Green Jobs are occupations that contribute substantially to preserving or restoring the environment. This is a concept that has been around for over a decade, there are however multiple definitions circulating, all trying to address different aspects of the same issue. Dissecting the term green jobs and understanding its issues helps to understand the complexities of transitioning an economy to a greener future. After this read, you will have a more in-depth comprehension of the difficulties of making our jobs more environmentally friendly. You will know what a green job is, whether you may already be working in one and maybe this paper can even help you find a meaningful way to contribute to a greener future.
Where we stand
On the 18th of June, the Swiss electorate voted on the Federal Act on Climate Protection Goals, Innovation and Strengthening Energy Security - another climate bill after the CO2-Act had been rejected two years earlier. This one however was accepted by the electorate. Instead of increasing gas prices or introducing prohibitions, this bill will try to create incentives for businesses and private citizens to replace oil and gas heaters and to support innovative technologies that support reaching net zero by 2050. This means that around 1.2 billion Swiss francs will be ultimately funneled into financing the creation and sustainment of occupations concerned with trying to slow down climate change. Such jobs are green and can be found in many different industries. Let’s start to untangle this term:
In 2008 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) along with other organisations like the International Labour Organization launched a report on bringing a green jobs initiative underway. This paper laid the foundational definition for green jobs: “We define green jobs as work in agricultural, manufacturing, research and development (R&D), administrative, and service activities that contribute substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality.” This is just an excerpt from the more extensive definition, but it entails the core meaning of a green job. Its benefit is that it is very broad, however, the devil is in the details. With this definition, several difficulties arise that make classifying an occupation as green rather difficult:
What makes it so complex?
- Multi-Purpose Problem
- Multi-product problem
- Green jobs with no green tasks?
Many firms produce products that can be used in an environmentally friendly, neutral, or or even destructive manner. This is called the multi-purpose problem (Janser, 2019). For instance, building steam turbines: They can be used in a coal, nuclear, or hydrogen power plant. So for the welders working on such turbines: Are they working in a green job, when the turbine is sold to a hydrogen power plant, but not when it’s shipped to a coal power plant?
Many firms produce different products, some may be environmentally friendly, others may actually be used to exacerbate climate change. Such cases lead to the so-called multi-product problem (Janser, 2019). Let’s go back to the welders: We assume they build steam turbines, this time only for hydrogen power plants. However, they also construct propellers used in oil tankers. So how green is their occupation now? Do we focus on the time invested into green activities or maybe instead the value created?
Very often jobs with no green tasks are necessary so green jobs can be performed. An example: A company that installs solar systems still needs people performing duties like book-keeping or general office work. Without someone performing these tasks, which inherently are unrelated to stopping climate change, a green company would cease to work and exist. So, in this context, bookkeeping could be considered a green occupation. The definition above however does not clarify such instances, so it is unclear whether or not such an occupation is green or not. This dilemma was first specified by Bowen et al. (2018).
There are different variations of the original definition of green jobs by UNEP, all trying to wrestle with these issues, usually solving one, whilst ignoring the others. In academic literature, however, there is a convergence to UNEP’s definition (Stanef-Puică et al., 2022), which is why it was presented here.
How does this help fight climate change?
Now, you have encountered these limitations and difficulties regarding the concept of green jobs. You may be intrigued but you may also be wondering: “How exactly is this concept useful?”
I argue that just wrestling with the presented dilemmas can contribute substantially to greening our economy: Who actually profits from the value I create at work? Who is my product or service sold to? Is my work crucial for other people who are performing green tasks? And what is my workplace doing to prevent climate change? Or are its actions actually accelerating it? Is my job green? What if I had to express its greenness in percent? Could I increase the share of green tasks? The term green jobs helps us to ask such questions, not only about the occupations of others but also about our own. Because how could we investigate greening our jobs, if we lack a name for this concept? And once the right questions have been posed, answers must follow, answers which will hopefully bring about green change.
Another merit of the framework of green jobs is that it gives us a tool to rethink what it means to turn our economy greener. There are indeed two ways we can achieve this goal: We can either make our economy more environmentally friendly by growing green industries, or we can turn our existing environmentally neutral or even destructive industries greener by creating green occupations within them. For instance, an occupation in a coal plant may be green, if its main focus is to reduce the power plant’s carbon emissions and pollution.
And here is where the climate bill of the 18th of June comes in. Now that it has been accepted, it will have a considerable impact on the greening of our economy by not only supporting green industries but also by turning existing industries like the heating industry greener. It will provide capital and incentive for private citizens and businesses to pursue environmentally friendly technologies and business activities, which in turn will create green jobs.
A tool to fight procrastination
Realising that there are multiple ways in which our economy can be turned more environmentally friendly is valuable. Entire nations are procrastinating the task of greening their economies. Granted it is an incredibly daunting duty, but it is necessary. A common remedy to procrastination is breaking down the job at hand into smaller bits, which is exactly where the concept of green jobs comes in: It makes clear that green occupations can be created in any industry. This means we do not have to close down entire sectors of our economies and put millions of workers on the streets. Instead, we take it step by step, little by little, everyone contributing to greening their own businesses and jobs. This knowledge can encourage us to take action and enable us to experience self-efficacy: We are much more likely to achieve greening our own occupations, even if it’s just by a couple tasks, than changing the environmental course of a nation or industry.
In summary: Green jobs are occupations that contribute substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality. Due to complexities like the multi-purpose and the multi-issue problem, it is often difficult to always correctly determine whether a job is green or not. Wrestling with these difficulties increases our appreciation for the complexity of turning our economy greener and provides a starting point in asking the right questions for performing such a transformation. This leads to finding new and creative answers on how to tackle the greening of our own jobs, which in turn breaks down the intimidating task of greening our entire economic system.
Bowen, A., Kuralbayeva, K., & Tipoe, E. L. (2018). Characterising green employment: The impacts of ‘greening’on workforce composition. Energy Economics, 72, 263-275.
Janser, M. (2019). The greening of jobs: empirical studies on the relationship between environmental sustainability and the labor market (Doctoral dissertation, Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg, Fakultät Sozial-und Wirtschaftswissenschaften).
Stanef-Puică, M. R., Badea, L., Șerban-Oprescu, G. L., Șerban-Oprescu, A. T., Frâncu, L. G., & Crețu, A. (2022). Green Jobs—A Literature Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(13), 7998.
United Nations Environment Programme, International Labor Organization, International Organisation of Employers, & International Trade Union Confederation. (2008). Green Jobs: Towards decent work in a sustainable, low-carbon world. World Watch Institute.
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