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How Green Is the Green Economy?

Four environmental organizers and researchers examine the ‘green jobs’ buzz.


Cross-Posted from In These Times

Any meaningful definition of “green jobs” should require real evidence of environmental, public health and community economic benefits.

A “green recovery” is being championed as a solution to both ecological and economic crisis, but the sanguine rhetoric has not always been matched by progress toward a more sustainable U.S. economy. Growth in “green jobs” has so far included waste incineration and offshore manufacturing of electric sports cars along with weatherization of homes and expansion of public transit. While the Right and industry lobbyists assail the very notion of green jobs, progressive critics argue that the catch-all term permits corporations to continue business as usual while banking public dollars to “greenwash” their image.

In These Times discussed the green jobs conundrum with four environmental organizers and researchers, including David Foster, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership between labor unions and environmental groups; Yvonne Yen Liu, a senior researcher with the Applied Research Center who has examined inequities in the green economy; Joanne Poyourow, a member of Transition Los Angeles, which organizes community-led responses to climate change and shrinking energy supplies; and Ananda Tan, U.S. program manager with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, which mobilizes for clean energy and zero waste.

President Obama’s first campaign ad of 2012 touts 2.7 million jobs in the clean energy economy. Do the realities of green job creation match the hype?

David: 2.7 million is a sound but very conservative number – an awful lot of economic activity isn’t counted in that estimate. This is the section of the economy that’s growing faster than all others.

Joanne: To bank on green jobs as the salvation to bring this economy out of recession is giving people false hope. We’re facing a bio-capacity issue as well as a “greenness” issue. Many of the “green” industries that are being touted by corporations and government officials are really ways of greencasting North Americans’ excessive consumption.

There is no standard definition of a “green job.” Does this impact the ability to hold industries accountable? What should be considered a green job?

David: A green job is nothing but a blue-collar job with a green purpose. The green economy could pick up all the jobs that currently exist if we started using products we already make for different purpose – steel is used to manufacture Hummers, but it could also be used for wind turbine towers.

Ananda: Any meaningful definition of “green jobs” should require real evidence of environmental, public health and community economic benefits. Industry has duped lawmakers into gifting them billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies for false solutions – waste incinerators, biomass incinerators, clean coal and nuclear power – that divert public money, increase pollution and burn materials, which if recycled instead would create 10 times the new jobs.

Many have argued that a clean-energy economy can also be a more equitable economy. How true has this proven so far?

Yvonne: When we talk about green jobs, we often don’t include standards around race, gender and class equity. Less than 30 percent of green jobs are held by blacks and Latinos. Ninety percent of green construction and energy firms are managed and owned by white people.

Ananda: Designs and plans for the green economy need to be made at a community level, where there’s more expertise developing jobs that are not only green but good. In San Francisco, a unionized recycling company has achieved nearly 80 percent recycling while providing those jobs to the poorest in the city.

With fossil fuel production highly subsidized, how can clean energy be competitive? How dependent are clean-energy jobs on federal funding?

David: The failure to pass national clean-energy legislation was a great failure. A regulatory system that mandates targets and timelines on the goals for renewable energy production gives a clear signal to the private-sector economy that we intend to head in a different direction. Without that kind of broad policy, we’re left doing these initiatives piecemeal.

Yvonne: We don’t need to depend on the federal government to bail us out, because they haven’t yet. We can be resilient in our ability to sustain our families and our communities. The Alliance to Develop Power in Western Massachusetts is at the center of an $80 million community economy that started out by facilitating a housing cooperative, and then branched out into contracting and green construction work like retrofits and weatherizing. Community-funded projects like Solar Mosaic here in Oakland allow people to donate money to have solar panels installed, usually at a community center or nonprofit site. After it’s installed, the money gets paid to the investors and generates wealth for the community in the form of energy savings

Ananda: We need to re-localize our political priorities. Start with the governments we can hold accountable to come down on big polluters in our backyards, and shift the local subsidies – utility contracts, waste contracts – that are feeding polluting industries.

