Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Green jobs initiative

I've spent the morning reading through the Greens' "Green jobs initiative" [PDF]. The short version is that the Greens are promising to "create 100,000 new green jobs through business incentives and government leadership", specifically through increased investment, building a clean energy sector, and increased support for a green economy. But when you look at it, its not really about jobs at all; rather its about greening our economy, with jobs as a byproduct. Political marketing means that that byproduct is being highlighted, in a way which is at times outright deceitful.

The bulk of the policy is about "big picture" economic issues. Ending ETS subsidies. Water pricing. A capital gains tax. Increased R&D funding. These things don't directly create jobs in the short-term. But they move our economy onto a more sustainable basis, and force innovation on the sclerotic private sector, making us more secure in the long-term. Sadly, such long-term thinking is difficult to sell, and doesn't have an easy marketing tagline, so these policies aren't highlighted. Instead, the focus is on immediate, short-term stuff. But even then, jobs are really a byproduct.

Take home insulation, for example. This is a Good Idea, and one which produces a 300% return on investment through reduced health costs and lower power bills. Its worth doing for that alone. Likewise new state houses - we have a shortage, particularly in Christchurch now, and the ones we have are old and inefficient. Building new ones is an investment in a long-term capital asset which sets standards for the wider building sector and raises the average energy efficiency of the housing stock. Or a paid "conservation corps" to clean rivers and streams - we want clean rivers, which means we need people to clean them. Like the other cases, its something worth doing anyway (even if in this case the benefits are financially unquantifiable). The fact that it creates jobs is being used to sell the idea to people who aren't necessarily convinced by the benefits.

The "big idea" in the policy is government support, through our energy SOEs, for a major new renewable energy industry:

The clean energy sector is booming internationally. Currently, renewables supply only 15% of the world’s primary energy demands but its share is growing rapidly. The global renewable energy market grew by 6.8% in 2010 alone to reach a value of $389 billion. It is forecast to reach an annual value of $590–$800 billion by 2015. By securing just 1% of this market, we’d create a $6–8 billion new export industry here at home, creating 59,000–81,000 new jobs.
Which is a nice dream, and something we should aim for. Our economy is not very diverse (basically, we export butter and bungee jumping), and if it is to grow we need to start doing other things. Exporting wind turbines, geothermal technology, and smartmeters, and the technology, services and IP related to these is a good idea, and something that potentially fits well with what we already do. But a $6 - 8 billion export sector is enormous - bigger than meat; it would be our third-largest export industry after tourism and dairy. And that's not something that's going to happen overnight. Its a good idea, its something we need to do, and its something government needs to help with (after all, pretty obviously the market isn't going to do it if left to itself), it will benefit New Zealand in the long run. But pitching it as an immediate job-creation plan, and implicitly suggesting we'll have those jobs by 2015 (rather than in 20 years time) is deceitful and misleading.

This isn't just wrong, it is a mistake. Quite apart from raising questions of the Greens' honesty and integrity, one of their chief selling points, it undermines the policy itself. This is a perfectly good policy, and it can stand on its merits (hell, even MED agrees that we need active government intervention to build new export industries, up to and including direct investment in growth areas). Fudging things like this hands a gift to detractors, allowing them to dismiss it out of hand: "100,000 new jobs? Yeah, right".

So, a good policy, but very disappointing marketing around it. Deceit is not the green way, and if you use it to sell your policies, then people will start treating you as liars, just like all the rest.