nuclear power, such as waste disposal and uranium mining.

McCain's "Jobs for America" plan [PDF] also highlights the potential employment opportunities in extractive industries. He calls for expanded oil and natural gas drilling in the United States, and he suggests that expanded research into CCS would lead to employment. The coal, oil, and natural gas industries, however, have steadily required fewer workers in recent years as mining equipment replaces jobs.

The Green Jobs for America Campaign, a coalition of environmental and labor groups, has requested that the U.S. government set aside $100 billion for tax credits, loan guarantees, and public investment in green job-related technology. The campaign estimates that 2 million jobs would be created over two years.

Leaders from around the globe are also calling for increased support for green jobs as financial instability spreads worldwide.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) last week requested international support of a "Global Green New Deal," a proposal similar to the Depression-era policies of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If green jobs take off worldwide, the concurrent crises of global energy shortages and climate change could also be alleviated, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said.

"The financial, fuel, and food crises of 2008 are in part a result of speculation and a failure of governments to intelligently manage and focus markets," Steiner said in a prepared statement. "The flip side of the coin is the enormous economic, social, and environmental benefits likely to arise from...new green jobs in clean tech and clean energy businesses up to ones in sustainable agriculture."

The European Commission, Germany, and Norway are supporting the initiative by providing nearly $4 million to research how governments can integrate green jobs into their economies.

Renewable energy and supplier industries have created an estimated 2.3 million jobs worldwide, and more are expected as wind, solar, and geothermal power sources expand across the globe, according to Worldwatch Institute analyses.

Energy efficiency has long been touted as a policy option for economic growth. In California, efficiency mandates implemented in the 1970s saved residents $56 billion between 1972 and 2006, while creating about 1.5 million jobs, according to a recently released University of California at Berkeley study.

The UNEP plan is the first that mentions organic farming as an answer to the global market meltdown. Organic agriculture is often considered a niche market with limited large-scale economic advantages.

Locally grown, organic produce, however, requires labor-intensive employment in the countries where the food products are demanded. The higher price of organic foods has led to greater profits, due largely to the avoidance of expensive fertilizers, UNEP said in a report co-authored by the Worldwatch Institute and released alongside UNEP's Green New Deal plan. Avoiding fertilizers also reduces energy use.

But in some regions, especially where farmers are competing with cheap imports and large-scale farms, the greater demands of organic compliance may force farmers to "operate on razor-thin margins," the report said. Also, employees on organic farms are often paid the same as they would if they worked on a conventional farm, according to a 2005 survey of organic farmers in California.

For more information about green job opportunities that could support a "Global Green New Deal," read Green Jobs: Working for People and the Environment, written by Worldwatch researcher Michael Renner in collaboration with researchers at Cornell University's Global Labor Institute. See also our special online series, "The Greening of Labor."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

For permission to reprint this article, please contact Julia Tier at jtier@worldwatch.org.