Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Green jobs in China’s built environment

Green jobs are hot. The idea of green jobs - family-supporting jobs that contribute significantly to preserving or enhancing environmental quality - has gained significant traction in America over the last two years, culminating in President Obama’s appointment of green jobs guru Van Jones to Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

While the concept hasn’t been as hot in China, the opportunity for green jobs is massive. This post will explore the opportunities for green jobs in China, particularly those in building energy efficiency.

Unemployment in China
Despite China’s strong growth over the last quarter century, many Chinese across the age and skill spectrum still have trouble finding good jobs. In this blog post, I will focus on two particular types of people having trouble securing good jobs, migrant workers and recent college graduates.

Migrant worker unemployment
The global economic crisis has hurt Chinese migrant workers particularly hard. 20 million migrant workers have lost their jobs since the start of the downturn, nearly 15% of the total migrant labor pool. Many of these migrant workers were employed in factories in the Pearl River Delta region or in the construction trades throughout the country. These migrant workers are generally untrained and have limited skills, with one study (PDF) indicating that less than 20% of migrant workers have received any type of training. The government is worried about the potential for these large numbers of unemployed migrant workers to cause social unrest.

Youth unemployment

But it’s not just low skilled migrant workers. youth in China also face severe employment pressure. In fact, youth account for a majority of the unemployed: over 70% of the unemployed are under 35, according to an academic study (PDF).

And while a college degree certainly improves the chance of finding a job, only 70% of college graduates find jobs upon graduating. This means that nearly 1.5 million college graduates failed to find jobs in 2008.

Greening the Built Environment
Greening the built environment is a huge opportunity to find employment for both of these groups and many others. As I’ve mentioned time and again in my blog, the Chinese built environment is extremely inefficient, but many low-cost solutions exist to make it much greener. Implementing these solutions will require significant manpower, particularly from migrant workers and college graduates. In this post I will profile two possible solutions, but many, many more opportunities exist for the creation of good green jobs that simultaneously lift Chinese people out of unemployment and poverty and result in a greener, healthier built environment.

Retrofitting poor insulation
As I noted in my post on China’s inefficient heating systems, Chinese buildings have extremely poor insulation:

As the results of the Asia Business Council expert interviews above show, the primary factor affecting a building’s heating load is the building envelope and the insulation it provides between the interior of a space and the outdoor environment. The worse the insulation, the more energy transfer between the indoor and outdoor environment. When it’s cold outside, this means the cold air comes in, and the hot air goes out, resulting in a lot of wasted energy as well as occupant discomfort. As the graph below shows, insulation in Beijing (and the rest of China) is significantly worse than the developed world’s, and allows much more heat (in the form of energy) to escape to the outside.

Graph based on data from Chinese Academy of Building Research

My anecdotal evidence backs this up: I can feel the cold when I put my finger against the glass of almost any window in Beijing, even in high-end apartment buildings. One major exception thus far was the Linked Hybrid, which as I mentioned here, focused on high-quality insulation. Investing in improved insulation is a win-win-win, resulting in higher thermal comfort for occupants, and less energy use and GHG emissions at low cost. Insulation works “year round”, in the sense that improved insulation reduces heating energy use in the winter, but also reduces cooling energy use in the summer. This is really important, since as we can infer from the LBL graph above, in addition to the southward creep of space heating units, there is also a northward creep of air conditioning units. Maybe the best part about investments in insulation is that they are also a win financially. As the McKinsey global GHG abatement cost curve below shows, investments in insulation are one of the lowest cost sources of carbon emission reductions available.

In that post, I also noted that improved insulation is a win-win-win: more thermal comfort; less energy use and CO2 emissions; and a low cost that quickly pays for itself. And because upgrading all that insulation requires significant hands-on labor, we can add yet another win: green jobs.

Improving insulation is straight out of Van Jones’s playback. He is well known for saying inner city youth should “put down those handguns and pick up those caulking guns” and start saving energy by improving insulation in buildings.

Putting some of the 20 million migrant workers (many of who were in construction trades before) into retrofitting building insulation would be a great way to simultaneously increase employment and reduce energy use and CO2 emissions.

Poor code compliance
As I described in my post on the Top Down Approach, compliance with Chinese building energy codes is dismal:

As the data shows (PDF), compliance with energy codes in China is poor throughout the country. The disparity between design and construction compliance also shows the willingness of developers to “cheat” when faced with the perception of increased costs. Given that many Chinese building dont even currently comply with mandatory building energy codes, it seems unlikely that these developers and owners will be willing to voluntarily take the jump to green buildings.

Therefore, the Chinese government must step in and force these laggard developers to improve their energy efficiency. The current mandatory building energy code, which mandates 50% savings over 1980 levels for new buildings, is a good start. But now the hard work of actually enforcing this code must begin. Several US groups, including NRDC and the US DOE Pacific Northwest National Laboratory,are working with Chinese government to help them develop the capacity needed to enforce the codes.
One of the big reasons buildings don’t often comply with building codes is that MOHURD (formerly MoC) doesn’t have enough employees to check every building. Certifying and establishing energy use levels for the millions and millions of Chinese buildings will require significant skilled manpower. As the NRDC notes in their recent strategy paper on US-China cooperation on climate change,
In China in particular, this new paradigm [stopping climate change] will also require heavy investment in effective environmental enforcement, including accurate environmental monitoring and reporting, well-trained environmental regulators and enforcement officials.
As part of this program, Kevin Mo, the director of NRDC’s China Sustainable Building program, will be lobbying the Chinese government to expand their hiring and training of building energy code certifiers. And who are the likely candidates to fill these jobs? Ideally, the many unemployed Chinese college graduates. Most will lack the specific skills needed for these jobs, but have the necessary capacity to learn these skills. The government will then provide the specific skills training and the jobs. In this way, young Chinese will be able to find good jobs and help reduce energy use in the built environment at the same time.

Efficiency is WIN-WIN
In addition to being the largest source of cheap carbon emission reductions, building energy efficiency is also the largest source of good green jobs. The UN’s International Labor Organization notes that:
The great majority of efficiency measures, especially in the building sector, show positive employment and economic effects. A study undertaken in 2000 by the British Government concluded that, for every $1.4 million (€1 million) invested in residential energy efficiency, 11.3–13.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs were created. Half the economic potential for efficiency gains in buildings is located in developing countries, but no data on existing or potential jobs are available for that part of the world.

Given how inefficient Chinese buildings are, it will take a lot of manpower to fix them up. China should embrace the built environment as the best place to simultaneously reduce carbon emissions and create green jobs.

1 comment:

Alex Smith said...

Green Jobs are good one but it need to be done with favors to other type of jobs. Jobs of both type should be secured.