The History, Evolution, and Future of Green Jobs

Green jobs have been around far longer than the term itself.

Two young botanists, one male and one female, use a digital tablet while fertilizing crops and plants outdoors on a farm

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The term "green jobs" refers to jobs that contribute in a substantial way to the preservation or restoration of the environment while protecting worker rights and welfare, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Such roles can include jobs that protect biodiversity and ecosystem health, reduce energy, water, and materials consumption, decarbonize the economy, and avoid pollution. They include professions in renewable energy, recycling, green manufacturing and design, transportation, pollution remediation, waste management, and agriculture, among others. As the world responds to the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss by transitioning to cleaner energy sources, nations are increasingly linking green jobs to sustainable economic growth.

Green jobs have been around far longer than the term itself. Early conservationists in the 19th century responded to increasing environmental degradation by calling for more federal control over natural resources to ensure sustainable use of forests, land, and water and to protect places of great natural beauty. Over time, this led to the institutionalization of environment-oriented jobs.

History and Policy

Three men in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp feed a fawn in Big Spring Camp, California.
Three men in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp feed a fawn in Big Spring Camp, California.

Corbis Historical / Getty Images

With the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, rangers managed public lands while government scientists compiled data and developed policies for their sustainable use. Conservation-oriented jobs expanded in the 1930s with the New Deal, which combatted unemployment during the Great Depression in part through public work projects carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps. These projects—such as tree planting, stream improvement, and trail and campground construction—reflected the conservation and outdoor recreation priorities of the early environmental movement.

During the second wave of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s, combating pollution and protecting human health through regulation emerged as significant concerns. With the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and enactment of major environmental statutes like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, professions that contributed to environmental enforcement and policy development, along with roles in environmental science and pollution remediation, expanded.

Climate, Sustainability, and Environmental Equity

Building engineer Ernst Loubeau performs a diagnostic maintenance procedure July 5, 2001 on the solar electric system located on the roof of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
A building engineer performs a diagnostic maintenance procedure on a solar electric system.

Tim Boyle / Getty Images

The 1972 Stockholm Conference was the first major UN conference on international environmental issues, and the Brundtland Commission a decade later produced a widely-adopted definition of sustainable development. These events laid important groundwork for integrating the right to a healthy environment within a larger human rights framework. 

In the 1980s, the environmental movement began tackling racial and class disparities in environmental protection, and redirecting investment away from extractive industries and toward industries and practices that address environmental equity and justice. Increasing concerns about global environmental problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss led to wider recognition that social and environmental challenges were intertwined, and that solutions required rethinking traditional economic growth models. This included greater consideration of how environmental protection impacts people’s livelihoods. 

The 1992 Rio Earth Summit furthered the global focus on sustainable development as a response to poverty eradication and environmental destruction, and resulted in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Five years later, the Kyoto protocol became the first international agreement in which countries committed to individual greenhouse gas reduction mandates. These landmark events increased global momentum for sustainability measures that fostered green jobs growth.

As the renewable energy industry grew in the aftermath of Kyoto, governments promoted an array of “clean energy jobs” emerging in the sector, including renewable energy engineering roles, wind turbine and solar panel technicians, energy efficiency consultants, and energy communications specialists. But the increasing focus on renewable energy jobs also brought a challenge: overcoming a shortage of skills and training. 

By that time, civil rights leaders like Van Jones were already advocating for a clean energy transition built around environmental justice by ensuring that the emerging green economy prioritized racial and class equity and job training. Jones co-founded the first green jobs corps, authored a book titled The Green Collar Economy, and subsequently served as special advisor for green jobs in the Obama administration.

The 2008 Financial Crisis

The 2008 global economic crisis provided another major impetus for green job investment in the U.S. Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included stimulus funds for environmental protection and infrastructure. During the Obama administration, the U.S. mobilized massive funding for a "green economic recovery,” including a national workforce training program to prepare people for jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. 

The U.S. embrace of green jobs did not occur in isolation. Climate mitigation and adaptation drove green job creation around the world. A 2008 report by UNEP urged more green job creation in developing economies in order to achieve a Just Transition that helped workers develop skills for jobs in the emerging green economy.

What Is Just Transition?

Just Transition is a framework that ensures more equitable shifts to a regenerative, low-carbon economy through social inclusion and poverty eradication. It protects worker rights and livelihoods, providing transition support and retraining as necessary.

Internationally, the United Nations promoted publicly-funded “green stimulus” plans to boost economic recovery after the 2008 global financial crisis. In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio +20, focused on the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.  

Green economic recovery funds paid off, with green jobs showing strong growth both in the United States and globally during the 2010s. As city, state, and national governments enacted and expanded sustainability plans, job opportunities grew in renewable energy and energy efficiency, clean tech, and green transportation. The National Bureau of Economic Research reported that renewable energy spending created close to a million jobs in the U.S. between 2013 and 2017. That growth was mirrored globally, with a 5.3% increase in renewable energy jobs worldwide between 2017 and 2018 alone.

Green New Deals

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) hold a news conference to introduce legislation to transform public housing as part of their Green New Deal proposal on November 14, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a news conference for Green New Deal proposal.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey unveiled a Green New Deal for the U.S., a blueprint inspired by job creation programs of the 1930s New Deal. The Green New Deal calls for transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2050, reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. economy, and creating well-paid jobs in clean energy industries. 

It also includes a strong social justice focus: combatting poverty, income inequality, and racial discrimination, with a major share of climate investment going to communities of color and low-income communities suffering disproportionate impacts of pollution and disinvestment. It calls for job training and support of those most affected by the clean energy transition, such as workers in fossil fuel industries. 

At the end of 2019, the EU announced its own European Green Deal, which laid out an ambitious plan of action for carbon neutrality in the EU by 2050. The plan emphasized a shift to a circular economy, decarbonization of the energy and transport sectors, transition to more sustainable agricultural systems, and support of climate-friendly technologies. 

In April of 2021, the EU Parliament passed the centerpiece of the European Green Deal: a landmark climate law that includes massive investment in jobs that contribute to decarbonization and provides funding for undertaking such work elsewhere in the world, including green job creation in Africa. 

The Future of Green Jobs

Young women walk in front of windmills in India's Jaisalmer region in Rajasthan.
India's Jaisalmer region in Rajasthan. Many countries have devoted recovery funds to green projects.

Frédéric Soltan/ Corbis via Getty Images

In 2021, the Biden administration proposed $2 trillion in infrastructure spending that centers on climate action. From renewable energy to greener manufacturing, agriculture, and transit systems, the administration has linked climate and job creation in unprecedented ways. Likewise, economic plans in Europe and Asia contain significant provisions for fighting climate change, protecting biodiversity, and generating green jobs.

What about the prospects for green jobs in the world’s developing economies? As of January 2021, the World Bank warned that between 119 and 124 million people could fall into poverty. On the other hand, green recovery programs hold the potential for considerable job gains—up to 42 million more worldwide by 2030, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

The trick will be ensuring that green job creation programs make good on the promise of a just transition. If developing economies can’t access the sufficient resources necessary to fully build out green infrastructure, the potential for a sustainable economic system will be diminished. 

Many developing countries have already devoted recovery funds to green projects—renewable energy and efficiency, clean water infrastructure, low-carbon transport systems, and the restoration of natural systems.  With more and more nations pledging massive greenhouse gas reductions by mid-century, opportunities in a green workforce will continue to expand. 

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