Sustainable Recovery: Can Labor Get Green Off the Ground?

Michelle Chen

In the wake of another gloomy jobs report, and the grand failure at Copenhagen, lawmakers may soon be trying to multitask at the nexus of two policy arenas: climate change and unemployment. Yet more than a year into the economic crisis, the public’s patience is wearing thin on the promise of green jobs.

The Obama administration plans $2.3 billion worth of Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credits to fund more than 180 projects across the country, which the White House estimates will create tens of thousands of high quality clean energy jobs and the domestic manufacturing of advanced clean energy technologies…”

But the Monitor noted that the optimistic labor projections — about 17,000 jobs created — mean little because the government hasn’t formulated a definition for green jobs, which could hinder labor and environmental groups from holding contractors and employers accountable for redeeming the federal investment.

Statistical muscle is also lacking from another movement to merge social equity and job creation—transportation. From an economic and ecological standpoint, a movement toward sustainable urban planning and mass transit could curb emissions and put people to work.

But the AP casts doubt this week on the effectiveness of stimulus spending for transportation projects, asserting that the strategy of pumping transportation money into counties hasn’t affected local unemployment rates so far.” Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood and some economists called the analysis shortsighted, stressing that the long-term value of the social investment outweighs the lag in short-term job creation.

But even as we try to push past the numbers game in creating a progressive jobs program, there’s something to be said for having transparent data to ensure that good intentions aren’t squandered — and to give labor and the public a buy-in for a still-nebulous ecological vision. So far, the green-collar jobs coalition will remain brittle until activists can connect—politically and materially—global competitiveness for American industry and environmental progress.

Last November, the Breakthrough Institute explained what separates the so-called Asian tigers from the clunky American producers:

・Asia’s rising clean technology tigers” — China, Japan, and South Korea — have already passed the United States in the production of virtually all clean energy technologies, and over the next five years, the governments of these nations will out-invest the United States three-to-one in these sectors. This public investment gap will allow these Asian nations to attract a significant share of private sector investments in clean energy technology, estimated to total in the trillions of dollars over the next decade. While some U.S. firms will benefit from the establishment of joint ventures overseas, the jobs, tax revenues, and other benefits of clean tech growth will overwhelmingly accrue to Asia’s clean tech tigers.

・Large, direct and sustained public investments will solidify the competitive advantage of China, Japan, and South Korea. Government investments in research and development, clean energy manufacturing capacity, the deployment of clean energy technologies, and the establishment of enabling infrastructure, will allow these Asian nations to capture economies of scale, learning-by-doing, and innovation advantages before the United States, where public investments are smaller, less direct, and less targeted.

The International Labour Organization estimated the untapped potential of green jobs in a 2008 report:

・Renewable energy generates more jobs than employment in fossil fuels. Projected investments of US $630 billion by 2030 would translate into at least 20 million additional jobs in the renewable energy sector….

・Investments in improved energy efficiency in buildings could generate an additional 23.5 million green jobs in Europe and the United States alone, with a much higher potential in developing countries.

But without policies that boost domestic demand, workforce and production capacity, environmentalists and labor will be left staring into a vacuum of innovation. The ILO identified green bottlenecks for both rich and poor economies:

Generally the creation of green jobs is advancing too slowly to contribute substantially to the reduction of unemployment and underemployment in the world. Moreover, too few of the green jobs that are being created go to those who need them most: young people, women, poor segments of society in developing countries and those who suffer from climate change. Finally, creating good — quality, decent work is difficult in the face of rising informality and inequality in the global economy.

The dilemma mirrors the skepticism about the transportation stimulus funds: the sense that the high-minded rhetoric won’t be matched by bread-and-butter benefits. As we saw with Washington’s anxious reaction to Chinese-made wind turbines, there’s a dangerous temptation to retrench from green commerce initiatives when workers don’t see what’s in it for them.

The Economic Policy Institute argues that the green energy sector, like all markets, must be tempered with a sensible buy America” safeguard. (The domestic-sourcing provisions proposed by lawmakers so far have been much weaker).

There may be seeds of domestic green growth buried in the Obama administration’s stimulus plans, with the White House seeking another $5 billion from Congress to expand the green manufacturing credit. But the Breakthrough Institute warns that the recent funding injections for green development, even combined with proposed climate change measures, constitute just a tiny fraction of what’s needed to set the industry in motion.

Including investments in clean energy R&D, demonstration, manufacturing and deployment in both U.S. economic recovery packages and the House-passed climate and energy bill, the United States is poised to invest $172 billion over the next five years, which compares to investments of $397 billion in China alone, a more than four-to-one ratio on a per-GDP basis.

Groups like the eco-labor coalition Apollo Alliance have linked public transportation, green jobs and the stimulus as complementary pieces of the sustainability puzzle. But the jobs bill floating in Congress retraces the old path of lost opportunity, according to a study by Smart Growth America:

ARRA transportation funds have so far gone disproportionately to highways. If the total road + public transportation funding in the just-passed House jobs bill were invested equally in public transportation and highways, the same outlay would produce 71,415 additional job-months, equivalent to year-round employment for 5,951 additional people.

The convergence of green virtue and decent work seems too good to be true on the surface, which is why policies mean little without standards and oversight measures built in.

Still, green politics is the art of the possible and the aspirational. If the race to retrofit the economy isn’t up to speed yet, it’s not because environmental and economic aims are inherently incompatible, but because labor, politics and the private sector haven’t found a way to align. And without that common stride, the ideal of a green economy could sink into cynicism before it even gets off the ground.

Support this work

Reader donations, many as small as just $5, are what fund the work of writers like this—and keep our content free and accessible to everyone. If you support this work, will chip in to help fund it?

It only takes a minute to donate. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue