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Jobs & the Environment: An L.A. County Report Card

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Photo detail: Diliff

A common refrain among opponents of clean air, water and endangered species is that environmental regulation kills jobs. From some perspectives, they’re occasionally right: Go talk to a coal miner in Kentucky staring down the Obama administration’s new rules for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, or an Oregon tree-feller on the topic of spotted owls. When rules to protect nature and public health kick in, whole economies sometimes die.

But it’s also true that people living in poverty suffer disproportionately from industrial pollution, and that wealth benefits from the long-term protection of resources — without restraint, after all, one day there’d be no forests to log. So a United Nations’ Brundtland Commission in 1987 proposed another way of looking at the situation, one that wouldn’t pit laudable values against each other, but would instead regard economic and environmental health as inseparable. The Brundtland participants coined the term “sustainable development” and, in a landmark report, Our Common Future, defined it as “the unification of economics and ecology” — a strategy to protect the world’s resources while ensuring the fair distribution of wealth and robust economic growth.

This month, the Economic Roundtable, an independent nonprofit research group, applied those principles to the economic and environmental landscape of Los Angeles County. Its report, Sustain Los Angeles: Industry Greenhouse Gas and Wage Sustainability, looks through “the joint lens of social sustainability and environmental sustainability,” said its lead author, Economic Roundtable president Dan Flaming, in a phone interview.

“Around environmental issues we tend to see things through the environmental lens of what a certain activity does to our planet,” he said. “Our purpose was to provide an integrated frame of reference to look at industries both for the environment and for workers.”

The word sustainable has been thrown around a lot in the past decade, appropriated to market everything from $8-a-pound organic Brussel sprouts to pricey bamboo underwear. (Google Books’ Ngram Viewer shows mentions of the word in books rising steeply beginning in 1981 and continuing into the present — sustainability is indeed the new black.) But true sustainability is a hard calculus and Los Angeles County, the Roundtable report shows, is a long way from factoring a solution.

Sustain Los Angeles is detailed and exhaustive, setting up ratios of jobs to emissions and jobs to energy consumption, dividing the county’s “fragile air shed” into nine different sub-regions and ranking 26 industries within them. Industries in the refinery-heavy South Bay, for instance, consumed nine times the energy as did Westside businesses [1]; Malibu’s retail and professional service establishments used less energy per job than did any other industry anywhere in the county. They paid above average, too, making the well-heeled region one of the county’s rare sustainable enclaves. [2]

Overall, though, Los Angeles County does poorly on sustainability tests. Measured against purely environmental benchmarks, the prevalence of heavy-polluting industries such as air transportation (1,445 metric tons of greenhouse gases per worker in 2011) and petroleum refining (8,231 metric tons [3]), obscures any progress toward the federal target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 83 percent of 2005 levels by 2020.

Social benchmarks are hardly better: With a large number of the county’s four million workers in low-wage service industries, “Los Angeles County lags behind the state and nation in median levels of earned income, and the city lags behind the county.” Only five industries — construction, durable manufacturing, wholesale trade, information and scientific services — representing 26 percent of the county’s jobs, pay at least average wages and keep emissions below average [4].

Not to despair, however: The report also identifies the places where county planners and officials can focus their efforts to shore up sustainability. Offices, for example, consume 17 percent of the county’s electricity, more than any other sector, but they’re also the places where great savings can be had with simple audits of energy use — an effort that also creates precious jobs, because energy efficiency audits and retrofits require manpower. Other adjustments will be more difficult, requiring overhauls of our transportation and energy networks without neglecting the people who depend on them for safety and income.

Difficult or not, Flaming says, we must make those adjustments, as quickly as we can.

“The load that the planet can absorb from our consumption of energy is finite,” he says. “That’s an unalterable reality. We need to make sure that the jobs we create take into account the load of greenhouse gases we’re placing on the atmosphere.” But we also need to make sure that our environmental rules respect people. “It’s a joint problem of wages and environmental effects,” he says, “scaled to the job.”

Sustainability demands attention to both.


[1] Figure 20, page 45

[2] Page 77

[3] Table 3.14

[4] Table 3.14 again

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