So what’s a green job, anyway?

Today CCPA released a new report by myself and Ken Carlaw, an economist at UBC-Okanagan, called Climate Justice, Green Jobs and Sustainable Production in BC. I doubt you’ll see any headlines about it in the major news dailies, but I think it will have a longer-lasting impact as a key economic framing piece for our Climate Justice Project.

In the paper we start with an ecological economics perspective on what “sustainability” really means when it comes to climate change policies, and from that we consider implications for “green jobs”. These are both important concepts that in the course of prominent usage tend to get thrown around without much clarity. So, we try to fill in those containers with meaning.

One important implication is that we need to cut our fossil fuel habit by 2040, and reduce remaining greenhouse gases to near-zero by mid-century. That means we need a moratorium on new oil and gas developments unless 100% of the emissions can be sequestered underground forever. It means that people and governments should not waste time and money assuaging carbon guilt by buying offsets. And it means rethinking industrial policies that have been successful in economic terms, but now fly in the face of good climate policies.

We then go on to apply this framework to the world of work in BC. We look at GHG emissions and employment by industrial sector, and find that (surprise, surprise) mining and oil and gas industries have a ridiculously high amount of emissions while providing comparably little employment. So the bad news is that we need to transition our economy away from GHG-intensive industries, and this requires transition planning for workers; the good news is that those industries actually employ relatively few workers, and many of the skills in those industries have broader applicability in a low-carbon economy. On the other hand, most of the service sector is “green” but is not always decent work. Plans for green jobs need to ensure we are creating decent work and that we actively seek to create new opportunities for traditionally disadvantaged populations.

In the last part of the paper, we review the bright spots for new green job creation, and put a major onus on the public sector to make large investments that create green jobs as we rebuild the infrastructure of our economy and society. Retrofitting buildings and public transit are low-hanging fruit, but I’m particularly interested in the nexus between zero waste policies and green manufacturing as an under-appreciated area with lots of employment potential. Adaptation to climate change already in the pipeline is another source of green jobs, including everything from growing food to shoring up dykes to planting trees to deepening our social services networks.

Of course, it’s going to take money to make this happen. The Stern Review for the UK Government called for 1% of GDP to be invested per year, and in BC this translates into $2 billion. A ten-year rapid action plan is readily fundable through revenues from the carbon tax and royalties on oil and gas. It’s easy to get cynical about this exercise when we see such intransigence from the big carbon polluters around the world, including the BC government, who have ramped up oil and gas production even as they brought in a carbon tax (we have a whole chapter on these contradictions). Someone needs to break from the status quo and show real leadership. With the right amount of political will, BC is ideally poised to do so.


  • “We then go on to apply this framework to the world of work in BC. We look at GHG emissions and employment by industrial sector, and find that (surprise, surprise) mining and oil and gas industries have a ridiculously high amount of emissions while providing comparably little employment.”

    Comparatively little is a gross understatement. On a employment as a percent of value added they are the two worst sectors. As of 2005 for every one percent of total value added these sectors accounted for around 0.14% of total employment. Compare that with economy wide ratio of 1% VA = .8% employment. So yes dirty and job lean sectors.

  • “The principal challenge for BC and other jurisdictions around the world is to de-couple the economy from fossil fuels.”

    This is indeed a challenge considering there is no evidence that relative decoupling of GDP from GHG emissions could EVER result in absolute decoupling, as Tim Jackson pointed out in the U.K. Sustainable Development Commission’s “Prosperity Without Growth?” report.

    I’m flabbergasted. Where to begin? A report on green jobs, decent jobs and climate justice that doesn’t even bother to argue against the preponderance of recent analysis critiquing the imperative of economic growth. Just plows right ahead with “sustainable” business as usual in place of Business as Usual. Wow.

    I’ll start with one little fact. Anders Hayden and John Shandra found that “controlling for a variety of other influences including income, hours of work remain an important and statistically significant predictor of ecological footprints.” Another fact: “A study by David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that if the United States were to shift to the working patterns of Western European countries, energy consumption would decline by about 20 percent.”

    I could go on and on citing chapter and verse from Bill Rees, Peter Victor, Tim Jackson, Juliet Schor, David Suzuki, Bill McKibben, Jon Messenger (of the ILO on “decent work”), the Sustainable Development Commission, the New Economics Foundation, the Worldwatch Institute etc., etc., etc. But what would be the point? Richard Lipsey’s hoary cliches take precedence.

    I’m appalled. Policy Alternatives? My ‘foot’.

