Fiona Harvey Green jobs: some (as yet) unanswerable questions

Rumblings are growing around whether government estimates of the number of jobs to be created in the “green” economy are overly optimistic.

Governments around the world, including the US, the UK, Germany and China, have been promising “green collar” jobs as a way out of the recession.

Rob Stavins at Harvard has also been blogging about why a ‘single policy instrument’ is not always best.

When the FT looked into the claims of the UK government on the number of green jobs to be created, we found several problems.

Chiefly, there is the fact that no one really knows how many green jobs can be created. The numbers depend so much on so many other unknowns – estimates of how much renewable energy will be generated, how many low-emission vehicles will be built, how many houses can be insulated, etc – that they quickly start to run away from reality.

Then there is the question of what constitutes a green job. The UK government has two central estimates – one of the number of jobs created by the UK’s move to generate 3-40 per cent of electricity from renewables sources by 2020 (160,000 jobs by 2020), and the other of the number of jobs in environmental goods and services, which is much bigger (as many as 800,000 jobs currently, according to the Environmental Industries Commission) because it includes everything from rubbish collectors to sewage plant workers. How far do you spread this net?

Then there is the question of where these jobs are going to be. Questioned closely, the UK government admitted that its 160,000 projected jobs in renewable energy would not all be in the UK – many, if not most, would be in the countries where wind turbine components are built, such as China and Germany.

Finally, what about job destruction from green industries? Take renewables. The whole point of building more wind turbines is that you need fewer coal plants. But coal plants are hard to keep running, and generate lots of supply chain jobs in mining and transport. Wind turbines are cheaper in the long term precisely because they need no fuel and little maintenance.

That said, the move to a low-carbon economy requires such major changes in the way the whole of the economy – from house building to vehicle manufacturing to recycling our rubbish to redesigning our cities – that it is sure to entail a large number of new jobs, which will almost certainly far outweigh the effects of any job losses. There is little research, however, on the net job impact of moving to a green economy. We need some more.