Joan Fitzgerald is professor and director of the Law, Policy and Society graduate program at Northeastern University. Her forthcoming book is Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development.
If you want to understand the consequences of America's failure to have a coherent, national industrial policy, look at one signature industry of the future -- renewable energy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that by 2030, total global investment in wind and solar technologies could be worth as much as $3.6 trillion. Unfortunately, the U.S. is headed down a path that will render us consumers of renewable energy -- but not leading innovators or manufacturers. Though the U.S. pioneered these technologies, we already have an annual trade deficit of over $6 billion in renewable energy, while nations like China, Germany, and Japan are widening their lead. And India is about to enter the competition with massive investment.
The green economy will get an $80 billion boost from President Barack Obama's recovery package in the form of direct spending, loan guarantees, and tax incentives. A clean-energy economy offers not just savings in imported oil and reductions in carbon emissions necessary to save the planet but jobs and new industries -- and not just jobs, good jobs.
The $80 billion is just a down payment on a conversion that will take far longer than two years. We will need trillions of dollars to maximize the potential of a clean-energy economy. And that outlay needs to be strategic. To succeed, we need to get beyond naive cheerleading and pursue tough questions.
In the Obama era, the federal government will play a much more active role promoting green economic development. In the meantime, cities and states have been the front lines of innovation. However, even the most creative of them are producing relatively few local jobs.
One out of every six full-time U.S. workers earns less than 125 percent of the poverty line -- under $18,865 a year for a family of three. And the share of low-wage workers is considerably higher in many of the sectors with the most job growth: retailing, hotel and food services, health care, and human services. Full-time workers in the bottom tenth of the wage distribution saw their weekly earnings decline by about 1 percent over the past six years, reversing the trend of rising wages that occurred from 1995 to 2000. For low-skilled youths, finding even a bad job has become more difficult. The problem is especially acute for young black men, with only 33 percent of black high-school dropouts able to secure any type of job, and only 25 percent working full time in 2005.
There are good jobs to be had in environmentally friendly development, and construction jobs are just the beginning. Thousands of jobs are in products that go into green buildings. The job potential in renewable energy production is even more impressive. The Renewable Energy Policy Project estimates that producing 10 percent of the nation's electricity with renewable sources would create 381,000 jobs producing the component parts of the systems. Already, renewable energy (biomass, solar, wind, geothermal) employ more than 115,000 people directly. These new jobs more than compensate for ongoing job loss in the coal and oil industries as clean forms of energy replace polluting ones.