How to Tally Green Jobs: Do Bikes and Biodiesel Count?

At Open Forum for Inhabitat:

The recent weak news on the unemployment front leaves some of us wondering: Where are all of the green jobs? 

The U.S. Department of Commerce made an attempt to answer this very question and set a benchmark to measure the size of the emerging green economy by the number of green jobs it has created. The answer in the report, “Measuring the Green Economy,” depends on how green you want your green economy to be.

The report found that green products and services made up between 1 and 2 percent of the US economy in 2007, the last year that business census data is available. That translates to somewhere between 1.8 and 2.4 million private sector jobs.

Why such a gap in measurement? The Commerce department is solving a classification challenge that has plagued previous efforts to set benchmarks and counting green industry and job creation. This is because not everyone can agree on the definition of a green job.

For example, for solar energy panel installation or recycling of paper products there is little debate – these are green jobs, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and conserving resources.

However, the installation and management of nuclear power plants cause endless debate in environmental circles. On the one hand, nuclear power plants do not depend on fossil fuels and result in limited carbon dioxide emissions. But on the other hand, the mining of uranium is an energy intensive process, nuclear waste is radioactive and toxic, and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters remind us that nuclear energy is not without risk.

Biodiesel is another product that pits clean energy investors against deep green environmentalists. Yes, biodiesel reduces the need for fossil fuel, but the agricultural and refinement process to make certain types of biodiesel are considered to be highly resource-intensive and emissions-producing.

Other, less controversial products like bikes and used books and clothing are often not included in economic reports tabulating the value of the clean energy industry. Yet the use of bikes and the reuse of books and clothing can contribute to reduced reliance on energy and materials.

The Commerce department’s categorizations – with a “narrow” and “broad” definitions of green, is curious. The lower estimate of 1% fits the sector of the economy that generates little debate regarding their greenness, while the larger estimate of 2% is based on the broader definition.

By allowing for flexibility in its measurement and analysis, the report is able to effectively benchmark the state of the emerging green economy – modest, slow growing, but growing nonetheless.