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A Primer on the U.S. Clean Energy Economy: What It Is, Why It Matters

Attempts to quantify the size, scope and benefits of the fledgling clean economy are in their earliest stages. What do we know so far?

Feb 28, 2012
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A youth-led green jobs rally in Washington in Oct. 2009

The answer depends on which definition of clean economy you choose. Under Pew's definition, a clean economy job is largely energy-related with positions ranging from solar panel installers to engineers who design fuel-efficient motor engines. Eurostat and BLS cover nearly every industry promoting sustainability, from organic meat producers and mass transit workers to national park rangers.

Is a clean economy different from a green economy?

Technically, yes. The green economy is broader. Definitions aside, clean economy has become the term of choice in the United States. 

For its 2009 study, Pew polled 2,000 people on the phrase "green jobs" and found that most participants had vague and vastly different understandings of what that meant. "'Green' isn't really a word that captures much," Cuttino said the survey revealed.

Pew researchers chose "clean energy economy," a phrase that had been circulating in Washington policy circles. They wanted to capture the idea of innovation and felt "clean" came closer. Participants said the phrase was "a more apt description," Cuttino said. "They were more likely to understand it and identify it."

Muro of Brookings, whose report uses clean more than green, said the green economy definitions still provide a more accurate snapshot of the state of the U.S. clean economy. "Many green sectors that may not be tied to innovation ... actually do produce jobs."

How big is the U.S. clean energy economy?

According to Pew's 2009 report, some 68,200 clean economy businesses in all 50 states employed 770,000 people in 2007. The report tracked clean economic growth from 1997 to 2007. The organization is slated to publish an updated study this summer.

The July 2011 report of Brookings found that in 2010, the clean economy had more than 41,100 businesses, employing 2.7 million workers, or two percent of the U.S. workforce. Fossil fuel industries, by comparison, employed 2.4 million people, it said. (In contrast to Pew, Brookings did not count firms with fewer than five employees, which accounts for why its tally of businesses is much smaller.)

The birth of the clean economywho advanced the concept, when and why?

The idea dates to the late 1990s, according to the handful of economic and political experts interviewed for this story.

At that time environmentalists were making strides in shutting coal plants and tightening federal regulations on acid rain and smog-forming chemicals. Globally, momentum was building to put a price on carbon emissions. More than 80 countries signed the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 UN treaty that requires industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (The United States was a major force in advancing Kyoto talks, but ultimately never ratified the treaty.)

Increasingly, environmentalists were running up against a major obstacle, said Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who was one of the earliest advocates of the clean economy. Labor unions and fossil fuel interests were viewing pollution controls as job killers, and they were fighting to block them.

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hendricks said the "jobs versus the environment" battle pervaded his policy workfirst as a special assistant to then-Vice President Al Gore, and later as an economic analyst at the Working for America Institute, an economic group tied to the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor union. There, he said, he developed strategies to empower communities and defend workers' rights—all of which he realized could be approached "through a green lens."

Others were thinking along the same lines. And Hendricks and a small group of community and political leaders began to rally around an idea: that investment in clean energy "could be incredibly job-creating," he said.

Their thinking coincided with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which propelled America's interest in developing domestic energy to replace foreign oil. Sensing opportunity Hendricks co-founded and became executive director of the Apollo Alliance. The goal was to develop national, state and local policies to stimulate investment in clean energy and boost employment.

"Figuring out how to move this private sector was at the heart of this agenda," he said.

Apollo brought union leaders, community activists and major environmental groups together with energy companies for the first time. It gained support of prominent community leaders like Van Jones, a social justice advocate in Oakland, Calif., and co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, who joined Apollo's board soon after it formed.

The groups worked together but at different levels. Jones and the Ella Baker Center worked to unify the labor and environmental movements in the San Francisco area around green jobs, while Apollo tried to influence policymakers at the national level.

When did Washington start to take notice?

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