Sustainability by the Numbers: The Growing Reality of the Green Economy

One of the more persistent myths in our political dialogue is that we must tradeoff environmental sustainability and economic growth. This is probably reinforced by a fact, pointed out to me recently by my Columbia faculty colleague, Michael Gerrard. Professor Gerrard noted that we have not had a major new piece of federal environmental legislation enacted in over two decades. The structure of U.S. environmental law is based on the assumption that economic development pollutes, and that the goal of environmental policy was to clean up or reduce pollution after it was created.

The sustainability perspective is quite different. Sustainability management is the practice of economic production and consumption that minimizes environmental impact and maximizes resource conservation and reuse. As opposed to the political debate regarding environmental protection -- which claims there is a tradeoff between environmental protection and economic production -- the sustainability management framework demonstrates that continued economic prosperity is dependent on the health of the environment. Pollution is seen as a form of waste that should be eliminated by careful and sophisticated production processes.

Economic growth requires the continued availability of high quality natural resources -- especially air, water and soil. We need to develop technology, organizational capacity and political will to make the changes necessary to ensure these resources continue. Society requires water, food and energy, and cannot exist in an environment dominated by waste. Sustainability management adds an emphasis on the physical issues in an organization's standard management practices that impact the natural environment. Under this framework, organizations:

Efficiently use raw materials to reduce the creation of waste;
Shift to renewable or recycled materials; and
Look for innovative materials or processes that have a lesser impact on the environment.

We are at the start of the development of a sustainable or green economy. To measure the green economy, it is possible to measure the presence of green jobs, green markets, and investment in green industries. Because sustainability cuts across industries and sectors of the U.S. economy, defining just what contributes to the green economy is a challenge. In general, the green economy can be considered the production of goods and services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently began measuring green jobs with the introduction in 2010 of their Green Jobs Initiative. This is an effort to gather data on "(1) the number of and trend over time in green jobs, (2) the industrial, occupational, and geographic distribution of the jobs, and (3) the wages of the workers in these jobs" (BLS 2012c).

"The BLS defines green jobs as either: (1) Jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, or (2) Jobs in which workers' duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources" (BLS 2012c). Jobs are considered green if they produce goods or services directly related to:

1. Energy from renewable sources.
2. Energy efficiency.
3. Pollution reduction and removal, greenhouse gas reduction, and recycling and reuse.
4. Natural resources conservation, organic agriculture and sustainable forestry.
5. Environmental compliance and regulatory administration, education and training, and public awareness and advocacy. (BLS 2012c).

 

 

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