  • Tom,

    Your tone is certainly not helpful to fostering any kind of helpful debate on the topic. I would argue the report’s recommendations — if you took the time read them — are quite aggressive by taking the science seriously, grappling with the most polluting industries and thinking through the justice dimensions.

    As we discuss in the paper, it’s all about materials and energy throughput and wastes like GHGs on the output side. Focusing on GDP growth per se, which is a summary accounting statistic, is a pitfall many fall into. Given that we had a whole CCPA workshop that you attended discussing these nuances, I’m surprised by your comment — especially since Rees and Victor were there and they articulated a similar perspective.

    As for work time, I appreciate the comment (however snarkily phrased). I’m sympathetic to people working less but I don’t think we have good answers as to how we (or why we should) compel people to work less than they want. A guaranteed income seems like a better indirect approach to making that happen, something I blogged about recently. We contribute to that somewhat in this paper by arguing for a “carbon transfer” to households that could be part of a guaranteed income framework.

  • “I don’t think we have good answers as to how we (or why we should) compel people to work less than they want. ”

    Of course we don’t have the answers to an improperly phrased question, Marc. It’s not about “compelling people to work less than they want.” It’s about enabling them to work in a more socially satisfying and productive way. As Ed Miliband said yesterday in his inaugural address as leader of the Labour Party, “We’ve got to change our culture on working time not just for the good of families, but because it is through family that we learn right from wrong, develop ambitions for ourselves and show kindness and respect for others that is the foundation of our society.”

  • Ok so Tom is tone deaf (maybe he was trained in an economics program):, but he has a serious point and I do not think Marc’s response that, “I don’t think we have good answers as to how we (or why we should) compel people to work less than they want,” is very well put.

    Marc you just co-wrote a paper on why and how we can force people to produce less emissions than they currently want. Why should work be any different?

  • “Why should work be any different?”

    Well, Travis, because according to the canonical labor supply model, workers freely choose between income and leisure. Just because the model has been shown to be empirically invalid doesn’t mean we are free to make unorthodox assumptions (such as from observation and experience) about how the hours of work are actually determined. We are canon-fodder.

    You see, Travis, people like me mistakenly assume that there is “only a fixed amount of work to go ’round.” We haven’t yet awakened to the well-known fact and eternal verity that “in spite of dire predictions, continued growth has created many more jobs than it has destroyed, holding North American unemployment to levels that can be dealt with fairly easily by public policy.”

    [obnoxious and insulting comments directed at Marc deleted]

  • It is a triumph of capitalist and patriarchal discourse that work = paid work in the English language. If I were to go down stairs and tell my partner that she was engage in leisure while attending to our 1 year old she, would, I think, rightfully punch me in the face.

    Ok gotta go, I can’t afford to purchase any more leisure time, or its opportunity cost at the margin is too high. But wait I am paid a flat salary. Ok so now I am confused.

  • I just don’t see why someone who wants to work long hours today, perhaps to retire early or pay off student debt or whatever, should not be allowed to do that.

    Ideally we want a labour market that enables people to get decent work that would allow them to choose fewer weekly hours if they want. And we want a labour market that better enables families (typically, mothers) to have more flexible work arrangements to be able to have careers, etc.

    Those are second-order issues, though, to the main points raised by the paper. I’m open to suggestions on how better work time arrangements could and should happen, so fire away, but seems to me that choices around work time ought to be an outcome of other structural factors that determine wages in the labour market and non-wage income through redistribution.

  • Marc you are avoiding the question. What is different from regulating (by whatever means) the level of emissions people “choose” to consume (?) and the number of hours they choose to work? I can make a host of arguments about “individual” “choices” about work-time and social externalities one of which being unemployment for some. Social coercion, is social coercion.

  • Interesting question. To a large extent both are the result of structural factors, and only partly an exercise of choice. I’m interested in how we reduce emissions to zero, and doing so in a way that is just, so the paper focuses more on which jobs are threatened and what alternative opportunities there may be, and what transition strategies need to be employed.

    I’m open to your argument that work time reduction can be a part of the solution, but how do you propose to get from here to there? Answer that and I’ll tell you if I think it is too coercive.

