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The "Green Jobs" Fantasy: Why the Economic and Environmental Reality Can Never Live Up to the Political Promise

Michal C. Moore and Jennifer Winter ()
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Michal C. Moore: The School of Public Policy, University of Calgary

SPP Research Papers, 2013, vol. 6, issue 31

Abstract: Agriculture is one of the least “green” — that is, the least environmentally friendly — sectors in Canada, based on its energy-use intensity and greenhouse gas emissions intensity. But agriculture is also the “greenest” sector in Canada, according to one measure that calculates the proportion of “green employment” in various industries. Welcome to the world of “green jobs,” where vague definitions often give energy-intensive, carbon-heavy industries a “green” stamp of approval. Examples include companies making solar panels, but using large volumes of energy to do so or where an accountant preparing financial returns is counted as a “green” worker at one office, but turns instantly “dirty” should he cross the street to do the same accounting work at another office. It is also a world where inefficient power generation is considered positive, if it means employing more “green workers” per unit of power output, regardless of any negative effects that may have on the economy. The concept of “green jobs” has become immensely popular among policy planners looking to address the problem of global warming, yet are aware of the economic costs of anti-carbon measures. The promise that western economies can reduce carbon emissions while creating thousands, if not millions, of “green jobs” — which will more than compensate for the job losses that will occur in sectors reliant on fossil fuels — has been especially embraced by politicians, relieved to find a pro-climate policy that also doubles as a pro-economic policy. Unfortunately, there is scant agreement on what fairly qualifies as a “green job,” and much evidence that what policy-makers frequently consider “green jobs” are, in fact, existing jobs, belonging to the traditional economy, but simply reclassified as “green.” By emphasizing “green jobs,” policy-makers risk measuring environmental progress based on a concept that can often be entirely irrelevant, or worse, can actually be detrimental to both the environment and the economy. Too often, “green job” policies reward inefficiency, while also failing to distinguish between permanent, full-time jobs and temporary or part-time jobs. In some cases they can also discourage trade, limit or thwart competition, result in greater job losses elsewhere in the economy, and demand massive government subsidies, with some government “green job” programs requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions, to create a single job. The urge of politicians to champion “green employment” is understandable given its convenient, if frequently unrealistic promise of a politically saleable anti-carbon policy. However, a more reliable and meaningful measure of environmental progress ultimately has little to do with the number of jobs a particular company creates (after all, if economic efficiency — and hence, prosperity — is indeed a policy goal, the number of jobs created should ideally be as minimal as necessary for every unit of output). Rather, if minimizing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions is the desired policy outcome, then measuring the intensity of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output can be the only meaningful metric. It may not have the political appeal that a promise of “green jobs” does. But unlike “green jobs,” both of these measures provide quantifiable, non-arbitrary metrics of environmental performance and progress. In other words, unlike the problematic, arguably illusory concept of “green employment,” measuring energy-use intensity and emissions intensity actually tells us very clearly and reliably whether we are making the environment better or worse.

Date: 2013
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