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Meet Mr. Jones, America's Green Jobs Czar

Van Jones is a powerhouse. There’s no other way to describe him. The one-time community-activist has taken his poverty- and pollution-busting agenda all the way from the nonprofit he founded in Oakland CA to the White House. As of the past four weeks, Jones is the special advisor on green jobs, enterprise and innovation to Nancy Sutley, the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In other words, he’s President Barack Obama‘s green jobs czar.
Canadian Businessfirst wrote about Jones back in January 2008 , when he was running the Ella Baker Center , a non-profit he set up in Oakland to help the urban poor find ways to participate in what Jones envisioned as the new green economy. A tall, charismatic man with a talent for boiling complex ideas into street-rhyme sound bites, Jones talked of a national training program to help the recently incarcerated and recently-laid-off find jobs weatherizing homes, installing solar panels, helping construct new public transit networks, and installing a new smart grid across the country.
Jones is also the author of The Green Collar Economy, a book that came out last fall. A bestseller on this side of the border, it set out Jones’ vision of training the underemployed as green tradespeople. Jones sees the green-collar economy as a way to solve urban poverty through making the United States more energy efficient. Think of it as a Green New Deal.
Now, Jones is on the inside, with the clout to make his vision a reality.
As Obama’s green jobs czar, Jones is directly responsible for deploying US$500 million in recovery funds for green-collar job training. The U.S. federal government’s Employment and Training Administrationestimatesprobably overly optimisticallythat the US$787 billion stimulus Congress authorized in February in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Actcould result directly in 3 million green jobs. Jones is the guy responsible for making those jobs happen.
A recent McKinsey reportestimates governments and private enterprises could leverage already-existingtechnology to generate thousands of green collar jobs. The report, Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy,lists more than 200 opportunities, spread across ten sectors and twenty-one geographical regions. It claims they have the potential to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a reduction of 70 percent from the business as usual scenario.
There are plenty of problems with what Jones is trying to do. The most obvious is how to define a green job. Arguably the most successful green job initiative in North America to date has been the Bush-era corn ethanol subsidy which scientists and environmentalists charge isn’t exactly green. (Studies from Cornell University and elsewhere show producing a barrel of corn ethanol requires significant inputs of traditional fossil-fuels. There are also major economic and ethical issues involved in diverting land from growing food to fuel.)
This issue, however, isn’t going to go away. According to a piece in Slate by Michael Levi, a senior fellow on energy and the environment at the Council of Foreign Relations in D.C., a recent United Nations reportestimated that the heavily subsidized U.S. ethanol industry provides employment for 154,000 Americans. That’s about five times as many as the wind power industry and nearly 10 times as many as the solar industry. Argues Levi:

At its base, corn ethanol is not a green policy so much as a jobs policyand its success in that respect has made it almost impossible for the government to change course.

What’s more, as David Pellow, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota who specializes in environmental conflict, points out, given the toxins and carbon footprint involved in manufacturing solar panels, for example, it’s likely other supposedly green initiatives of the green-jobs revolution may not seem quite so green once run through a rigorous filter.
Asked to explain how corn-ethanol-related jobs might fit into his green-collar vision for America on a White House conference call yesterday, Jones dodged. “We’re in a transitional stage with this,” he said. “Definitions are going to be fought over. What was once acceptable as environmentally sound may not be in the future.” The problem is, Jones’s boss, President Barack Obama, is a vocal supporter both of ethanol subsidies and of the clean coal constituency the group that believes that it is possible to create a form of emissions-free coal-fired electricity, through carbon capture and sequestration. How those green-job definitions evolve will likely be more a matter of politics than anything else.
The second sticking point with Jones’s plan is, how to encourage the private sector investment necessary to fund demand for the green collar jobs the Administration is touting. From this point of view, it’s hard to see developers or under-water homeowners lining up to invest in expensive retrofits in the current economic environment.
Working in Jones’s favour, however, is new support at both the federal and state level for massive incentive programs encouraging developers to build green. Consider the generous system of tax credits to offset the upfront costs of green homes currently being piloted by the Republican state administration of Gov. Bobby Jindalin Louisiana. The first home built to standard under this new system is a single-family-dwelling constructed by Brad Pitt‘s Make It Right foundation in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. According to New Orleans, LA-based architect Gerry Billes, whose firm designed the home, that homeowner’s energy bill last month was US$3.
This raises one last question around Jones’s initiativeone that’s well known to those in Canada’s oilpatch. What happens to those employed in polluting industries, whose jobs may well be threatened or made redundant by a more energy-efficient America? As Levi points out:

… Every unit of energy generated from alternative sources displaces a similar amount generated by traditional means, so forgoing those other energy sources means giving up whatever jobs they were providing. This doesn’t mean that greening the economy will have no net impact on jobs, but it muddies the math considerably.

Right now, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given the questions it raises, there are few equivalent Canadian initiatives to Jones’ green-jobs effort. Andrew Heintzmanis the chief executive officer of InvestEco , a Toronto-based fund that invests in green businesses. He’s also a member of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty‘s task force on greening Ontario’s economy. Speaking off the cuff, Heintzmann pointed me to Ontario’s new Green Energy Act , which, among other initiatives, offers funds to match those of private investors interested in seeding technology start-ups.
Green jobs will, of course, result as part of these efforts, as Tyler Hamiltonof the Toronto Star points out in this report on EverBrite Solar‘s new plant near Kingston, Ontario. And there’s a few other effortsaccording to Jane Almeida, a spokesperson for the premier’s office, Ontario has invested recently in a training program for wind technicians. However, a comprehensive jobs-training effort aimed at ensuring those at the bottom of the economic food chain can participate in the new green economy is not part of the equation. It all adds up to an approach of wait-and-see.
We may not have to wait long, however. Recent developments in the U.S. indicate Jones may find his green-jobs programs deployed at scalerather faster than he anticipates.
First, there’s the eye-popping unemployment numbers of the past few months. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,non-farm employment fell by another 663,000 in March. That’s 5.1 million people out of work since the recession officially started in December 2007. Clearly, the number of Americans in need of employment is piling up faster than Jones can generate the support to get his Green Jobs Corps set up.
Second, an Environmental Protection Agency ruling announced April 19 found that the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is directly linked to human activity. It’s the first time the EPA has acknowledged this link. This should shore up Congressional support for cap-and-trade legislation in the United Stateswhich is also closer than many realize. A draft version was introduced in March by Henry A. Waxmanof the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Edward J. Markeyof the Energy and Environment Subcommittee in the House of Representatives. This bill would establish a U.S. national cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases, one whose impact will likely be to burden polluting industries with higher costs, while making energy-efficient solutions more economic. It would also impose border duties on imports from countries deemed to have lax climate-change rules.
That news, of course, has major implications for Canada. It’s no secret our country has, to date, been behind the eight ball when it comes to figuring out the job- and wealth-creation piece of the green economy.
However, the news out of the EPA and Henry Waxman’s climate change legislation indicates Canada’s focus is also about to change. The chairman of Canadas National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), Robert Page, strongly recommended last week that the country should also implement a national cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change. Figuring out some kind of intelligent green jobs strategy will be an important piece of that puzzle.
I’ll have more on that after I speak with Page tomorrow. But his findingsin tandem with the implications of the U.S.’s green shiftcould mean Jones’ ideas do have some relevance for Canada, after all.