First Attempts at Measuring the “Green” Economy

When I look up at the night sky, I marvel that the starlight I’m seeing is actually thousands, millions, or even billions of years old. Similarly (in a small way), the news we get down here on Earth usually reflects what happened in the immediate to more distant past.

Over the past several months, as I’ve been filling in as Advocacy’s press liaison, I’ve begun to see more press stories—and have been asked more press questions—about “green” jobs and businesses. So I’ve started paying more attention to the information—the emitted starlight, so to speak—about this emerging economic phenomenon.

The time lag in data about any economic activity is one reason the government’s research and statistical agencies are still in the process of categorizing “green” industries and jobs for data and analysis purposes. In many cases these jobs are not easily identified because they’re just being developed—or they’re embedded in other industries—like construction and building maintenance jobs that require new skills because they’re dealing with new technologies.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, has just released a report titled Measuring the Green Economy. The report uses data from the 2007 Economic Census and finds that green products and services constituted 1 to 2 percent of the total private business economy that year. The lower 1 percent estimate is based on a conservative definition that includes products easily recognized as “green.” The higher, 2 percent estimate includes some more ambiguously green products. The report also finds that about three-fourths of green business activity was in services; manufacturing accounted for about 13 percent, and construction and agriculture made up the remaining share. The report, say the authors, is not intended to establish a national benchmark for measuring the green economy, but it outlines a process that might be considered in establishing such a benchmark. The study also finds that the number of green jobs in 2007 was modest—from 1.8 million to 2.4 million, depending on the definition.

And speaking of jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been tasked to produce data on “green jobs.” On March 16, BLS published a Federal Register notice presenting definitions and data collection processes BLS proposes to use in measuring green jobs; comments on the definition were due by April 30.  BLS is currently analyzing the comments and plans to begin collecting data later this year or early next. The notice refers to a list of detailed industries that produce green goods and services as defined by BLS (either by NAICS code or by the industry they’re included in).

So far, it seems, the starlight emitted by the “green economy” is perceptible, but pale. Is it increasing? I recently visited a “Green Innovation Expo”—something like a job fair at which hundreds of young people were looking at the possibilities for moving into careers related to alternative energy and conservation. I was impressed with the potential for new innovations that create and save energy—as well as for new businesses and new jobs. Will we see an exponential acceleration in green business?

Time—and the research now being undertaken—will tell.

Kathryn Tobias, Senior Editor