  • Well, personally I’m all for increased leisure. And I think solutions for that are complicated, but nearly all relate to loosening capital’s grip on the economy in favour of more power for everyone else. Our current economy has problems not just because of the need to work more given poor wages, but also because of misallocation of resources–so much that gets done is useless or worse, and yet very firmly built into our structures. Take for instance advertising–as a general rule, this is a colossal waste of resources whose major achievement is successfully misleading the public. Yet in North America thousands of dollars are spent per year per person on advertising, marketing and public relations (the latter being for the most part privately produced black propaganda). And it seems that forty or fifty years ago, most households successfully lived on the income of a single full-time worker. Now I wouldn’t want to go back to “one male breadwinner”, but I see no valid reason why with higher productivity today, it should take more hours of work per household to live. Meanwhile, if wages were higher, it would be easier to spread fewer hours of work; instead, we see masses of unemployed on one hand, and masses of people desperately trying to add more hours beyond nominal full time on the other. All these distortions are products of the unchallenged power of capital.

    So much could certainly be done to reduce the amount of work done, without actually worsening anyone’s quality of life. But I do wonder about one aspect of Tom’s original post (aside from the snark, which seems unwarranted):

    “This is indeed a challenge considering there is no evidence that relative decoupling of GDP from GHG emissions could EVER result in absolute decoupling”

    I’m not sure what that has to do with anything. Presumably there is no evidence that reduction in hours of work could EVER result in complete elimination of greenhouse gases either. We can’t exactly reduce work to zero. Indeed, it seems plausible that it may be physically impossible for a population of humans to emit no greenhouse gases whatsoever, no matter what approach is used, or what combination of approaches. What then is the point of berating anyone who defines an approach by objecting that the approach will not reduce emission to zero? The more so if what one suggests instead is not exclusive but complementary?

    I really don’t quite see what Tom wants. Does he want us not to bother switching away from fossil fuels? Does he want us not to bother changing our production to emit less? If not, why bother with a blanket condemnation of a report about how to do these things? I can see an objection that there are better methods to achieve the goal, but an objection that appears to rubbish the goal itself?
    Or does he think it’s pointless to do anything but reduce production to zero? I don’t think there’d be too many takers for such an agenda.

  • How about you reveal your litmus test for excessive coercion and I will pen something that tickles your ears.

  • PLG, from what I understand Tom was banned so he can’t respond so please do not ask him questions. It is really quite unfair.

  • PLG, Travis is right. I try to be pretty accommodating with comments, and I encourage debate, but I don’t think it is anyone’s right to post comments that are obnoxious or insulting. And Tom took one big leap over that line. But I’ll happily provide Tom’s email address to you if you want to engage with him directly.

  • Don’t need the email. It’s a kind of annoying situation. I do think there was something relevant Tom was trying to say, but his inflammatory rhetoric actually obscured his point. I suspect his actual problem was something along the lines of “With its strong concern for employment levels, it seems as if this paper takes for granted the typical capitalist doctrine of eternal economic growth, which is deeply problematic from an environmental perspective. As long as growth continues, qualitative improvements in the amount of production per unit of greenhouse gases emitted are likely to be overwhelmed by the ‘magic of compound interest’, leading to unsustainable outcomes.”

    Something like that. And I can understand that concern if indeed it was what he meant. Indeed, the left-ish often talk glowingly about the post-WWII ‘golden age’ of prosperity and high growth and near full employment, making a certain suspicion natural that the desire of much of the left is to move to higher-growth regimes. But I don’t think a concern for lower unemployment necessarily has anything to do with growth economics as such. To the contrary, a zero-growth economy to be stable would I think have to have low unemployment, would have to spread the work around. Reductions in work would ideally be dealt with more the way the Germans have during the recession, by subsidizing the retention of workers doing fewer hours, rather than by our typical all-or-nothing approach to unemployment and social safety nets.
    Also, for the moment, whatever the long term implications of unfettered growth, right now there is a lot of work that needs doing if a cleaner economy is to come into being.

  • A green job is any job which arises from green money. For example, a green job might be the jobs related to the import of underwear for people who protest coal mining, or it might be those jobs arising in the hair stylist industry who cut the hair of politicians who support green tech subsidies. Those are good examples of green jobs.

  • I am not going to wade into this one- just to say I think Marc has at least got the debate going- however the question- what is a green job is not a great question, as I am not sure any one single answer will suffice.

    It is kind of like asking what is a job- not an easy question- trust me I have been trying to answer what work is- for many years and I still have yet to find even a close answer- is it the primordial curse- or the supreme definition of humanity?

    But I would say that any job in the future should have some component of green within it- that is, the tasks that are encircled by the process in which forms the value adding of ones job- the actual value adding must include some component of meeting the green goals of sustainability. Whether this is reducing C02, or reducing other outputs that are a threat to the ecology that allows for a sustainable future, green jobs must contribute towards this goal.

