Sustainable jobs

by Carolyn Chase


Short-sighted business interests persist in fighting environmental limits as overly costly and burdensome. Far from costing jobs, effective environmental policies can stimulate the creation of jobs - jobs that are healthier for all concerned - for the economy and the environment. Environmental policies can stimulate the creation of jobs in areas like energy and materials efficiency, renewable energy, remanufacturing, and in extending the life-span of products.

According to "Working for the Environment: A Growing Source of Jobs," a report from the Worldwatch Institute, creating an environmentally sustainable economy has already generated as estimated 14 million jobs worldwide, with the promise of millions of more to come in the 21st century.

  • In 1999, there were an estimated 86,000 jobs worldwide in manufacturing and installing wind turbines, a number that has doubled in the last two years. By 2020, wind power may account for 10 percent of all electricity generation and employ some 1.7 million people.
  • The U.S. solar photovoltaic industry directly employs nearly 20,000 people now. European solar thermal companies employ more than 10,000 people, a number that could grow by at least 70,000 in the next decade, and perhaps to 250,000 with strong governmental support.
  • The worldwide recycling industry now processes more than 600 million tons of materials annually, has an annual turnover of $160 billion, and employs more than 1.5 million people.
  • In the United States, remanufacturing is already a $53 billion per-year business and employs some 480,000 people directly-double the number of jobs in the U.S. steel industry.

"Investing in renewable energy, using energy and materials more efficiently, and designing products to be more durable and repairable, will generate more jobs than continuing to invest in extractive industries and fossil fuels," said Michael Renner, the report's author. Although there will be fewer jobs in resource extraction industries and in manufacturing products when goods do not wear out rapidly, there will be greater job opportunities in repairing, upgrading, refurbishing , and recycling products. Remanufacturing products when their life cycle would otherwise come to an end typically allows 85 percent or more of the value added-the labor, energy, and materials embodied in the product -to be recaptured.

Boosting the efficiency with which resources are used means that businesses and households save a large portion of the hundreds of billions of dollars that would otherwise go into purchasing fuels and materials. Investing the money from these avoided costs in more environmentally benign sectors of the economy will generate more jobs than investing it in resource industries.

"Jobs are more likely to be at risk where environmental standards are low and where innovation in favor of cleaner technologies is lagging," added Renner. "Our research shows a huge potential to create jobs outside the extractive industries, jobs that do not depend on processing enormous one-way flows of raw materials and turning natural resources into mountains of waste. The challenge to society is to provide a just transition for workers who will lose jobs in industries like fossil fuels and mining."

The industries that extract and process energy and raw materials are among the most polluting of human activities, but provide only a small, and declining, number of jobs. In the United States, for example, mining, utilities, and four manufacturing industries (primary metals processing, paper, oil refining, and chemicals) together account for 84 percent of all toxic pollutants released. By comparison, their workforces account for less than 3 percent of all private sector jobs.

"Job loss due to environmental regulations has been extremely limited - less than one-tenth of one percent of all layoffs in the United States," said Renner. "Workers who are affected - primarily those in mining, logging, fossil fuels, and smokestack industries - will need assistance to master the move to new skills, technologies, and livelihoods."

A just transition policy involves setting up a fund to provide income and benefits for displaced workers seeking a new career, tuition support to pay for vocational and other training programs, career counseling and placement services, aid in relocating to find a new job, and measures to help communities and regions diversify their economic base.

Most mining and logging jobs are at risk even in the absence of tougher environmental laws. Increasing mechanization and automation have translated into fewer jobs-in some cases even as output continues to rise. For example, from 1980 to 1999, U.S. coal extraction rose 32 percent, but employment fell 66 percent. In the European Union's chemical industry, production grew by 25 percent from 1990 to 1998, but jobs declined by 14 percent.

Environmental regulations are estimated to have led to the creation of "an industry that employs at least 11 million people worldwide."

Job creation is particularly important in the developing world, where the great majority of the growth in population will take place in the coming decades. "The trouble is that human labor appears too expensive, while energy and raw material inputs appear dirt cheap," said Renner. "Businesses have long sought to compete by economizing on their use of labor. To build a sustainable economy, we need to economize on the use of energy and materials instead."