Countries Turn to Green Jobs for Economic Growth

Wind turbineWith the U.S. Congress expected to pass its financial stimulus package this week, the world's largest economy will join a growing list of governments that are banking on green jobs as a way out of crippling economic recession.

If Congress agrees upon an array of proposed infrastructure projects and tax cuts, the United States would join China, Japan, South Korea, and several European Union member countries in what will likely be the largest series of clean energy and energy efficiency investments in history.

"Green economic stimulus packages are springing up around the world," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, at a green jobs conference in Washington, D.C., last week. "We have no other option but to go this direction because any other direction will lead us into further decline."

The International Labour Organization warned last year that the global unemployment rate may rise to 6-7 percent in 2009 if the economic situation continues to worsen, so an additional 50 million people could be without a job. The unemployment rate in 2007 was 5.7 percent.

Recent stimulus plans have included energy-efficiency improvements in China, mass transportation funding in South Korea, and electric-vehicle development in the European Union.

U.S. Stimulus in Flux

The U.S. plan, by far the largest, would cost more than $800 billion, of which $50-$100 billion would be provided for extended renewable energy tax credits, building efficiency retrofits, subway and light rail projects, and environmental restoration programs.

Designed in part to create "green jobs" - high-quality employment that brings long-term environmental benefits - the economic stimulus should reduce energy consumption and expand clean energy investments, U.S. President Barack Obama says.

The latest Senate plans have suggested removing nearly $5 billion of renewable energy loan guarantees and alternative fuel funding from the stimulus package. But many of the removed programs may be reinserted this year as part of budget appropriations bills, Senator Claire McCaskill said on Sunday's Meet the Press broadcast program.

"Some of the money that we cut in the compromise to get the votes...was, in fact, spending that more appropriately should go in an appropriations bill," she said.

The stimulus package, as proposed by Obama, would have reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to removing more than 13 million cars from the road, according to a Greenpeace report. The bulk of these energy-saving policies remain in the current legislation.

"People will be out doing weatherization of buildings, installing more efficient equipment. Those are local jobs and those have a very positive impact on energy efficiency," said Joel Bluestein, senior vice president of ICF International, which prepared the report.

The environmental impact of the legislation will depend in part on whether the infrastructure funding will be spent mainly on repairs or will go instead to new construction. Adding new roads, for example, could alleviate traffic congestion and reduce net emissions, but it also encourages more people to drive. Newly repaired roads, meanwhile, are smoother and often reduce fuel consumption, the report said.

Clean Energy Jobs Grow Worldwide

The various stimulus packages being embraced around the world should help many fledgling green jobs industries, especially clean energy. The U.S. package would extend renewable-energy loan guarantees by an additional three years. Japan is offering zero-interest loans to environmentally friendly companies.

In the United States, each megawatt of installed wind energy capacity creates 4.85 full-time jobs, according to the Renewable Energy Policy Project (REPP), a U.S.-based research group. A local job is typically created whenever a wind turbine is installed or maintained.

But manufacturing a turbine's 8,000 components is often outsourced to Asian countries such as China and India, so it is likely that many jobs will not be created in the countries that are demanding the clean energy technologies, some analysts say.

"Any [U.S.] federal policy that aims to simply stimulate the number of wind and solar projects that are placed in the ground has a real chance of leaving 70 percent of the jobs uncaptured. The jobs remain offshore," said George Sterzinger, REPP's executive director.

A growing number of turbine parts manufacturers are opening their doors in the United States, however. More than 70 facilities opened, expanded, or announced future expansions in the past year, according to Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association.

"Since 2005, we have gone from less than 30 percent of components [being] U.S.-made to 50 percent today," Real de Azua said. "The reason there was no domestic investment before was that there was no clear [nationwide] policy commitment."

Clean energy advocates hope that expanded renewable energy investments in the United States will inspire more countries to follow its lead. Already, more than 2.3 million people worldwide work directly with renewable energy or indirect supplier industries, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

"Over 400,000 people are now employed in this industry, and that number will be in the millions in the near future," said Global Wind Energy Council Chairman Arthouros Zervos in a press release last week. 

In addition to lobbying for green jobs to remain in the United States, U.S. green jobs advocates are keen on requirements that the jobs be unionized. Many wind and solar manufacturing facilities pay less than the average national wage for workers who manufacture durable goods, according to a report [PDF] commissioned by the Sierra Club and the Teamsters and Laborers Unions.

"It's not just about jobs. Slaves had jobs," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America at last week's jobs conference in Washington. "It's about green jobs. It's about good jobs. It's about labor jobs."

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

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