Continuing the Fight Against Buzzwords – “Green Job”

President-elect Obama’s proposed economic stimulus package, with the goal of creating millions of “green jobs”, seems like a panacea able to fix our ailing economy, cut our reliance on foreign energy and mitigate the effects of climate change. While the details and price of the plan have not yet been worked out, we know that it would include funding for state projects to improve infrastructure and public transit, provide further subsidies for renewable energy, as well as facilitate the implementation of residential “smart” meters as the first part of process to make the energy grid more efficient.

There are many legitimate concerns and criticisms of this plan that need to be addressed. Where will the money for this package come from? Will green jobs be created at the expense of other jobs? Is it inevitable that we are going to invest in technologies that are doomed to fail?Before these questions are answered, it is imperative that we examine the concept of a “green job”. After all, the goals of this plan are both economic growth and to become more green. Even, in the event no net job creation, we can still benefit by reducing the negative externalities imposed on society by our current not-so-green economy.

So what makes a green job so “green”? Much of the talk surrounding the push for green jobs discusses replacing fossil fuels in our energy mix, curbing emissions, and cutting energy prices among other potential benefits. However, the word is ultimately used to describe advocacy of environmental protection with the principal environmental issues of today being climate change and degradation of natural resources. A green job would need to have a positive impact on either or both of these areas of concern.

Now we must ask, what does it mean to have a positive impact? Let’s take the example of manufacturing windmills. The manufacturing process itself will cause emissions, but the hope is that it will decrease emissions caused by other energy sources, more specifically fossil fuels. A true reduction in emissions would only take place if enough wind capacity were produced to allow us to decommission other power plants. Nevertheless, the ability of wind energy to meet growing energy demand would prevent future emissions. A similar situation presents itself regarding the manufacturing of electric/hybrid automobiles. In these examples, we should not limit the definition to just reducing emissions and environmental degradation, but also preventing future emissions and degradation. With these ideas, we can put the definition of a green job succinctly as “a job whose activity prevents greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation”

We have already looked at producers of windmills and electric vehicles, but what about jobs in other sectors such as biofuels? The biofuels movement is often disguised as a green movement, but despite this connotation and its theoretical ability to displace some fossil fuels in our energy mix, a potential growth in biofuels has severe negative impacts on both greenhouse gas emissions and environmental preservation. Some studies have shown that the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) for ethanol is less than one, meaning that its expansion would only cause further emissions and energy mix. On top of that, the emissions from burning biofuels may be no better than fossil fuels. If that weren’t enough, land use changes in order to cultivate crops needed for biofuels could greatly increase greenhouse gas emissions. One Oxfam report estimates that meeting the EU biofuels goals would increase emissions by a multiple of 70.

With this in mind, we can see the danger in confusing a job that results in the displacement of fossil fuels in our energy mix with a green job. It is essential to remember the true definition when evaluating how effectively a new plan would move us towards a more sustainable economy.

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