The Green, Clean Economy

July 13th, 2011 at 6:19 pm

 What do you think of when you hear the words “green economy?”

Ask that question to 10 different people and you’ll get 12 different answers.  Which is why I was very happy to see this insightful, new analysis from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. 

I’ve always been supportive of this stuff, but have fretted about the big questions:

–um, what exactly is “this stuff?”

–how pervasive is it?

–what are the quality of the jobs in this sector?

–and most important, is there really any there here?—i.e., people talk as if the clean economy is an important part of our future.  I myself have talked about a role for government in helping to seed expanding industries in this space while older industries contract.  Is there evidence to support such claims?

The Brookings folks answer ‘yes, but…’  Yes, the clean economy—the sector that produces goods and services with an environmental benefit—is real.  Yes, it’s dynamic and diverse–with pockets of growth in lots of different segments across the economy, from organic food to mass transit to clean energy to the smart grid to move that clean energy around the country.

But…it’s small—less than three million jobs in a job market of 130 million jobs.  And whether it grows to scale may well be a matter of whether we’re forward looking enough to help make that happen.

Some key findings below, but here’s my takeaway: 

1)      In the short run, don’t count on the clean economy (an unfortunate term—are the rest of us “dirty”?!) to generate full employment.  But beyond that, there is real potential for growth in good quality jobs with environmental benefits.  Moreover, somebody out there in the globe is going to dominate these markets—they are expanding and they will continue to do so.  I nominate the good old USA.

2)      There are two distinct roles for government in promoting this sector, both on the demand and the supply sides.  On the demand side, a “price on carbon” (that’s what you say when you’re too shy to call it a tax) and clean energy standards send important price signals to households and industries.  On the supply side, much as I describe here, firms need initial help overcoming barriers to entry, expansion, and innovation.  And please don’t give me the squeamish “we don’t pick winners” BS.  A) yes, we do all the time–check out the tax code–we just don’t usually do it very smartly and B) like I said, this sector is going to keep growing.  It’s just a matter of where.

Some of the findings that caught my eye:

The clean economy is manufacturing and export intensive

  • 26 percent of all “clean” jobs are in manufacturing establishments–examples: electric vehicles, green chemical products, lighting products
  • On a per-job basis, establishments in clean economy export twice as much as typical US job—that’s helped them expand while traditional manufacturing has contracted.

Green jobs are good jobs

  • The median wages is 13 percent higher than the overall median.
  • It’s a sector where non-college educated workers can get a middle-class job
  • “Clean economy not only pays well, but pays well even for those without post-secondary degrees” — almost half of clean jobs are held by workers without a high school diploma (e.g. mass transit, green construction, recycling), and they make more than those in typical “low-skill” jobs

The study also provides state and city-level profiles.

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5 comments in reply to "The Green, Clean Economy"

  1. The Raven says:

    This is an active research topic, and environmentalists have been trying to do more in this area for decades, despite intense opposition from the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries. For a look at where this might lead, try this Amory Lovins talk, video:

    One general issue of sustainable energy systems* is that fossil and nuclear energy need only be released; all sustainable sustainable forms of energy must be gathered with effort, and that effort is expense. In addition, fossil and nuclear fuel itself contains energy which can be sold; other systems only gather energy, so there is probably less money to be made in sustainable systems than in selling fossil fuel. (But listen to Lovins, who knows a lot more about this than I do.) But fossil fuel will kill the world in the end, so sustainable systems are necessary.

    * I dislike the term “production” in this context. It is not physically possible to create energy.

  2. Michael says:

    When I hear “green economy,” I think “pointless buzzword.”

    @The Raven: it is also impossible to “produce” a desk, if that’s how you’re looking at it. After all, the parts already existed, in tree form. All “production” is the reassembly of already-extant matter/energy (the same thing!) into more convenient form, using some form of stored solar energy in our non-closed earth system.

    • The Raven says:

      Then shall you hominds have a dead black economy instead? Or perhaps a dead white one? Because that is where you hominids are heading: a world where 99% of you die because you have changed its climate and ecology too much, too fast.

      “Production”…part of the problem is that you hominids have been behaving as though energy can be created; that there is somehow an unlimited supply which can be tapped without consequences. But there is not, and dealing with that will be a hard task for the coming years.

      Now go watch Lovins. I don’t know that he’s right, but he’s been thinking about the problem and he thinks he has some answers.

  3. comma1 says:

    Like so many other progressive ideas, I think “Obama killed it” or “set back 30 years” or “no longer a possibility.” Nonetheless, I’ll play along and pretend the current president hasn’t ruined the idea.

    I would venture that you have missed a couple points about the “green economy.” 1) The ability for people to work in Mass Transit and collect a middle class salary is surely going out the window (if present debt limit talks haven’t already tossed it). It is no longer feasible to provide a middle class salary to people who don’t have a college degree, when people like lawyers, who go through 7 years of college, (or anyone in a humanity) are struggling so horribly. (Student loan bankruptcy reform, Now!) 2) The real promise of a “green economy” is that it is stationary — these jobs can’t be outsourced. A wind farm built in Wisconsin creates a permanent increase in jobs. Whereas bringing Toyota to Wisconsin is temporary. 3) Furthermore, being stationary, it takes cash from inefficient means of energy production(the military and three wars)and better deploys it. 4) It is sovereign strengthening.

    • The Raven says:

      There is, at least, for the moment research continuing on the green economy–Secretary of Energy Chu supports it. Whether it will survive the next round of cuts, who can say?