What's a Green Job?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

The International Labour Organization's pretty broad definition of green jobs is “decent jobs in any economic sector which contribute to preserving, restoring and enhancing environmental quality", so there should be lots of them around.  But where are they?

It's an act of faith by environmentalists of all kinds that the shift to more sustainable living will generate lots of these jobs.  Governments tend to say this as well.  Indeed, the UK government looks forward to two million green jobs by 2030.

So how are we doing?  The ONS has reported that there were just over 500,000 green jobs in 2020, but their definition is also a broad one including the waste business, education (environmental educators!) and the management of government agencies.   As it looks as if there has been some rebranding, a sceptical eye seems essential.  It's appropriate, then, that The Daily Sceptic has written about this topic with what some will no doubt see as an overly jaundiced eye.

But so has The Economist, which has written about what it says is the false promise of green jobs, saying that modern industrial policy has a tension at its heart.  It concluded:

"Politicians across the rich world agree that industrial policy—wheezes which aim to alter the structure of the economy by boosting particular sectors—deserves to make a comeback. Just about all agree that it should focus on climate change. But is there actually any logic to combining the two? Industrial policy seeks prosperity in the form of economic growth and jobs; climate policy seeks lower emissions and the prevention of global warming. Marrying two aims often means neither is done well. As politicians pour trillions of dollars into green industrial policy, they will increasingly have to choose between the two objectives."

NAEE has an even broader view than the ILO.  It has argued that "all jobs should be seen as green jobs these days even though they do not have the specific ILO focus on preserving, restoring or enhancing environmental quality."  It says this because of [i] the environmental laws and regulation already in place that all employers and employees now face in a routine, everyday way; and [ii] because of the moral imperatives which underpin these."

There is certainly something in this.  It does not, however, always relate to the creation of new jobs, but to rethinking existing ones, or to what (as noted above) some have termed merely 're-branding'.

I wonder where and how we should draw the line.  Is making a solar panel a green job?  Very plausibly, yes. And mining the minerals?  Again, plausibly yes.  Is transporting the panel from China to Cologne (say) a green job?  Maybe.  If the ship / barge also contains 50% widgets, is it realistically only half a green job?  Is selling the panel to a homeowner a green job?  And installing?  Is compiling stats on solar panel installations a green job?  Is writing media articles on solar panels a green job?  Is writing to panel owners offering to buy the panels to get the feed-in tariffs a green job?  Is fraudulently claiming in a cold call that an inverter needs replacing a green job?  Does the idea of a green job make sense?

Interestingly, The Economist recently argued that the EU should focus on importing solar panels from China rather than creating an EU manufacturing industry.  It argues that the latter would be loss-making as Chinese panels are relatively cheap (rather like their battery EVs).  The Economist said:

“Given its expensive workers, high energy costs and weak industrial supply chains, the EU should not be making photovoltaic cells. Those who worry about French-style “strategic autonomy” should splurge on defence, not on coddling industries that will never be able to turn a profit. Europe has the chance to green itself fast and cheaply through imports. It should seize it.”

Does this logic also apply to making BEVs, I wonder.  We have these issues in the UK as well and we've opted for the import model for solar panels and wind turbines almost by default.  And we agonise over it every week.  But hang on!  If we import the panels and turbines, there will be potential job losses, but all the associated carbon emissions will be down to China rather than to us and so we'll be able to carry on bragging about how well we’re doing.  Now that's a win ...

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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  • Fascinating question with some wonderful skeptical perspectives. As a metaphor, I feel that we are currently trying to rebuild and modify an airplane while we are still flying it. That invokes thoughts about a lot of risk and challenges. Landing the plane and then tackling the rebuild makes more sense, but that also presents a massive hiatus within an ongoing system. We want the rebuild but have no real idea of what the airplane might look like when we are done or even how to do it. Such is our true quandary.