Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Green jobs just muddy the climate-change waters

A cartoon by Jon Kudelka shows Julia Gillard ticking off items on her to-do list: first, appease billionaires; second, appease xenophobes; third, appease climate sceptics. Too true ... although, actually, when she has finished appeasing those who live in fear of boat people her last bit of pre-election deck-clearing will be to appease those who regret the government's decision to walk away from its emissions trading scheme by announcing a program of government subsidies to induce people to reduce their emissions directly.

Amazing though it may seem, the climate-change-denying opposition has a post-trading scheme policy to encourage "direct action", whereas the government - which still protests its acceptance of human-caused climate change - doesn't.

It's a fair bet that when we see Gillard's direct-action policy it will come complete with boasts about how many "green jobs" it will create.

Creating green jobs is all the rage. About a year ago Kevin Rudd promised to create 50,000 of them. Tony Abbott has plans for a standing army of 15,000 green workers who could be deployed across the country. And every environmental group or renewable energy lobby group wants to tell us how many "green-collar jobs" could be generated if only we'd do as they say.

It seems the notion of green jobs arose as a response to the claims of the opponents of climate policy that moving to a low-carbon economy would destroy lots of jobs. No it wouldn't, environmentalists cried, it would create lots of jobs. What's more, they would be green jobs.

But as the Australia Institute warns in a policy brief to be released today, there's a lot of woolly thinking about green jobs. It seems to be little more than a propaganda tool.

For a start, there has been little attempt to define what constitutes a green job. If, for instance, a job maintaining a wind turbine is a green job, what about a job in the business that makes the turbines?

And if it's green to manufacture steel turbines, what about the jobs of the people who mine the iron ore and coking coal needed to make the steel? But if it's not green to be a miner, would it be better for us to import all the turbines we need so the sin of being non-green was on someone else's head?

Should people who work in industries with a low environmental impact be regarded as having green jobs? If so, a significant proportion of all our existing jobs - particularly those in health, education and community services - are green.

But what about jobs in industries that have reduced their ecological footprint, even though it remains substantial? Are these jobs more green or less green than jobs in industries whose footprint has always been small?

As a general rule, industries that are capital-intensive are likely to have a bigger footprint than industries that are labour-intensive, such as service industries. Does this mean we could make the economy greener by abandoning our age-old quest to use machines to replace workers wherever possible?

Do workers whose job is to return a mine site to nature after it has been worked out qualify as green-collar workers? If so, what about workers who clean up after oil spills?

And what about jobs that make the natural environment more accessible to people? If, for instance, you employ some young people to improve the signs on a bush-walking track (for which I'm always grateful) are these green jobs? The advocates of such projects seem to think so.

Visiting the great outdoors may make people more environmentally conscious. But what if the greater accessibility attracts more people and thus adds to the degradation of the area? Would the green jobs then turn brown?

If I were to drive all around the state - or fly all around the world - educating people about the damage the use of fossil fuels does to the climate, would that make me a green-collar worker?

Give up? I reckon it's virtually impossible to come up with a watertight definition of green jobs. But I don't think that matters. As the Australia Institute's report argues, focusing on green jobs is at best a distraction and at worse a snare and a delusion. The object of the climate change exercise is to move to an economy where little of our energy needs are met by burning fossil fuels, thereby making us a "low-carbon economy" and greatly reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases.

Focus on that and the jobs will look after themselves. What seems to be missing from the preoccupation with green jobs is an understanding that all economic activity creates jobs. Moving to a low-carbon economy may well involve reducing jobs in industries that produce fossil fuels, but it will also create them in renewable-energy industries. And even should producing a quantity of energy from solar, wind or whatever involve fewer jobs than producing the same quantity from coal, that's not a problem either. This greater productivity of labour would leave income to be spent elsewhere in the economy - probably the services sector - where it would create jobs.

Our businesses have been using "labour-saving equipment" to replace workers for 200 years and it hasn't cause mass unemployment yet. (It's true, however, that the workers displaced from fossil-fuel industries may not be well placed to take the jobs created in the renewable industries or elsewhere, but that problem - which does need to be dealt with - is common to all the changes in the structure of the economy that continuous technological advance has caused over the centuries.)

It's OK for governments to spend money for the dominant purpose of creating jobs when they're fighting to urgently reduce the impact of recession. Apart from that, however, the money they spend should be aimed at achieving its nominal purpose. The number of jobs this spending creates should be incidental.

If we continue our muddled thinking about green jobs, we risk having politicians trying to curry our favour by wasting money on schemes that will do little to combat climate change.