Cleantech or Status quo Jobs?

by Nick Bruse

One of the most exciting aspects of the cleantech/sustainability sector are the opportunities presented to create completely new industries over the coming years. Transforming the way we approach housing, feeding and powering our society. Whilst at the same time attempting to maintain the quality of life, and I emphasis ‘quality’ not gluttony, and improve the standard of life for the developing world.

As an optimist I believe that humanity can take on this challenge, with a realistic understanding that its going to take a lot of hard work, innovation and leadership. What frustrates me is when conservative governments stand up and expouse that by leaving our old industries behind we will force our economies to suffer and jobs to be lost.

This is the mantra that we have heard in Australia time and time again under the Howard Government. What i would like to hear in Australia is that with our high quality research institutions, and plethora of cleantech startups we are now putting our hand up to be a leader in clean technology.

So my next question is, how many jobs is the cleantech sector including the jobs that will be created through carbon emissions trading, for auditing and assessment, and how does this compare with and emission intensive industry like coal mining.

I hunted down some information on the Australian Coal Industries employment statistics and here’s what i found.

Around 30,000 people were employed at Australian black coal mines at the end of 2005. This represents a return to levels not previously seen since the mid 1990’s – the most recent peak being around 26,000 in 1996. Along with the decline in the number of underground mines, employment at underground mines declined significantly over the past decade – from around 11,000 in 1996 to just over 9,000 in 2005 – a drop of about 20 per cent. Employment in open-cut mines on the other hand increased from just under 15,000 to over 19,000 (30%) in the same period. 2006 statistics Australian Coal Association

Now I assuming that these figures don’t include all the jobs in processing and handling. Possibly another 20-50% the figure. Now at this point the data on cleantech jobs is fairly hard to find, as we are talking about multi-industry analysis, and new industries sectors like emissions trading. But i have found some stats from a Sustainable Energy Industries Report 2000

Total direct employment in the sustainable energy industry [in Australia] is in the order of 22,800 in 1999-2000 and 25,600 in 2000-2001. This represents an annual growth rate of 12%. The total employment effect of the sustainable energy industry on the economy is in the order of 64,000 in 1999-2000 and 72,000 in 2000-2001.

Now there is 6 years between these reports but i think we can assume that the sector in renewable energy has increased somewhat. Now theres not a huge amount of difference between these figures, So when the government talks about jobs what really is it talking about. My guess is that its talking not purely about economic losses from reducing the mining of carbon and our exports, but what its actually worried about is due to the nature of the way in which the coal mining industry differs from the renewables industry.

Centralised vs distributed. Fuel intensive vs Technology Intensive.

My gut feeling is that with coal mining being centralised around mines and distribution routes that means you make policy decisions on coal mining that you affect centralised populations of voters, all in one electorate. When you make decisions about the renewable energy industry you are actually talking about a broad range of technologies associated with many different services providers spread over a broad number of electorates.

Hence decisions on coal mining can flip an electorate to the opposition very quickly, whereas decisions to renewables have only until now had a marginal effect on individual electorates. Sentiment is changing substantially that the federal government can no longer hide behind this dynamic much longer. I don’t wish job losses on coal mining towns, but i do wish for the correct decisions to be made to not sell out the future of all Australians for short term political favour.

I’m interested in comments on this article, what’s the status in Europe, India, China or the United States. How do other issues of energy security and economic security bear out regarding job creation in these regions.

Nick Bruse runs Strike Consulting, a growth venture consultancy specialising in the cleantech sector and hosts the cleantech show, a weekly podcast of interviews with leaders involved in clean technology research, entrepreneurship, commentary and investment.