Going "green" has become a cultural buzzword. Growing concerns over climate change have motivated aspirations to create a cleaner, more sustainable, and environmentally-friendly economy. To that end, and in light of the 2007-2009 economic recession, jobs spurring green technology, green manufacturing, and green infrastructure have been touted as a way to address global warming, move us toward energy independence, and increase national security--all while boosting the economy.
Green jobs are supposed to "'pay decent wages and benefits that can support a family[,] ... reduce waste and pollution and benefit the environment.'" Yet, what makes a job green is actually rather difficult to determine:
"The greenness of jobs even within a single occupation will vary according to the nature of the firm or establishment, the current project or specific work assignment and the specific employer’s workplace rules and policies. Thus, labor market analysts can’t merely count all employees in a particular occupation (much less in an entire industry) as green collar workers. Moreover, the greening of the economy is an evolutionary process (albeit one that is picking up a head of steam). That is, employers in virtually every sector are striving to conserve energy and resources while reducing their carbon footprint and switching from oil-dependence to renewable energy. Arrayed along any of the various dimensions popularly identified as comprising the green movement, there is no current benchmark at which green companies can be separated from non-green ones. Nor is there any useful milestone for deciding at what point in time to move all of a company’s employees from the non-green column to the green column. Therefore, labor market analysts can’t simply count all of the employees of a specific firm as green and employees of other companies in the same industry as non-green."
Nevertheless, legislative efforts to promote green jobs have been made, most prominently with the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, widely known as the "Stimulus." At $92 billion, the funds channeled toward green initiatives comprised more than 11 percent of the total stimulus package. The stimulus funding was premised on the Keynesian idea that government could jump-start massive investments in much-needed alternative sources of energy and, in the process, create millions of new jobs for the nation’s unemployed. Inspired by similar efforts in European countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany, and Denmark, President Obama estimated that the American government, at the cost of $150 billion, could provide 5 million green jobs over the next decade.
The success of these efforts have been debated. Some say the Recovery Act’s $7.2 billion in "clean tech" money may have only "created or retained" 7,140 jobs, but that means each job cost over one million each. Likewise, the experience of the previously mentioned European countries suggests that green jobs programs at the very least require heavy subsidies--in some cases up to $774,000 per job. Moreover, research by Gabriel Calzada Alvarez estimated that each green job in Spain destroyed 2.2 jobs in other sectors of the Spanish economy. In Italy, over 60 percent of government-subsidized green jobs were only temporary, meaning workers were unemployed once the green project was completed.
More fundamentally, some argue that government "pick[ing] winners and losers," even if based on desirable goals, distorts market signals concerning the actual economic viability and efficiency of green products and services. This leads to malinvestments, reduced competition, and higher prices. It also shifts risk from private businesses and investors to taxpayers, thereby privatizing gains and socializing losses. A prime example is the California-based solar firm Solyndra. Solyndra received a government-backed loan for $535 million in 2009, yet went bankrupt two years later, despite public support from political figures such as President Obama himself.
Nonetheless, given the ongoing and burgeoning interest in environmentally sustainable economic growth, furthering the creation of green jobs will continue to be part of public policy debates. Thus, this topic overview presents data and commentary on the viability of green jobs, and also examines the assumptions which underlie them.