The New Green Economy (Part 1)

The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) held its 10th national conference on science, policy, and the environment at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.. NCSE offered a stellar set of speakers, including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, as well as a range of symposia, breakout sessions, workshops for the more than 1,000 environmental policymakers who attended. Bill Spriggs, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson kicked off today’s discussions with an outline of the Obama administration’s green economy policies.

Bill Spriggs, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Labor Department: The U.S. lost 3 million jobs in 2008 at a rate of more than 700 thousand per month. Now, economic output is rising, but unemployment remains stalled. Furthermore, Spriggs said some jobs are “disappearing,” and permanently moving overseas. While these jobs “aren’t coming back,” they can be replaced through new investments in green technologies. “Low-hanging fruit” includes housing weatherization, which will create jobs that “can’t be exported,” argues Spriggs. “Creating new batteries for electric vehicles will lead to jobs. Also, auto part workers can turn into wind turbine workers.”

The U.S. Labor Department has recently finished doling out $700 million in stimulus funds aimed at spurring green job creation. “We are the only department to have finished giving out funds.” Labor has given grants to unions, community groups, and business leaders. “Our goal is to build capacity within local communities so they can retrain workers for green jobs.” More than 190 million has been spent on building state-level energy partnerships focused on forging deeper linkages between state programs, educational systems, and industry.

Spriggs added that the Labor department was fearful of “creating structural unemployment” by retraining workers for green jobs, and then leaving them without job opportunities. “We don’t want to exacerbate the problem.” However, he said the lack of skilled labor can’t be the bottleneck in the transition to a green economy.

Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator: Jackson said her goal was to rebuild the integrity of the Environmental Protection Agency and increase public faith in the agency. She plans to do this through focusing on “science, transparency, and following the law.” “We need to shift the dialogue away from politics and towards science. The EPA must  be seen as an independent agency and arbiter.” In terms of recent successes, the EPA administrator pointed to new standards on ground-level ozone, which will significantly reduce health problems for a range of vulnerable populations.

Jackson outlined four arguments for investing in a new green economy:

  1. A green economy is a strong economy: “President Obama has said the choice between good jobs and a clean economy is a false choice. We can have both.” To illustrate her argument that “smart environmental decisions can be smart economic decisions,” Jackson pointed to the environmental degradation that has stunted economic development on the New Jersey waterfront. Once New Jersey dealt with the environmental problems in some areas economic development returned. Jackson pointed to the Gold Coast, where rehabilitated brownfields contributed to positive economic growth and increased real estate values.  
  2. The moment compels us: The U.S. is facing both an economic and environmental crisis. Any recovery needs to be a green recovery. “We’ve invested billions in water infrastructure, and this has been a wise investment both environmentally and economically.”
  3. Clean energy is a global growth industry in the 21st century: The U.S. needs to take leadership or it will fall behind. China is “investing like crazy” in clean energy, and is the first to come out of recession. “This is no accident.” President Obama has pledged to double clean energy in three years. Clean energy needs to be the “center of a green economy” — America’s economic engine needs to be wrapped around this sector.
  4. We can move from negative to positive externalities: Negative externalities related to economic growth include pollution, river and lake destruction, and adverse health effects. However, all green economy paths create positive externalities — higher energy efficiency savings, lower energy costs, reduced healthcare costs, and strengthened national security. A McKinsey report cited by Jackons argues that a $25 billion investment in clean energy R&D can lead to $1.5 trillion in future energy savings. “We need to increase our efforts on wind, solar, and smart grid development, but we’ve laid the foundation.”

Finally, Jackson argued we need “simultaneous, game-changing solutions” to move the U.S. towards a green economy.

Read part two: What does a sustainable economy look like?, which outlines a discussion among Robert Costanza, Director, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, University of Vermont, Mindy Lubber, President, CERES, Van Jones, author of “The Green Collar Economy,” Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner, UK Sustainable Development Commission, and David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies, Oberlin College.

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