Throughout his term, President Obama has repeatedly heralded clean energy and the industries that surround it as being a vital element of America's economic future. Many Republicans, meanwhile, have questioned environmental regulations that would promote the "clean economy" as job killers that unduly penalize mature industries more central to the US economy.
"Clean" industries ranging from public mass-transit to green energy companies provide 2 percent of the jobs in the United States, according to the study, which was released last week. The number pales in comparison to sectors like health care, which accounts for 10.2 percent, but it is more than other key industries such as biosciences and oil and gas.
The data provide an important baseline for understanding what the clean economy brings to the broader US economy, and give a sense of how the sector might be likely to grow in the years ahead.
“The clean economy sector is already an important source of industrial innovation, good-paying manufacturing jobs, and exports – for a nation that needs them,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program and report coauthor, in a statement.
The clean-economy sector, for example, includes 2.7 million jobs. The oil and gas industry, by contrast, has 2.4 million jobs, and the biosciences industry has 1.4 million, the study notes. (A 2009 American Petroleum Institute study put the number of direct jobs in oil and gas at about 2.1 million.)
The clean economy is growing, too. It grew 3.4 percent between 2003 and 2010. That’s behind the 4.2 percent growth of the entire US economy, largely because of heavy job losses in the building and housing industries, the study authors said. Even so, newer clean energy and connected segments – which are just one part of the larger clean economy – grew 8.3 percent in that period.
The growth of clean-economy jobs has often been ignored because there haven't been detailed statistics – until now. The Brookings study, called "Sizing the Clean Economy," cited jobs scattered across more than 41,000 companies nationwide, not just in clean energy industries like solar and wind power, but emerging fields like greenhouse-gas reduction, environmental management, recycling, and air and water purification technologies.
Smart-grid efforts directly employ nearly 16,000 people, and battery technology about the same, the study found. Conservation accounts for a big chunk, with 314,000 jobs, as does public mass transit – 350,000 jobs. Add to that wind power and solar power, with about 24,000 direct jobs each, and sustainable forestry products with 61,000.
Lighting standards adopted by Congress in 2007 have also created at least 12,500 jobs by fueling the growth of new, greener technologies, according to separate data from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. The US House recently tried to overturn those regulations in an effort to keep traditional incandescent light bulbs from being phased out by the end of the year. Edison bulbs are cheap but waste 95 percent of the energy they consume as heat.
The US isn’t the only nation with a growing clean economy – and many enjoy financial support and other favorable treatment by government.
"We risk giving away what should be a significant competitive advantage for the US,” Dr. Muro said, though he noted that some “key segments" of the clean economy show promise for using resources more efficiently and remaining competitive in global markets.
“This is not an area where the public sector needs to get out of the way,” said Bruce Katz, director of Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, which produced the report. He points to efforts by other governments to boost clean technology.
"[US] government leaders, at all levels, need to get in the game,” says Mr. Katz. “Otherwise, we will watch the rest of the world pull away from us."