The True Choice: Jobs vs. Pollution

To further dispute the right-wing gospel that pollution creates jobs, a new report finds that boosting our national recycling and composting rate to 75 percent would create 2.3 million jobs by 2030.

That move would also cut 515 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution, the equivalent of shutting down 72 dirty coal power plants or taking 5 million cars off the road, according to the study from the Tellus Institute. Even a modest increase from the current 33 percent to 41 percent would create more than 368,000 jobs.

Once again, we see that reducing pollution and boosting efficiency can be a powerful job creator. Recycling creates more jobs because it means that materials go through several additional processes of recycling and reuse, which requires manpower at every stage--as opposed to creating a product that gets used once and thrown away.

We see this pattern of green job creation in so many sectors of the economy. The resurgent auto industry has put more than 150,000 Americans to work building cleaner cars. And with the Obama administration announcing a final fuel economy standard of 54.5 miles per gallon--a standard which the auto industry believes it can meet--we can expect to see more job growth in this sector. Detroit needs people to make the cars of the future, a task that requires purely human capabilities of innovation, flexibility, and passion. This is where America excels. 

The new standard will also save Americans $80 billion a year at the pump, and reduce our oil use by an amount greater than what we imported from Saudi Arabia and Iraq in 2010.

Reducing our need for oil creates jobs in many ways. Several studies show that oil-saving public transportation investments create far more jobs than new roadbuilding. Not only does building more highways prolong our dangerous addiction to oil -- it doesn't even ease traffic in the long run. If job creation and debt reduction is what Congress wants, then oil-saving transit investments are the way to go.

And while Republicans continue to harp on Solyndra, it's becoming increasingly clear that the clean energy industry is a critical job creator in these times. Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a group of more than 800 business leaders, has been tracking job creation in the clean energy industry. E2 has found that in the just the past six weeks, more than 100 companies across the country have announced a total of 32,000 new jobs from clean energy projects in various stages of development.

And yet another area where the clean economy creates more jobs is sustainable farming. I’m just now returning from Central America, where I spoke with the region’s largest agricultural school about farm pollution and opportunities to reduce it. For example, integrated pest management – carefully monitoring for pests and then using carefully selected controls – is cleaner, cheaper and more effective than blanketing crops with large amounts of toxic pesticides, but requires more care and intelligence. These are jobs that cannot be eliminated by a machine. Intense rotational grazing can be far better for soils, but takes more thought than throwing cattle in a pasture for weeks or more at a time. Organic agriculture, which builds soils, is healthier and more resistant to changing and variable climate, takes more labor than conventional agriculture, creating more jobs. At the conference, we also spoke of all the hidden costs of dirty agriculture – the costs that lose jobs down the road.

Maintaining the health of our planet requires human skill and innovation, and a smarter, more flexible way of working. We live in a time of unemployment and environmental degradation. The good news is that these problems can be solved together.

Green jobs need people. Pollution hurts people and reduces jobs. When you look at it that way, the choice is pretty clear.