04/18/2012 10:14 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

Grimm Pickings: The Real Economic Fairy Tales

The concept of "green jobs" or a "green economy" is often attacked as the work of the Grimm Brothers by those wedded to the grim science of free-market economics.

The idea that we can build a strong economy while improving our environment and reducing global warming is seen as pure fantasy, as likely as the fairy godmother transforming a pumpkin into a carriage fit for a princess. Of course, the real fiction lies in thinking you can ignore environmental impacts and carry on with slash and burn economics forever.

The fact that the global financial crisis exposed the reality that most conventional economists were wearing a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes" has not stopped them from becoming self-proclaimed experts on how to live in an age of austerity.

Their latest myth is that the global economy cannot afford to switch to green jobs -- that may be a nice idea in theory, but the immediate concerns of the global economy must take precedence.

Actually, well-thought-through investment in green jobs could help solve two of the most pressing issues of our time: the mass unemployment that affects much of the developed and developing world, and the damage being caused by emissions of greenhouse gases.

Investment in jobs at a time when millions are unemployed can only be a good thing, all the better if the jobs help us shift from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy.

This has long been the view of many in the renewable energy industry, but the lack of solid economic research to back it up has led to these ideas being marginalised as fairy tales.

New economic research by the Millennium Institute forecasts that investing 2 percent of GDP in the green economy can create up to 48 million new jobs over the next five years, in just 12 countries.

This is the biggest and most comprehensive study of the potential of green jobs ever undertaken. It looks at the effects on countries in Europe, Africa and the Americas, and finds the same conclusion: that investing in green jobs reaps huge economic, social and environmental rewards.

Green jobs are not only those traditional jobs people think of as green -- like making solar panels, manufacturing wind turbines, water conservation and sustainable forestry.

They also include jobs in the construction and public transport sectors, and making energy efficiency improvements in manufacturing plants, along with services supporting all industries.

In Brazil the "My Home My Life" program was launched in March 2009. It provides housing for low-income families that use solar water heating where appropriate.

Poor people around the world spend more on energy because they lack the capital to buy a more expensive energy-efficient product. This program cuts their energy bills and Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2011, up to 500,000 houses are expected to be equipped, generating 30,000 green jobs.

In Europe a switch to more energy-efficient transport will create jobs and cut emissions. Energy efficiency is crucial to economic productivity. European manufacturing is under considerable pressure, and reducing its long-term energy costs is a way of keeping it competitive.

European construction is currently in a slump, so why not use the skills of currently unemployed construction workers to retro-fit more buildings and make them use less energy?

In Africa there is huge scope for any kind of infrastructure project that will make the rest of the economy more efficient. Programs that reduce energy and water use and increase green agriculture and transport have huge job-creating potential.

The blueprint for the green job future is here. All over the world visionary people and companies are developing the technologies that will make it possible.

Shifting to a low-carbon economy is a transformation which all our economies must go through. The early-adopters and masters of these technologies will reap the greatest benefits.

To lead the shift to a green economy will require money from both public and private sectors, and a new role for governments in directing the economy.

This may well go against the prevailing economic orthodoxy -- the one that has given us the current economic crisis. Letting investment be totally directed by the free market has led to housing booms and debt crises.

We need an approach where government, business and trade unions are partners and where investment is focused on programs that can meet social and environmental goals.

If you trust the science that tells us it's time to act now, it's the only way our collective story will finish with the words "and they all lived happily ever after".

Sharan Burrow will be holding meetings with governments, business and workers ahead of the G20 Summit and Rio+20 Summit in June where world leaders must make commitments on green growth and decent job creation.