U.N. report author highlights key hurdles to growth of green jobs market

Green jobs have become the new buzz phrase on the campaign trail and across the country in industries that are trying to boost efficiency. According to a recent report commissioned by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), there is a lot of work to be done in terms of policies, incentives and funding to expand the green jobs market. During today's OnPoint, Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and author of the UNEP report "Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World," explains what governments should be doing to expand the green work force. Renner also discusses the benefits green jobs can provide to developing nations.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With us today is Michael Renner, a senior researcher at the World Watch Institute and one of the authors of the new report, "Green Jobs Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World." Michael, thanks for coming on the show.

Michael Renner: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: Michael, there's a lot of talk right now about green jobs and how they're going to fit into a future economic and energy policy in the United States. And both presidential candidates have highlighted that they'd like to incorporate green jobs in their future policies. So, it's a hot topic right now and the U.N. Environment Program commissioned the World Watch Institute to write a report taking a look at green jobs and the hurdles that need to be overcome, what some of the challenges are, and what we need to do to get to where we want to be in a sustainable world. So, perhaps we should start off by defining exactly what green jobs are, because there are some varying definitions out there and there are some questions about what makes a job a green job.

Michael Renner: Absolutely. Well, you know, green jobs is one of those terms that I think everybody can easily sort of hold on to because it's just something that really seems to make sense. At the same time, I think it also makes it difficult to define it specifically, you know, where do you draw the line? And, indeed, as you say, if you look at a number of reports there are different definitions. My hunch is we actually didn't try really to go out on a limb in fact. My hunch is that we will actually not see one watertight definition emerge, but rather continue to see it used as a fairly loose term. But with the understanding that green jobs clearly is something that has to work both for the environment and it has to work for the majority of the working population so that we can actually address the two major crises that we now see. I mean we have, in effect, not only a financial meltdown, but we also really are very close to a climate related meltdown.

Monica Trauzzi: And in the report you highlight electronics recycling in Asia as an example of something that wouldn't qualify as a green job. Why does that not qualify?

Michael Renner: Well, what we looked at generally is the question does a particular job, does a particular industry, ultimately, is it good for the environment or is it bad for the environment? That's one, in very general terms, one test.

Monica Trauzzi: Electronic recycling would be good.

Michael Renner: Exactly, I mean clearly we don't want the mountains of the electronic waste that are building up to just be dumped. And recycling the materials not only is valuable of course, but also it's very important to maintain good environmental quality by avoiding these toxic materials and dangerous materials from just being dumped anywhere. What we see happening though is in a lot of cases is that the way that these computers, monitors, iPods, what have you, are being dismantled is really very often in a very careless way by workers that are not being paid very well, that really don't have the equipment and the wherewithal to do this in a responsible way. So, what actually happens on the ground is often really very different from the sort of general positive picture of recycling.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned the current economic instability, how might that impact our ability to implement green jobs? Obama has thrown out the number 5 million; he wants to create 5 million new green jobs. How might the economic instability affect that, that number, reaching that number?

Michael Renner: Well, the big danger of course is that the general credit crunch will affect these efforts as well and that there is just not enough investment capital, enough funding, whether it be in the private or the public sector, available for these kinds of programs and plans. That's the real danger. At the same time, I think, now is an unparalleled opportunity to say, you know, the way to get out of this crisis is basically by relearning some of the old lessons. You know, what do you do in a financial crisis? You sort of try to act in a countercyclical way and by increasing the spending in these kinds of areas, with regard to greening the economy. Now, if we can do that, then I think there are tremendous opportunities. I mean there is an enormous need to continue to expand the renewable energy sector for example. There are countless ways to improve the efficiency with which we use clearly energy, but also water and materials. And going back to recycling, I mean this is certainly something that is not at the level where one could say, well, that's fine, we're doing great. We could do far more.

Monica Trauzzi: So, if you had the opportunity to speak to the next president, either Obama or McCain, what would you highlight as the main policies and goals that they should implement in their first year in office in order to reach these goals for green jobs?