Joanne, tell us about your work in Transition Los Angeles.

Joanne: Transition is a network of grassroots groups that are asking: What will climate change mean for our local food supply? What can we do to ensure our energy and water supplies? Six years ago in L.A., five of us started by putting in a community garden in the site where we were meeting. Then we began gardening classes, rainwater harvesting demonstrations and a miniature orchard. We’re working in conjunction with the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) and the mayor’s office to build a new garden at a local middle school that will define some of LAUSD’s models for the entire area. We touch a few thousand people now through eight groups based in different neighborhoods.

How do your organizations build support for this agenda, particularly among groups worried about losing existing jobs?

Ananda: We need to break away from the dichotomy of jobs versus environment. If we doubled our national recycling rate, we could create 1.5 million new jobs, and the climate pollution reduction would be equivalent to taking 50 million cars off the road.

But given continued economic contraction, is the green jobs paradigm an adequate response to either the unemployment or the climate crises?

David: There is a green model of economic growth that can put Americans back to work doing the work that America needs done – the construction of mass transit systems, renewable energy production and infrastructure, the retrofitting of every commercial building and home in America. The fundamental problem has been that the Obama administration’s stimulus package was too small. But it’s given some clear signs about how to use green growth as a way to return us to full employment.

Joanne: To be depending on government dollars to re-float an economy that we saw in the ’80s and ’90s is unrealistic. Faced with a severe curtailment of our energy supplies within the next five-to-10 years, government is not that powerful. The current packaging of green jobs isn’t moving us toward something that is going to make our local communities more resilient. We are facing a future where we will have less ability to transport food, to manage our sewage and to move our waste. The transformation is going to be coming from a lot of much smaller industries.

Yvonne: I like the term “community economy” instead of “green economy” because it doesn’t allow corporations to use the cover of green jobs to continue with their same practices. We’re so naturalized to thinking within the system of capitalism. This moment is giving us a psychic break to think outside of that. I think the long-term solution does lie in community economies.


Rebecca Burns, an In These Times staff writer, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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Filed under Climate Change, False Solutions to Climate Change, Green Economy, Greenwashing, UNFCCC

Sustainable Energy For All: The UN’s Trojan Horse for Corporate Energy Control?

gaspipes29 March 2012

Note: Sustainable Energy For All, or SEFA, is a UN initiative focused on “clean” energy development in the developing world.  Coincidentally, it might be a scheme to increase the role that multi-national corporations play in delivering energy services to communities, and to decrease pressure on developed countries (US, Canada, EU member-states) to implement energy efficiency and carbon-neutral projects.  Check out a BiofuelWatch report on SEFA, Sustainable Energy for All-Or Sustained Profits for a Few? for more background information.

-Gears of Change Youth Media

As soon as Morton Wetland, Norway’s representative to the UN, opened his mouth to moderate a panel discussion on public-private relationships for the Sustainable Energy For All (SEFA) initiative, it was clear on which side of the public-private divide the panelists stood.  In a belittling tone he said, “I was informed that the G77 has deleted everything in the text which has not been proposed by the G77,” referring to the attempts of mostly southern countries to defend against the stripping away of all language in the Zero Draft document referring to human rights, social inclusion and equity.  Considering the chummy, smug chuckles this comment elicited from the room, it immediately appeared that this discussion of SEFA would be more concerned with what is good for business than with what is best for human and natural communities.

SEFA may seem to be an initiative with good intentions—to increase global access to clean, “modern” energy sources—but what ultimately plays out on the ground looks to have dire consequences.  The initiative happens to include members from some of the world’s most lovable institutions: Charles Holliday, current chair of America and former director of DuPont, also chairs SEFA.  Statoil, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and Riverstone Holdings, represented by former BP CEO John Browne, are all there too.  Mark Moody Stuart, ex chairman of Shell, is also on the board.

