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Sustainable Employment in a Green U.S. Economy

The Rockefeller Foundation recently concluded a three-year initiative focused on maximizing the number, quality and accessibility of green jobs in the United States. The Sustainable Employment in a Green US Economy (SEGUE) initiative was launched based on a recognition that the twin challenges posed by high unemployment and climate change created an opportunity and imperative to invest in green jobs in the United States and around the world. SEGUE grantmaking focused on advancing the knowledge, innovation, standards and institutions necessary to catalyze growth in the green economy and unlock greater demand for green jobs.

This initiative supported several major research efforts, including an independent, developmental evaluation of the SEGUE initiative by Abt Associates, that yielded important insights on what it would take to create more green jobs and a sustainable green economy.

Here are three key insights from the SEGUE initiative:

1) The green economy presents an important opportunity to promote the creation of quality jobs for less educated workers in the United States, but in some cases will require significant industry transformation.

A study by the Economic Policy Institute on the green economy and its implications for growth and equity found that greener industries grow faster than the overall economy, states with greater green intensity generally fared better in the economic downturn, green jobs are accessible to workers without a college degree, and the manufacturing sector plays a strong role in the green economy.

In addition to the 3.1 million green jobs that currently exist in the U.S. economy (as classified by the U.S. Department of Labor), studies by Green for All, the Pacific Institute, and the Partnership for Working Families highlight the potential for a significant expansion of green employment in the water infrastructure and waste management sectors if important upgrades are made. For example, Green for All estimates that an $188.4B investment in stormwater infrastructure over five years—the necessary level of investment, as estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency, to manage stormwater and preserve water quality across the country—would create close to 1.9M jobs and generate $265.6B in economic activity.

At the same time, several of the areas with the greatest potential for green employment, including manufacturing and construction, are long-standing industries with established practices. Greening those industries will require a longer-term focus on industry transformation.

2) Prevailing economic and political conditions make it difficult to pursue bold national policies and investments; place-based models have the greatest potential to yield jobs in the near-term.

While national policies and investments have the potential to significantly boost green employment, economic downturn and political gridlock in Washington make near-term changes at the national level unlikely. Local and regional initiatives, as highlighted in a report by the Center for American Progress, hold more promise in the near-term and several have seen significant early success.

The Center for Working Families designed a comprehensive blueprint to retrofit one million homes and create thousands of new jobs across New York State, and currently serves as a key implementer of that program. In Austin, TX, the Workers Defense Project led a successful effort to incorporate job quality measures into the certification of new construction projects. And in Los Angeles, efforts by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy led to a significant overhaul of the city’s waste collection system, an effort that will ultimately mean thousands of safer, cleaner jobs for local workers. Local policy and economic conditions, as well as sector-specific characteristics, play an important role in the success of these efforts, and may pose a challenge to replication.

3) The widespread availability of public and private financing mechanisms is a critical component of a sustainable green economy.

A robust and sustainable green economy will not be possible without the widespread availability of private and public financing options to support investments in green services, technologies and infrastructure. While these mechanisms remain underdeveloped, viable models continue to emerge. A report co-authored by The Rockefeller Foundation and Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors highlights a number of energy efficiency retrofit financing models that have emerged in recent years, including on-bill finance options and Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), that are currently underutilized but have the potential to significantly scale these types of investments. A NatLab report describes a green stormwater infrastructure investment model from the City of Philadelphia has the potential to stimulate municipal and private investments more broadly.

The Rockefeller Foundation continues to support efforts to expand employment opportunities for low-wage workers in the United States that build on the findings from this work, including an emerging initiative focused on younger workers, a group that has been among the hardest hit by the Great Recession.

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