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A New Report Counts Up Green Jobs—And They’re Not What You Think

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Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously said the phrase in 1964: “I know it when I see it.” It, in this case, was obscenity, and Stewart was making a point about the trickiness of properly defining the term. How do you have an argument about pornography if you can’t quite say what it is?

For the past several years, environmentalists have been having a version of the Stewart debate over the definition of a green job. We know green jobs are important, that they’re the key to a cleaner economy—and that they may be the best way to sell a sometimes skeptical American public on the pressing need for energy and climate legislation. But no one can agree on what a green job really is. A worker at a solar panel plant certainly qualifies—but what about a steel worker whose labor help makes wind turbines? A scientist working for an advanced biofuel startup definitely has a green job—but what about a roofer who sometimes works on green buildings? Without a meaningful reckoning of just how large the clean economy is, advocates on both sides of the issue can run wild—and for the average American, green jobs may seem more myth than reality.

More from TIME: What Is a Green-Collar Job, Exactly?

Good news—the numbers are in. The Brookings Institution—a progressive think tank in Washington—and the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice have collaborated on the first comprehensive accounting of the nation’s clean economy and green jobs on a city by city basis. They found that 2.7 million Americans are employed in the clean economy—more than the number who work in the fossil fuel industry and twice as many who work in biotech. And the clean energy sector in particular is growing very quickly: it grew by 8.3% between 2003 and 2010, nearly twice as fast as the overall economy during those years. “The pace of growth really is torrid in that sector,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings Metropolitan Program and a co-author of the report. “This confirms the intuition that these exciting industries really are growing as fast as we think they are.”

But one of the most unexpected conclusions from the report is that those red-hot clean-tech jobs—in solar or wind or cellulosic biofuels—are actually a relatively small part of the overall clean economy. The most common green job? Try waste management and treatment, which employs nearly 400,000 workers—14% of all green jobs. And the single biggest employer in the clean economy isn’t a sexy startup like First Solar, or even a giant like GE’s wind division. It’s the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, followed by the waste management and water treatment operations of the city of Los Angeles and New York. And waste management is followed by mass transit, which employs about 350,000 Americans. There are your most common clean workers: the garbage man and the bus driver.

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As it turns out, more than 90% of the clean economy by Brookings and Battelle’s accounting lie in older segments that provide basic services—mass transit—or fight long-existing environmental problems like polluted air and water. Green jobs aren’t new—and they’re not rare either. “Those early environmental problems have produced a broad block of jobs, with a thinner, younger and more dynamic layer on top in the form of clean energy,” says Muro.

The report is a cornucopia of data on the clean economy, grouped by occupation and by location. Some of the notable nuggets:

  • The clean economy as a whole grew 3.4% between 2003 and 2010, slightly slower than the U.S. economy as a whole.
  • The clean economy is more export and manufacturing-focused that the greater U.S. economy. About 26 percent of clean economy jobs are in manufacturing, compared to 9 percent in the broader economy, and the value of exports, on a per-job basis, is twice that of a typical American job.
  • Clean work tends to pay better than the average American job—median wages are 13% higher than the economy average.
  • On a regional basis, the South has the most clean economy jobs—reflecting that region’s strength in manufacturing—while the West has the most jobs per capita.

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The report also underscores the value of metropolitan clustering in the clean economy sector, of cities building mini-industries around their strengths. And it’s not only superstars like San Francisco, with its wealth of clean tech capital, or Seattle, with its deep green start-ups, that can succeed in the clean economy. It turns out that the metro area of Albany-Schenectady-Troy in upstate New York is the national leader for green jobs, at least on a per worker basis. One in 15 Albany area workers—over 28,000 people—makes their living in the clean economy, thanks largely to the role of regional heavyweight General Electric and the New York state government.

In fact, state capitals as a whole tend to be overrepresented among national clean job leaders—which is a reminder of just how many of those green jobs are also public sector jobs. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. From the federal government down to your hometown, governments are laying off workers and paring back on spending. The clean economy—which depends significantly on government spending and subsidies—could be disproportionately hurt in the new era of austerity. “Those cutbacks definitely pose a risk for those jobs,” says Muro.

Indeed, the entire clean economy sector—and especially clean tech—could be in for a rough ride over the next few months. That’s the argument made by David Victor and Kassia Yanosek in the newest edition of Foreign Affairs. They note that temporary government stimulus programs supplied one-fifth of the record investment worldwide in clean energy in 2010—and that money is running out. After 20 years of growth, the number of new wind turbines installations globally dropped last year. Clean-tech stocks are performing poorly, and there’s little evidence that private capital can make up for the expected shortfall should governments pull back. The clean economy is supposed to be sustainable—but the way it’s financed now is anything but.

More from TIME: Green Jobs: Still More Promise Than Reality

But far from pushing for more subsidies from strapped governments, Victor and Yanosek actually blame the way clean tech aid is disbursed for many of the clean economy’s development problems:

The root cause of today’s troubles is a boom-and-bust cycle of policies that have encouraged investors to flock to clean-energy projects that are quick and easy to build rather than invest in more innovative technologies that could stand a better chance of competing with conventional energy sources over the long haul. Indeed, nearly seven-eighths of all clean-energy investment worldwide now goes to deploying existing technologies, most of which are not competitive without the help of government subsidies. Only a tiny share of the investment focuses on innovation.

It’s not that Victor and Yunesek want to end all government aid for clean tech—far from it. They’d prefer to see that funding channeled towards innovation, towards helping good ideas get across what’s known as the valley of death—the gap between an innovative idea and commercialization. Instead of subsidizing existing technologies indefinitely—like the $1 to $1.50 per gallon subsidy corn ethanol producers enjoy—the government should focus its resources on the sort of radical ideas that the market is too willing to let die.

Those are policies that the Brookings-Battelle report supports as well, along with government efforts to establish a clean energy standard or carbon price that pulls new technologies into the market, instead of expensive subsidies that push technologies whether they’re worthwhile or not. It makes sense—if clean energy is ever going to truly scale up, it can’t depend on gallon by gallon and megawatt by megawatt subsidies. The only problem is political: subsidies usually win out because existing industries can lobby for them. And these days Congress seems unable to come together on anything—including in energy policy.

More from TIME: Why Van Jones’ Ideas on Green Jobs Should Stay

“The question is whether we reform our subsidy policy, or just cut things off,” says Muro. “Political considerations are getting in the way.” The clean economy is bigger and more varied than you might think—but it still needs the right kind of help to grow.

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