Has the green jobs argument been lost?

by | Sep 7, 2011

With Obama about to attempt to get back on the front foot with a major speech on jobs to both houses of Congress on Thursday, it’s dispiriting to see the headwinds faced by the ‘green jobs’ agenda.

Back at the time of the US stimulus package, the argument was that investing in clean technology and infrastructure renewal for sustainability would deliver a big dividend in employment creation – a win/win for economy and environment. But a look at today’s opinion page in the US tells a different story. Here’s US political analyst Charlie Cook, quoted in the FT this morning:

“The administration got too enamoured of the concept of green jobs and politically correct jobs [in the previous stimulus package], but this time we need boots, jeans and helmets. That is what you are looking for,” Mr Cook says.

Not the sort of language you want to be hearing from agenda-setting opinion formers. Or how about this from David Brooks in the NYT two days ago:

The gigantic public investments in green energy may be stimulating innovation and helping the environment. But they are not evidence that the government knows how to create private-sector jobs…

…The problem is the results are indirect, the jobs take a long time to emerge and the market may end up favoring old-energy sources instead of shiny new ones. So politicians invariably go for the instant rush. They try to use taxpayer money to create private jobs now. But they end up wasting billions.

We should pursue green innovation. We just shouldn’t imagine these efforts will create the jobs we need.

Brooks quotes a range of on-the ground stories and experience to back his point, like this from Aaron Glantz on solar in the Bay Insider a month ago:

Flanked by a cadre of local political leaders, Mayor Chuck Reed of San Jose used a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a solar power company last week to talk up the promise of the green economy. Reed called the opening of the new headquarters of SolFocus, which produces large, free-standing solar panels, an “enormously important” development for the city’s economy.

“Clean technology is the next wave of innovation that Silicon Valley needs to capture,” the mayor said, noting that the San Jose City Council had committed to increasing the number of “green jobs” in the city to 25,000 by 2022. San Jose currently has 4,350 such jobs, according to city officials. But SolFocus assembles its solar panels in China, and the new San Jose headquarters employs just 90 people. In the Bay Area as in much of the country, the green economy is not proving to be the job-creation engine that many politicians envisioned.

Or this by Sunil Sharan on smart meters in the Washington Post last year:

It typically takes a team of two certified electricians half an hour to replace the old, spinning meter. In one day, two people can install about 15 new meters, or about 5,000 in a year. Were a million smart meters to be installed in a year, 400 installation jobs would be created. It follows that the planned U.S. deployment of 20 million smart meters over five years, or 4 million per year, should create 1,600 installation jobs. Unless more meters are added to the annual deployment schedule, this workforce of 1,600 should cover installation needs for the next five years.

But the manufacturing jobs will be overseas, he adds, echoing Glantz; and as for R&D or IT services, again, you’re talking about hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, of jobs. And, he goes on:

Now let’s consider job losses. It takes one worker today roughly 15 minutes to read a single meter. So in a day, a meter reader can scan about 30 meters, or about 700 meters a month. Meters are typically read once a month, making it the base period to calculate meter-reading jobs. Reading a million meters every month engages about 1,400 personnel. In five years, 20 million manually read meters are expected to disappear, taking with them some 28,000 meter-reading jobs.

In other words, instead of creating jobs, smart metering will probably result in net job destruction. This should not be surprising because the main method of making the electrical grid “smart” is by automating its functions. Automation by definition obviates the need for people.

Or for yet another example, have a look at this for a case study from the UK. As I say, it’s dispiriting stuff.  But to put cards on the table, I never did buy the full extent of the green jobs argument. Here’s an extract from a post I did in June 2010:

Sure, there’ll be some new jobs putting up windmills, insulating attics and making fuel cells. There’ll also be lots of jobs lost in (where to start?) coal mining, aviation, oil exploration and refining, long haul tourism, shipping, ports, energy intensive industries… and so on.

Now we can have an argument about whether we’re looking at a net gain or a net loss in employment terms. But let’s be clear that while we’re having it, everyone who works in the above sectors will be mobilising like hell to oppose anything that threatens their interests (anything effective, in other words). As David Steven and I observed a while back, the problem with climate action is that it has the opposite dynamic to chess:

With every step that is taken towards an endgame, the number of pieces on the board will grow, not shrink. Swarming behaviour will become increasingly evident, as factions of all kinds are suddenly, and with unpredictable effect, galvanised into a passionate attempt to protect their interests.

My problem with the ‘all must win prizes’ narrative of Green New Deals, then, is that it’s disingenuous in its Pollyanna-like optimism. It overlooks that doing anything effective on climate will create both winners and losers – and that the losers will tend to be noisier and more visible.

I know everyone’s desperately keen to have sunny, shiny stories to tell about the ‘green economy’, but in reality political economy transitions like the one ahead of us to a low carbon economy always involve winners and losers – and the wins tend to be long term, while the losers are here, now and noisy. Wondering by now what I’d do instead? That’s covered in the remainder of the post quoted from above – read the whole thing.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...