What kind of projects can we expect this not-so-motley crew to promote?  According to Rachel Smolker from BiofuelWatch, “The first country commitment for the Sustainable Energy For All initiative is from Ghana, and it is a project which will construct a natural gas pipeline in the country with the assistance of a UK company that has long been seeking to do that.”  Since when is natural gas considered sustainable energy? In this case, the private sector is using the legitimate concern of improving the health of rural women to push through business-friendly mandates at the national and international levels.  Apparently that is the kind of sustainable energy you get when you put the heads of some of the largest energy and finance corporations in charge.

At first glance, it seems like the old regime has just put on new masks.  As Justin Perrettson, a panelist representing biotech giant Novozymes, said, “Business as usual doesn’t work…its all about companies doing what they do better,” and, “Sustainable energy is all about mindset.”  Indeed, so long as stopping business as usual means creating new, more attractive markets to investors and business, and the mindset with which sustainability is defined thinks primarily about profit margins, investment opportunity and increased corporate power instead human rights, environmental impact and community control.

Perrettson’s presentation focused primarily on the new market potentials for biotech (bioenergy, bioplastics, biochemicals) that SEFA can create with proper public investment and backing.  He hopes that the Rio+20 process can be used to initiate, “…a dialogue around…the bio-based economy,” which involves using more of the planets living communities in a more productive way.  What he really means is identifying things like “agricultural residues,” which are often vital to traditional forms of agriculture for maintaining soil fertility, and transforming them into synthetic fuels, plastics and chemical products.  Not to mention his apparent infatuation with corn, which he described as a, “ power plant.”

If industrial-scale biomass and biofuels are considered sustainable—which they currently are—than SEFA will serve as a mechanism to make investments in these dangerous technologies more attractive.  As no less than three panelists pointed out during the hour and a half long session, “Green [as in the Green Economy being promoted at Rio+20] is a good word because it also means the color of money.”

The 800 pound gorilla in the room, of course, was the actual financing for large scale energy projects.  Petter Norre, who has spent decades in the Norwegian oil and gas industry and is now a member of the SEFA technical advisory group, described a subset of SEFA, Energy+.  Energy+ was developed last fall by UN Seretary General Ban-Ki Moon and the Norwegian government, and is focused on creating attractive investment opportunities for renewable energy projects in the developing world.  It is inspired by the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) initiative, which is vehemently opposed by many civil society and indigenous organization throughout the world.  Energy+, like REDD, is all about climate finance and making countries, “Green Fund-ready.”

In Norre’s words, Energy+ is about, “…getting down the country risk for big international investors who live by their spreadsheets and their cost of capital….” In other words, how to get the public sector to subsidize, deregulate or structurally adjust in ways that can make otherwise risky development projects appear attractive to the big multi-nationals.  And what is the real role of the public sector here?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be providing a regulatory framework to ensure equity and rights.  Quite the contrary, according to Norre, the public sector needs to provide, “…a regulatory framework to have a state that functions that somehow encourages investment.”

Just as Energy+ was making me feel warm and fuzzy about the role the private sector would play in what was now being discussed mostly in terms of finance, decoupling risk from investment, and commercial opportunity, the World Bank reared its ugly head.  While I was surprised to hear World Bank Senior Energy Specialist Magnus Gehringer talking about geothermal (I figured they also would have been in the natural gas-as-sustainable energy camp), his presentation came to similar conclusions as Norre’s.  Speaking with a starry-eyed gaze about the potentials of geothermal energy, Gehringer explained the Bank’s new push, coming from the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP), to access this below ground energy source.  Drill, baby, drill.

While geothermal has a relatively high return on investment, it requires huge upfront costs.  The biggest hurdle for countries lacking access to large amounts of cash is the test drilling required prior to geothermal development.  It is prohibitively expensive and requires drilling 2-3 km below the ground.  And this is to test for geothermal potential.

