Juice: Green Power vs. Green Jobs?

16 Apr 2019

The New Green Deal, a 14-page national resolution to clean up the environment and simultaneously address social inequity by creating new job opportunities and strengthening the social safety net, lacks the force of law. But, it is a powerful, timely idea and symbol that’s causing lots of people to cheer or chastise it.

Its potency stems from its effort to bring together environmental, social justice and labor advocates, who often have been adversaries. It aims to do that by creating sustainable green energy jobs to reverse the shrinking middle class and to decarbonize the economy.

Democratic Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New Green Deal specifically hopes to emulate FDR’s New Deal, creating millions of jobs, particularly in marginalized communities. That increasingly includes young adults in California and across the nation.

Its provisions include language stating that Congress understands “it is the duty of the Federal Government” to do a number of things, including:

  • Achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a “fair and just transition for all communities and workers;” and
  • Create “millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all in the United States.”

The fact that this green deal has made headlines near and far since its release in early February shows how much things have changed politically the last few years.

Back in 2008, Van Jones, a social justice activist from Oakland, promoted an end to environmental and energy apartheid with his book, The Green Collar Economy. He pushed for creating a broad-based, inclusive green energy alliance. His work resulted in the Obama Administration hiring him as its green energy advisor in 2009.

But, his proposal did not catch on with the mainstream. Eventually, he was pushed out of the Obama Administration.

Fast forward to 2019: A Green New Deal is proposed. It pushes back against the Trump Administration’s pro-fossil fuel tide.

We at Current embrace the green deal’s spirit. But we also urge supporters to look beyond its aspirations and to the reality on the green energy ground.

A case in point is California, which would be the fifth largest world economy if it were a nation.

The Golden State has been leading the U.S. on decarbonizing the electricity and transportation sectors for a number of years. When taking a closer look, however, much more focus had been on greening the energy business, not creating green jobs.

Why? Because to date, much of the work—beyond renewable energy construction and energy efficiency retrofits—points toward automation.

Automation replacing jobs is not new. Utilities, for example, have replaced meter readers with software and telecommunications. Everything from self-service gas stations and check-out lines have thrown thousands out of work too.

Automation is hitting the green sector.

This week, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners is set to approve a $1.5 million project to install electric vehicle charging stations and poles for wi-fi antenna that will allow use of electric yard equipment in terminals in place of diesel equipment. That’s a win for the environment.

However, it also will enable the use of automated equipment that will displace members of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, who earn six figure wages.

Also take, for instance, material resource recovery facilities that are being used to harvest recyclables out of the state’s solid waste stream. They have provided thousands of green jobs for low-skilled workers who pull recyclable plastics, glass, and paper off conveyor belts loaded with waste picked up at households and businesses.

Now, however, one of the leading solid waste companies around the Los Angeles area—Athens Services—has successfully employed European technologies that can sense and separate recyclable material with little help from workers. The multifaceted technology, which employs sensor-triggered air jets to separate material by weight in a solar-powered LEED certified building, includes a robot at the end of the line, known as Max AI. It deftly recovers anything not recovered upstream by other automated systems.

Sure, green policies in California have produced new jobs, but automation is likely to be increasingly used by companies to cut costs and increase competition.

That’s why when it comes to the Green New Deal there must be as much focus on the words “New Deal” as there is “Green,” particularly in California, which is known for its high cost of living.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown focused heavily on green energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while mentioning green jobs largely as an afterthought.

In contrast, Gov. Gavin Newsom has signaled his concern over growing inequity in California. That includes, for instance, focusing heavily on affordable housing at the outset of his first term as the state’s chief executive.

Going forward, let’s hope Newsom takes to heart the words of Van Jones in an article he wrote in October of 2008 for The Nation: “We can take the unfinished business of America on questions of inclusion and equal opportunity and combine it with the new business of building a green economy, thereby healing the country on two fronts and redeeming the soul of the nation.”

—Elizabeth McCarthy


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