    So no job has to be entirely defined as green- it is the tasks within these job that we need to change – right across the spectrum of the value adding process.

    Whether it be capitalists- socialist, agrarian, hunter gatherer- all jobs need to change to some extent.

    Some new jobs obviously will be created, as if the daily task of work are (paid and unpaid) are to be reallocated to encompass the green requirements- then obviously this leaves a short fall in the current task that are required to be done. So we either reduce outputs- say socially unnecessary work, or we expand employment to make up for this.

    Our culture has determined that much of the waged work we do is can be fairly much socially un-necessary, but that is a process that is difficult to direct under a democracy- so unless we develop into somekind of totalitarian green economy, much of the transition will be either through education or again some kind of rationing- which in our ‘democracy’ (and I am thinking about smart meters in Ontario here or carbon taxes’) – based upon income.

    I could write a whole book on defining a green job, so I do think we should all relax on the blog and lets debate this very important subject rather than get uptight about some quite complicated issues.


  • Dear PurpleLibraryGuy, and others who can debate.

    Are people finnaly questioning what can easily be defined as inflation.

    We need to work more given poor wages, is due to the fact how expensive everything gradually is becoming. With all the talk of falling prices in the last 3 years, have prices fallen to 10 yr, 20 yr lows. I have not seen it.

    Directly at one of Purple’s remarks, that I have identified myself, & explained but what confounds many of this day & age.

    “The average cost of living for familiy was non existent in past decades, that one bread winner could clothe, feed, and educate up to 8 children on very little wealth. Which was directly related to our purchasing power, that we have lost over 10, 20, 30 years [decades at intervals]. Spending time with their kids [was possible with a stronger dollar/cheaper prices] as opossed as the [present] parents allways gone[which I grew up with because parents needed to work more to buy the same ammount of services/goods then compared to their parents], and kids always uptown etc, that we seem to accept now as normal. That feat is seemingly impossible now.” (,June 12, 2010, 10:51 am)

    He expreses this, remarks that forty or fifty years ago, most households successfully lived on the income of a single full-time worker.

    We are were in full agreement, we do not condone the society that enforced the one male breadwinner. However Purpul drops it there, and ends with, “I see no valid reason why with higher productivity today, it should take more hours of work per household to live” without taking it a step further. Families were larger in the past then, & the median family was closer to 3-5 children, so it worse then he wrote. I find it difficult that there is no reason? really, no explanations for this phenomena, inflation didnt even occur to him.

    Inflation is the best known cause to require more hours of work per household to live, to just survive the increase in the cost of living, which no can deny, which is diffrent from prices themselves.

    Then when left to solve, “if wages were higher, it would be easier to spread fewer hours of work” In the past, my grandmother, and many people had the same arguement, made to them, if only wages were higher.

    My wages today, are greater then that of my grandfather nominally, or any of his employees, and Im worse off, as my grandfathers wages could purchase more good/services, then I can.

    It kinda of saddens this young canadian when workers in the past who made less then present minimum wage could afford more goods/services then I.

    So I dont see how, simply increasing my nominal ammount of wages would help, thats one sided without a solution. A nominal increase in wages accompanied with a stable or uptick in purchasing power would benefit everyone.

    The stero typical situation one perent could provide for 3-5 children, with food, clothing, education, and a copule decades later, and Inflation has made it impossible for two perents to work one average job to feed, clothe and educate families greater then 1 or two, in many cases not even afford a 1kid, or even afford the same ammount of goods/services of past generations.

    The only reason I have not engaged in father hood yet, is I want to be able to afford my kid. The longer this goes on, we will all see firsthand the problems created for the amount of workers to rittirees ratios for social security. The central bank will either have to print the diffrence for retitirng workers or government up taxes on the young for promises made.

    She’s had a few accounts to make up the change in rates over her lifetime but she banked with Scotia where she received 18.8% daily interest for 13 years before rates declined. She started the account with a little over a thousand in savings in 1951, born 31. She has banked with them reinvesting the returns back into the account(s) and didn’t use them once till she was 76, do the math, any Canadian could retire. She never went into RRSPs, Stocks or any investment vehicles, I challenge any canadian to do the same today.

    She did this in a high Interest rate eviroment with a stonger dollar, when prices were lower, near full employment, when there was one bred winner

    Also these low rates are pushing retirement funds into global markets for higher yield, which is a I think a mistake but a understandable mistake, since these funds need to grow for retirement, they cant just sit there, collecting dust, otherwise how would you retire?

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