by David Sweet

‘Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life’: Confucius

The economic downturn in the EU, the US and even in parts of Asia has led to abysmal levels of employment, with far too many workers unemployed, under-employed or working harder but earning less. In the EU, unemployment is at 11%, but significantly higher in some member countries. In the US, the rate has recently moved just below 8% for the first time in years, which triggered a number of conspiracy theories, given that the sudden drop came so close to the Presidential election. Even Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, tweeted about the situation and sparked a firestorm by implying that the Obama Administration has cooked the books to make the numbers look better to voters.

Government policies in energy, energy efficiency, and the transition to clean and green energy sources – and their impact on employment – have also been hotly debated topics in the Presidential election season, with Mitt Romney strongly emphasizing traditional forms of energy and the strong job growth in these sectors, especially given the increases in production of natural gas and oil. Meanwhile, President Obama has highlighted the potential of a transition to renewable energy technologies for creating green jobs. When President Obama was running for office the first time around, he laid out a plan for creating 5 million green jobs over a ten-year period. By any count or study, the actual number is far, far below this level to date. In fact, Vestas Wind Systems has begun to cut staff at its US factories in anticipation of the expiry of the Production Tax Credit at the end of the year. Its Colorado workforce is down from 1700 to 1200 so far this year. In Spain, unemployment was at 18% just a few years ago when the country made a big bet on green jobs as the way to get the country back to work. Today, the unemployment rate is the highest in the EU at over 25% and the promise of a green recovery looks highly suspect.

While green jobs may not offer the quick fix for the global economy, transitioning to a more energy-efficient economy provides many advantages. A recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) attempts to shed some light on the nature of the relationship between energy efficiency and job creation.

According to the study, aggressive investment in efficiency could save the US US$1.2 trillion by 2020 and support a net increase of 1.3 to 1.9 million jobs by 2050. The ACEEE White Paper reviews actual case studies in efficiency and the impact on the creation of direct jobs, indirect jobs and induced jobs (generated by the re-spending of income from the direct and indirect jobs that have been created).

Given all the noise and confusion about issues such as job creation, unemployment and green jobs, the ACEEE White Paper is a welcome and timely analysis of the situation. While investments in energy efficiency and green jobs pay significant dividends in the long term, the payback from this investment may not closely track the political cycles that determine levels of investment. Energy efficiency and green jobs are a long-term ingredient for a healthy economy – not a panacea or a quick fix.

David Sweet
Executive director, WADE