10/11/2011 08:47 EDT | Updated 12/11/2011 05:12 EST

Green Jobs Are Not a Hoax


In recent weeks, attacks on green jobs have reached new heights. Or sunk to new lows, depending on how you look at it.

When U.S. solar darling Solyndra was forced to declare bankruptcy, detractors of green jobs seized upon it and made hay. Thankfully, some pundits have rallied to the defence of green jobs in the U.S. Most recently perhaps is James Surowiecki, who in the current New Yorker points out that government subsidies have played a key role in the energy industry since the 19th century, and although Solyndra's story is a cautionary tale, all in all, the U.S. program has been characterized by success. Surowiecki argues that one failure is not an indictment of industrial policy.

The attacks have been equally heated here in Ontario, despite the fact that Ontario-based businesses have not gone bankrupt. To be sure, there have been some hiccups in the province's bid to green the grid and create tens of thousands of jobs, but international experts continue to hold Ontario up as the gold standard, and prescribe patience.

A lot has been said on this issue, yet as the Program Manger of Blue Green Canada, I think I can offer an interesting perspective.

First, if you haven't heard of Blue Green Canada, we are a strategic alliance between Environmental Defence and the United Steelworkers (USW), and the Canadian affiliate of the U.S.-based Blue Green Alliance. We came together around the shared notion that we cannot choose between good jobs and a clean environment. We need both.

I think the environmental case for renewable energy is pretty well established. If you're not up on it though, visit Environmental Defence's website. So instead of reiterating what most people already know, I'm going to focus on the case made by labour, the other half of the alliance.

The Steelworkers are among those unions that see their role extending far beyond putting money in their members' pockets, with an emphasis on advancing a broader social agenda in the interests of all working families. The USW sees that there's a lot of work to be done to retool our economy and deal with climate change. Done right, this will lead to more jobs, not just in manufacturing, but in construction and an array of support services.

Also, greening our economy and attracting green manufacturing sets us up to supply goods that will almost certainly be in demand in the future. Solar and wind power and other clean tech sectors are growing at a furious rate. Even the OECD says nations must look to the green economy for new jobs and growth. Furthermore, greening existing businesses helps them align with the tastes of increasingly eco-savvy consumers and helps these businesses with their bottom line, saving on energy and materials costs and reducing waste. The short story is, greening our economy is key to future competitiveness, which is key to job creation and retention.

Another key function of unions is to advocate for good jobs, meaning decent wages and safe work conditions. Green jobs are both of these. They pay better than other jobs requiring comparable levels of education. And clean tech workplaces are also very often clean themselves, and that level of cleanliness is one of the things that workers highlight when talking about their jobs.

A further point is that unions understand the environmental crisis in a very concrete way. Many of our members have worked in coal mines, or smelters or in other polluted environments. They have suffered health impacts or known someone who has, and they have seen entire communities suffer too. For many, the environmental crisis is a lived experience.

For decades, people have argued that we must choose between good work and a clean environment. But that argument just doesn't hold up anymore. We need a functioning economy with good jobs, and a clean environment, which is what is meant by the term green economy.

The green economy strives to align our economy with the environment. It is a global push that is well underway, and gaining momentum by the day. For example, according to a recent report, 3.5 million people are now employed in renewable energy worldwide. China's renewable energy industries employ over half a million people, and Germany, the country Ontario's feed-in tariff is modeled after, now boasts over 370,000 renewable energy jobs.

The green economy is getting off the ground here in Ontario too. In the last two years, some 40 firms have announced their intention to build green manufacturing facilities in the province, and many are already in production, creating thousands of jobs.

All of this is to say, green jobs are not a hoax, and they're not just good PR. They are real, and they are in existence here in Ontario.