But high up-front investment costs won’t stop the World Bank.  In fact, nothing short of direct community resistance will.  Magnus showed a map of geothermal hotspots, most of which are in the southern Pacific Ocean, the western coasts of North, Central and South America, and eastern Africa.  While it is true that geothermal is at the “edge of what people think about,” that might be due to the fact that most of the world is looking for solutions that are cheap, don’t require huge amounts of international finance and corporate control, and that won’t result in further ecological destruction.  As Gehringer noted, “Japan has an estimated potential…of 23,000 megawatts….And they didn’t use it because most of their geothermal fields are in national protected parks, and they didn’t want to damage their landscape.”  Well shame on you, Japan, for placing ecological protection before increased energy development.  The Bank will have to see about that.

The scariest piece of what the Bank is proposing, and about all public-private partnerships proposed for Rio+20, are the proposed private sector benefits.  Gehringer described a dream project of his, involving, “…a loan [for geothermal development] to the…east African countries for example, that they could then repay by just, for example, tendering out some of their [developed geothermal] fields to the private sector, and they would get their money back and they could repay the loans and still keep some of it.”  How much of whose fields?  When do they get them back?  And at what cost to local people and the planet?

What is so troubling about this initiative, as Ana Belén Sánchez López from Sustainlabour pointed out in a question to the panel, is that increasing access to safe, reliable, sustainable energy is a crucial issue for women, workers and many of the world’s most marginalized people.  Energy is necessary for survival.  However, it is also imperative that energy is considered in the context of human rights, not market commodities, and that the public sector­—trade unions, civil society organizations, local communities­—have a real seat at the table.

Sustianable Energy For All needs to focus on making projects that work for public utilities, and that really address the needs of local communities in healthy, sustainable ways.  It can’t be used as a Trojan Horse for the corporate world to ride into marginalized urban and rural areas to access newly developing markets.  That is not the future we want.  As the moderator made clear in his response to Sánchez López’s comments, the focus needs to be on the private sector because right now the private sector is a, “four-letter word,” at the UN.  Well, maybe it should stay that way.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Bioenergy / Agrofuels, Climate Change, Climate Justice, Corporate Globalization, Energy, False Solutions to Climate Change, Rio+20

Morning Update from the UN’s 3rd Intersessional for Rio+20

Cross-Posted from Gears of Change, 27 March 2012

The Future We Don’t Want

Yesterday gave us a critical look at what to expect on the Road to Rio.  The Future We Want initiative-being billed as a mechanism to solicit public input on the outcomes for Rio+20- is looking more and more like the future that the 1% wants, and less like a future focused on human rights, equity and a livable planet.  Watching the showdown between the US and the G77 during the informal negotiations on the Zero Draft of the Outcomes document made it clear that  for the US and other G20 member-states, Big Business and Big Finance are calling the shots.

At a panel hosted by Business Action for Sustainable Development-a coalition of private-sector organizations like the International Federation of Private Water Operations, the International Council on Mining and Metals, the International Council of Chemical Associations, and the International Chamber of Commerce-we heard strategies to strengthen public-private partnerships in the context of sustainable development and economic growth.  Members of the panel included representatives from Barbados, Vietnam and the bioplastics industry.  The representative from Barbados summed up fairly clearly the line being fed to civil society and smaller nations by the US:

Transition to Green Economy will require significant scaling up of financial resources.  Public sector will remain crucial to provide funding to leverage private resources and to kickstart green economy investment.  It is the private sector that will provide the vast majority of resources needed to move forward with the green economy.

In the context of the Green Economy, the private sector is expecting to grow on the backs of the public sector, demanding support from national governments and pushing the risks of investment and finance onto the 99%.   Say hello to the Future We Don’t Want.

Stay tuned for more on the neoliberal agenda as it makes it way down the Road to Rio+20.  Today we’ll be checking out events on public and private partnerships for the Sustainable Energy For All (SEFA) initiative being promoted by Bank of America, and women’s critical perspectives on the Green Economy.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Green Economy, Greenwashing, Land Grabs, Rio+20