The Time for Equitable Green Economy Investment Is Now

By Cameron Johnson

In the midst of a congressional debate over revitalizing the nation's infrastructure, the green economy stands out as ripe for investment due to its future-oriented, sustainability-driven, and job-creating possibilities. Prioritizing strong climate infrastructure can drive an influx of good-paying green jobs with benefits, simultaneously strengthening the country’s resilience in the face of climate catastrophe whilst also promoting equity.

Communities with limited resources are regularly excluded from quality employment pathways and are most threatened by climate change. Federal investments in jobs in sustainability and combating climate change must center these communities' economic empowerment. Now is the time to ensure that a green economy is built with such equity in mind, putting people on a pathway out of poverty and into prosperity. Budget reconciliation legislation should serve as the vehicle to achieve this reality.

The Biden-Harris administration has committed to advancing such an equity agenda, and investing in the green economy is a major part of that goal. In particular, the White House has proposed a set of green initiatives to fund, including: improving protections for our communities, land and water, and infrastructure in the face of extreme climate events; prioritizing clean energy solutions and mitigating extractive energy harm; subsidizing jobs in conserving public resources and advancing communities' resilience to extreme weather events; and retrofitting buildings to be more sustainable. These investments would support the administration’s goal of pursuing an economic recovery in a way that simultaneously drives racial equity. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, green jobs are either “in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources" or “involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources." The three major categories are renewable energy production, energy efficiency, and environmental management. To promote equity however, green jobs must additionally be family-supporting and career-track jobs, providing living wages with benefits coupled with pathways to upward mobility.

There are deep disparities in employment within green economy work affecting historically marginalized communities. Women, people of color, those who are formerly incarcerated, among others, continue to face barriers to participating in this growing field. In the renewable energy production and energy efficiency sectors of the green economy in 2020, Black Americans held about 8 percent of those jobs, Hispanic/Latino Americans held about 17 percent, Asian Americans held about 8 percent, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders held about 1 percent, and Native Americans or Alaskan Natives held about 1 percent. Meanwhile, white Americans held about 61 percent of those jobs. The participation rate in these sectors rose slightly for people of color overall from 2017, although rate trajectories for racial subgroups during this period were mixed.

Women comprised only 27 percent of jobs in renewable energy production and energy efficiency in 2020, less than their share of all jobs across the entire labor market. Their participation rate in these sectors has declined slightly since 2017. This partly results from women being more likely than men to work in industries underrepresented in the green economy, such as education and health and leisure and hospitality. Men, conversely, are more likely than women to work in industries overrepresented in the green economy, such as transportation and material moving, construction and extraction, and architecture and engineering. These occupations are, overall, non-traditional fields for women.

Notably, women being non-traditional to the aforementioned occupations may explain why environmental management is the sector which contains the greatest amount of women in green jobs. It contains additional occupations beyond skilled trades, such as public administration and support services, where women have a substantive presence. Public-sector occupations in environmental management are known to utilize equal opportunity hiring and recruitment practices, which tend to benefit minority and female workers. This latter point may also explain why the sector contains the greatest amount of Black workers in green jobs as well. 
 
People who are formerly incarcerated face barriers to entering the green economy that mirror their experiences entering the overall workforce: a lack of or interruption to their educational attainment or work experience; stigma; lack of employment prospects; and employment discrimination. Acknowledging and addressing all of these disparities is key to crafting an equitable and green infrastructure plan for the country with equity in mind.

There are several ways in which investments in a green workforce can benefit people in communities that have been historically under-resourced. Many green jobs have low barriers to entry, providing pathways for those with limited skills, work experience, and formal education credentials. These jobs are less likely to be low-paying than jobs in other sectors: workers earning "low wages" in green jobs earn $5 to $7 more per hour than workers earning low wages nationally. Jobs in the green economy can also be harder to export and are more likely to be unionized.

However, to deliver on true equity, advancing the green economy must lead to more high-quality jobs for people who are economically marginalized. Congress can intentionally design public investments in the budget resolution legislation to ameliorate inequity in work participation in this sector. This should involve

  • explicitly prioritizing those who have been marginalized in all policy investments; 
  • building large-scale employment and postsecondary pathways for said populations; 
  • supporting career pathways that connect progressive levels of basic skills to continued education and training; and 
  • ensuring sufficient wages, benefits, wraparound services, and fair and predictable work schedules.

Policymakers must build into the model continued training, education, and certification for those with employment barriers so that they can advance within their workplace or chosen profession. Additionally, where possible, training programs and providers should be linked to union apprenticeship programs.

When coupled with family-sustaining wages and general “good jobs” principles, the green workforce can help us counter climate change, promote equity, and deliver environmental justice. It can live out its promise as an avenue for sustenance and development for people who have otherwise been locked out of economic opportunity.