Photograph by Michaela Rehle, Reuters

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Workers install solar panels on the roof of a farmstead barn near Landshut, Germany, in March 2012.

Photograph by Michaela Rehle, Reuters

Sustainable Earth: Green Jobs

Rio+20 gives leaders a chance to revitalize economies by doing good.

It used to be that the environmental movement and the business world were mortal enemies, or at least interested in different things. But that's changed. As the world's energy dilemma has become more pronounced, the environmental movement has begun to make a savvy sales pitch: Help us save the world, and we'll put money in your pocket.

We all know the outlines of the problem, of course: the energy we use to light our homes, drive our cars, and fuel our factories must come from somewhere. The best way to get it is from renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal—both to reduce our reliance on oil and other fossil fuels and to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we pump into the world's warming atmosphere.

Yet right now renewables account for just 1 percent of the world's power. The rest comes from fossil fuels, which—watt for watt—are still cheaper than their renewable equivalents. That's partly because the technology we use to capture energy from the sun and wind is still in its early days. Just as decades of research and development have made our cars far more efficient and clean than the rattling behemoths of old, it may take years for science to refine renewables to a point where they can truly compete dollar for dollar with petroleum and coal.

Making Green Pay

To help renewables become established, environmentalists have begun to make common cause with businesspeople, arguing that the best way to encourage the development of renewable technology is to make it profitable over the long term. As the renewable energy sector grows, the argument goes, it will create jobs for everyone—from research scientists and engineers, to construction workers trained in the latest energy-efficient building techniques.

Advocates say all that green industries need is a little help getting over the initial hump. Take the German solar industry, for example. To encourage people to buy and install solar panels, Germany buys solar-produced energy at a fixed price guaranteed to make a profit. That, in turn, has driven a boom in the German solar industry, which has added 31,600 jobs a year since 2004.

There's an added benefit, advocates say: As the search for alternatives to fossil fuels gets more intense, countries with well-developed renewable energy sectors will be market leaders, exporting their technology and goods around the world while keeping high-paying jobs at home.

Such "green jobs" are going to be high on the agenda at Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil from June 20 to 22. In an ideal world, the idea is a winner all around: Who wouldn't want to protect the environment, solve the unemployment crisis, and establish his or her country as a global leader in a hot new industry?

Challenges and Backlash

Yet because of the extra costs associated with establishing green industries as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, green jobs come at a price, and that has made them deeply controversial.

One of the most obvious ways to support green jobs is to give subsidies or tax credits to green businesses, such as solar power companies or even software engineers building better smart meter algorithms. That comes with an initial price tag. Energy customers pay extra to subsidize Germany's solar power production; in the United States, taxpayers have bankrolled renewable energy production through stimulus funding and tax credits.

As economic crises have bitten deep all around the world, such subsidies often have been the first things to go. In the late 1990s Iceland, an island nation with ample supplies of geothermal energy, had ambitious plans to transform its transport sector to hydrogen, creating jobs in the process. But political will soon flagged, and when Iceland's economy imploded in 2007, the plans—and the jobs that they were supposed to create—were forgotten.

Even Germany, which set a goal of replacing its nuclear power with renewables by the end of the decade, is slashing its supports for solar power. Elsewhere in Europe, the situation is even worse, as renewable energy leaders like Spain struggle to save their economies from financial collapse.

And in the United States—where the Labor Department recently announced that 3.1 million people now work in green jobs—the topic became a political battleground after government investments in the solar manufacturer Solyndra failed to keep that company from going belly-up. (Oil and gas extraction, by comparison, employs nearly 800,000 people.)

Another part of the problem is the term itself. It's tough to say what a "green job" really is. Everyone from electric car manufacturers to the nuclear power industry—not to mention home insulation salesmen and solar panel makers—has laid claim to the title, in the hopes of attracting government support in the form of tax credits or subsidies. All those outstretched hands make it hard for policymakers to craft coherent, long-term strategies.

That's why environmentalists and green-minded entrepreneurs alike are watching the upcoming Rio summit closely. It's an opportunity for them to make the case to world leaders once again that investment in green technology is a good move for the Earth and economies alike.