Michael Renner: Well, I think in the first place we need to ensure that the investment takes place that is required. Without that, we can talk about this as long as we want and it just will not make much of a difference. Those 5 million jobs, or whatever the number may be, will, in that case, not materialize. What we need to do also, I think, is really look around the world and look at what are the best practices? What are the lessons learned so far? And, luckily, we can actually look to some countries experiences and say, you know, here are some things we could actually apply and see how that will work back at home as well. Let me just mention one specific example. Germany has transformed themselves into a real leader in the renewable energy field with regard to wind energy, solar, photovoltaics, solar electricity. Now, Germany is not known as a very sunny country and yet it has taken a leadership position because the government decided this is a critical area. So they put in place a law that basically says any of these alternative sources of energy will have to be fed into the grid by the utilities and we are establishing a set price, a minimum price. What that means is it creates the certainty for investors and it creates basically a solid ground upon which anybody interested, whether that be communities, private firms, or anybody else, who's interested can go in and do the investments without having to feel that maybe tomorrow this will all come to nothing. This has been a key element in Germany's success. It's been picked up around the world actually, including by China.

Monica Trauzzi: There are many who believe that there will be more net job losses once we implement a cap-and-trade program here in the U.S. than jobs created through green jobs. So how do you compare the economic risks of implementing a cap-and-trade versus the benefits of green jobs creation?

Michael Renner: Good question. It's quite clear to me, I think, that a lot of the studies that assume there will be terrible job losses often tend to think that a cap-and-trade system or some other approach will come in overnight. That there will be no phase-in, that there will be no period of time during which companies and individuals can actually adjust to this new situation. And I think that's a major mistake. It has to be, of course, phased in and once that takes place and the earlier actually it takes place, the more time there is to do this. If we look at how many jobs are being created in the renewables sector relative to the fossil fuel industry, you actually get far more jobs out of that for the same amount of investment. So, on that basis alone, you're more likely to gain jobs rather than to lose them. Now, at the same time, I think one has to say that, yes, if indeed what we need to do is consume less oil, consume less coal, then there will be impacts on the regions and the communities that are heavily dependent on those industries. And they do need some support. I think that has to be part of it. But at the same time, let's remember, in this country, in total, there are about 80,000 coal miners left. Now, 80,000 people, yes, we don't want to write them off. We do want to take care of them. But, at the same time, we can do that. That's not a huge number.

Monica Trauzzi: Well, really, we seem to really be talking about a complete transformation of the job sector here in terms of training people, how unions might work. Do you think that the idea of green jobs is may be being approached a little loftily at this point and we're not really understanding how challenging it's going to be to implement these types of jobs in the U.S.?

Michael Renner: Well, some of the rhetoric, I think, would indicate that, yes, there is a certain lofty aspect to this and I guess particularly on the campaign trail it's not too surprising that one sort of hears the big positive lines rather than the nitty-gritty and all the detail. But I'm actually really encouraged by what I see happening around the country and, again, also outside the country. We now have a growing number of very detailed reports and studies that look at the situation. We have conferences such as one last year in Pittsburgh which was called "Good Jobs, Green Jobs" and there will be a repeat here in Washington, DC actually next February, which bring together companies, NGOs, labor, people from different levels of the political field. And what I'm hearing at all of these conferences and meetings is a real engagement, a real sense that, you know, I mean not just talking in broad terms about this, but we're really paying attention to the details. And our level of understanding is improving all the time, so I think we really are getting there.

Monica Trauzzi: I want to talk about some of the international points that are made in the report, because there are benefits to developing nations as well. I mean green jobs can help them grow their GDP and also sort of leapfrog over all the technologies that we've already used. Talk a bit about that.

Michael Renner: Well, that's certainly true; I mean the last point in particular. I think leapfrogging is something that's becoming more and more critical for countries like China and India. And on the one hand they have emulated the sort of typical industrial model with really quite horrendous consequences in terms of air pollution, water pollution, but also what it means in terms of their contribution to the threat of climate change. But certainly the Chinese leaders, and I think more than the Indian leaders at this point, clearly understand what the situation is. And they're trying very, very hard in a number of ways to do some of this leapfrogging, to put in place laws and measures that will actually increase the efficiency with which they use energy, improve the situation in the renewable energy field. And, in some ways, they're actually ahead of the U.S. at this point. They have put in place a law that requires automobiles to be far more efficient than is the case here in the U.S. So, there are, again, good things happening. I don't mean to imply in any way that this situation is resolved or anything. I mean China in particular has tremendous challenges ahead, but I think the indication is that the leadership understands that.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it there on that note. Thanks for coming on the show.

Michael Renner: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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