Now THIS Is What We Call Green Jobs: The Restoration Industry ‘Restores’ The Environment And The Economy
BY LOGAN YONAVJAK (2013 Fellow)
This article was originally published by Forbes on January 8, 2014 and is reprinted with permission.
Most people associate economic growth with expansion of the human built environment. Constructing more roads and more commercial and residential developments—“gray infrastructure”—means more jobs and a healthier overall economy.
However, increasing gray infrastructure often comes at a cost to natural ecosystems. For instance, over half of the globe’s wetlands, which provide “free” water filtration services, have been lost since 1900. As the global economy eliminates these mostly free services provided by nature’s “green infrastructure,” more “gray infrastructure” must be built to replace the lost ecosystem functions.
What is almost entirely missing from the conversation is a detailed accounting of the economic output and jobs in the U.S. that are created through ecosystem conservation, restoration, and mitigation actions—the activities of what we will call the “Restoration Economy.”
This economy is organized around the restoration sector, a variety of industries consisting of earthmovers, plant nurseries, legal and planning practices, landscape architects, construction companies, and other firms that contribute to the ecological restoration process. These industries not only protect environmental goods, but also contribute to national economic growth and employment.
Certainly, there have been attempts to define a “green economy.” More recently, a growing number of studies have identified “green” growth and job creation in renewable energy production, energy efficient construction, and green goods and services industries. There is even a U.S. Outdoor Industry Association, which tallies the jobs and economic spending associated with outdoor recreation.
Lastly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Green Goods and Services survey found that the “green” economy accounted for 3.4 million U.S. jobs in 2011, with the vast majority of jobs in the private sector. However, ecosystem restoration has not been explicitly included in this “green” economy accounting, perhaps foremost because it is so difficult to define.
There have even been some attempts to assess the restoration industry. For instance, existing restoration industry literature demonstrates total employment effects ranging from 10.4 to 39.7 jobs per $1 million invested. Compare this with the oil and gas industry, which supports approximately 5.3 jobs per $1 million invested. These initiatives, however, have been small-scale, focusing on a limited set of programs, specific projects, and individual funding sources. The extent of these activities and benefits are not yet well understood at a national level.
Defining the Restoration Economy
In Fall 2013, a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill set out to analyze the evidence and construct a framework to estimate the size of the US restoration economy.
The first step was to define the term restoration. Without a well-established definition, it is difficult to delineate the range of activities included in the restoration economy.
The second step was to begin to tally the number of jobs and economic activities associated with the industry. The challenge here is that the industry is spread across a multitude of diverse actors. Historically, businesses that are involved in ecological restoration have only been identified by the larger category of which they are a part, such as real estate firms or earthmovers, or they have been lumped together with a much broader group of environmental consultants.
Early findings show that the U.S. has a highly active restoration industry, contributing growth and jobs to the national economy in the short-term, as well as long-term value and cost savings. The preliminary figure for national direct economic spending for the restoration industry comes to $10.6 billion annually.
Restoration investments appear to have particularly localized benefits, and tend to employ local labor and materials. And, although contractors and workers may experience seasonal and inter-annual fluctuations in income and employment, preliminary findings indicate that restoration jobs are well compensated in comparison to average wages. These findings are similar to counterparts in the construction industry.
More research is needed
Existing investment in the restoration industry stimulate output and employment in a wide range of other industries through supplier and household spending effects. Unfortunately, there are real challenges to scaling up these investment estimates at a national level, due to various geographic and project differences. More research is needed in order to understand the total size of the Restoration Economy, and the impact that restoration investments have on the national economy.
To further this research, the UNC-Chapel Hill research team is now surveying actors in the restoration industry through the first-ever national survey. By using rigorous scientific and statistical methods, they are aiming to tally the total number of direct jobs created and sustained by the Restoration Economy. The survey uses the same methods commonly used to determine job creation related to conventional economic activities, including the assessment of direct and indirect job creation. The results, scheduled for release in summer 2014, will also provide an estimate of the total economic output at the national level.
The outline of the Restoration Economy is beginning to take shape. Human built infrastructure is just one side of the economic equation; natural infrastructure is the other. Conserving and restoring natural ecosystems that provide important services like water purification has a positive impact on the economy, but until now no one had taken the time to comprehensively measure them.
Logan has been an independent consultant since 2012. Most recently, she worked with HIP Investor, Inc., a boutique investment advisory firm based out of San Francisco, to apply their triple bottom line scorecard methodology to corporations, organizations, and investment strategies. Logan also consults with Beartooth Capital, a private equity firm that performs ecological uplift for ranchland in the western U.S., and the Conservation Private Capital Group, a team of conservation finance experts working to launch a new U.S. fund for land conservation.
Logan is also a freelance writer for Nextbillion.net, Ashoka Changemakers, and Forbes. She received her B.A. with Distinction from UNC-Chapel Hill in Geography with a concentration in GIS. She is a 2012 Property and Environment Research (PERC) Fellow, a Fellow with Tule Partners, and a 2013 Kinship Conservation Fellow. She is also a class of 2015 Master of Forestry candidate at Yale.