Building an Equitable Green Economy in New York City

By: J. Mijin Cha Urban Agenda

Last fall, Urban Agenda and the Center for American Progress released the New York City Green Collar Jobs Roadmap, the culmination of a 1.5 year long process called the New York City Green Collar Jobs Roundtable. The process analyzed several aspects of the green economy and brought together unions, community based organization, workforce development providers, environmental justice organization, progressive businesses, and others to develop a shared vision for how an inclusive and thriving green economy could be implemented in New York City.  The Roadmap presents a comprehensive vision of how to grow demand for green jobs, ensure that standards are in place to create good jobs that pay family sustaining wages, and  ensure that these jobs are available to all New Yorkers, particularly those historically excluded from economic activity.

The Roundtable process began in June 2008 to create a positive vision for an equitable green economy in New York City that creates good jobs that pay family sustaining wages, provides benefits and career ladders, and also makes our built and natural environment more sustainable.  At the first convening, participants created six working groups: current landscape, target populations, employers, job standards, and training.  Alongside these working groups, the political outreach and strategy group met to analyze the political landscape and also ensure that people from different communities and different sectors were continually brought into the process.  In total, over 170 organizations participated in the Roundtable.

The conclusions from the Roundtable and Roadmap point to several simple ideas.  One, when we talk about green jobs, we are really talking about new work, rather than new jobs.  Instead of requiring a whole new workforce with completely new skills, the current workforce can be trained up to meet the demands of a new, green economy.  Green jobs are not an exotic, intangible idea.  The Roadmap breaks down the skills and job titles of “green” jobs and most are currently existing titles, such as weatherization technician, energy efficiency building maintenance and transit workers.   A few, like solar photovoltaic installers, are more specialized, but by and large, most green jobs already exist.  But, the transition to a green economy, however, is going to require a lot more of them. As a general rule, clean energy investments create more than three times the jobs that fossil fuel investment creates.

Second, green jobs must be good jobs in order to strengthen our economy.  A recent study by the Green Justice Coalition shows that underpaying weatherization workers results in an increased tax burden, basic needs such as healthcare and housing, cannot be met with poverty wages.  By not providing family sustaining wages, we create an underclass of workers and perpetuate our growing poverty rate.

Third, green jobs must be made available to all communities, particularly those that historically have been excluded from economic activity.  For many years, communities of color and poor communities have been forced to bear a disproportionate burden of a pollution-based economy.  An inclusive green economy that prioritizes these target populations will result in stronger communities and stronger economies.

Finally, as we move from vision to implementation, we are realizing that there are several barriers that are preventing green jobs from reaching their full potential.  For instance, retrofitting is a sound investment that pays back the initial investment in as few as five years and continues to provide energy savings for many years after.  However, the inability to provide the upfront capital is a significant barrier.

Likewise, we are losing the race to capitalize on alternative energy production for many reasons, including lack of markets, lack of financing, and poor energy infrastructure.  As a first step, government action to raise the renewable energy production requirement would create a stable demand for renewable energy, and as a result, provide a market for renewable energy production.

With an unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent and coming off the second hottest summer on record, now more than ever, we need innovative thinking and the will to invest in an economy that creates good jobs and makes our environments more sustainable.  The Roadmap recommendations posit a way for our economy to transition to a more sustainable economy, one that is both economically and environmentally just.


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