09/28/2010 06:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Green Jobs: Promise, Progress and Potential

I led a session at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) last week entitled "Green Jobs: Preparing for the Green Economy" and can summarize the outcome in three areas: promise, progress and potential.

Most agree that a green economy -- and sustainable development more broadly -- are society's best hope for reconciling the world's need for poverty-alleviating economic growth with the planet's need for life-giving ecological vitality. And there is great promise in a green economy. Traditional industrial development has been incredibly wasteful of materials and energy. The typical coal-fired power plant, for example, loses over half the input energy as waste heat before the first electron zips out of the facility. To produce one ton of pharmaceutical pills requires over 100 tons of input materials, making a 99 percent waste rate on average. The good news is that we already have the know-how and technology to tackle most of this waste. What's missing is a supportive economic, social and political context, along with trained and knowledgeable workforce to get the job done. Given the 9 percent unemployment rate in the U.S., the fact that dollar-for-dollar the green economy produces more jobs than traditional development makes it a no-brainer.

We have seen progress. The Commerce Department reports that there is already a $1 trillion green economy up and running in diverse business sectors like construction, recycling and forestry. Countries as different as China, Germany and India have shifted their policies and incentives to support and stimulate more green growth. Here in the U.S., there has also been bi-partisan support for environmentally friendly economic development. In 2007, for example, the Bush Administration included $125 million for green jobs in the Energy Bill. And last year, the Obama Administration made green jobs an important part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Some pundits, like the New York Times' Tom Freidman, see the green economy as the next field of economic competition and are gaining the public's and politicians' attention.

Despite the progress, it is clear that there is still vast untapped potential in the green economy. Official statistics show green business accounts for only about 1-2 percent of all economic activity. That's a tiny sliver of the overall economic pie. But we know that this can grow rapidly. Germany, for example, was able to grow its green industries four fold in just a decade. Even business-as-usual projections show the green economy tripling to $3 trillion by 2020.

Our CGI discussion highlighted innovation and experimentation in building the green economy going on in such disparate places as the inner city New York, rural India and Native American reservations. Despite the apparent differences, the challenges are surprisingly similar: supportive policies; capable workforces; attractive business infrastructures; community support. The commonalities give optimism that shared learning might be able to accelerate green economic development and allow us to capture the potential that the green economy promises.

Cross-posted from Forbes