The Real Green Revolution

Article excerpt

Byline: Rana Foroohar

Clean tech will create jobs, but subtly.

There is no more fashionable solution to the current global recession than "green jobs." President Obama, Britain's Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and China's Hu Jintao are all eagerly promoting clean-technology industries, like wind and solar power, or recycling saw grass as fuel. It sounds like the ultimate win-win deal: create jobs, cut down on energy dependence, and save the planet from global warming, all in one stimulus plan. Ever since the recession began, governments, environmental groups, and even labor unions have been spinning out reports on just how many jobs might be created by these new industries--estimates that range from tens of thousands to -millions.

Those kinds of predictions, however, may be overoptimistic. As a new study from McKinsey points out, the clean-energy industry doesn't have much in common with old, labor-intensive manufacturing industries like steel and cars. A more accurate comparison would be to the semiconductor industry, which was also expected to create a boom in high-tech jobs but today employs mainly robots. Green-tech -workers--people who do things like design and build wind turbines or solar panels--now make up only 0.6 percent of the American workforce. -McKinsey figures that clean energy won't command much more of the total job market in the years ahead. "The bottom line is that these 'clean' industries are too small to create the millions of jobs that are needed right away," says James Manyika, a director at the -McKinsey Global Institute.

On the other hand, a booming green sector could fuel job growth in other industries. Here, too, the story of the computer chip is instructive. Today the big chip makers like Intel employ only 0.4 percent of the U.S. workforce, down from a peak of 0.6 percent in 2000. But indirectly they helped create millions of jobs by making other industries more -efficient: throughout the 1990s, new technologies based on advanced semiconductors helped firms achieve massive gains in labor productivity and efficiency. Companies in retail, manufacturing, and many other areas got faster and stronger.

McKinsey and others say that the same process could play out today if governments focused less on building a "green economy"--by which they really mean a clean-energy industry--and more on greening every part of the existing economy. …