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Green jobs: Meet the movers and shakers at the vanguard of the eco revolution

Three years ago, the Government's Stern Review proclaimed that tackling climate change would be a big business opportunity. But where are all those promised jobs? And has the economy really been stimulated? Robin Barton asks the dynamic go-getters at the vanguard of the new eco society how they have fared

Green jobs. They sound good, don't they? First off, any job in a recession is welcome. Then you get the satisfaction of, well, let's not be shy about it, getting paid to save the planet. And finally there's the prospect of meeting all sorts of like-minded people and comparing tips on composting. Reality, of course, hits like a blast of biomass.

"We are on the edge of a low-carbon industrial revolution," claimed the Business Secretary Peter Mandelson in March – although he did scale back Gordon Brown's promise of 100,000 recession-busting "Green New Deal" jobs to just "tens of thousands" of new jobs in the approaching low- carbon economy. The definition of a "green job" is equally nebulous. At the executive end of the spectrum, they are jobs in sustainability and corporate responsibility. "Such jobs transcend all sectors of the economy," explains Andy Cartland, founder of leading recruitment agency Acre Resources. But a broader sweep might include cycle ' instructors and furniture restorers alongside hydrologists and climatologists. Indeed, you may already have a green tinge to your collar already without realising it.

As well as jobs in renewable energy, from installers of photovoltaic panels (or maybe you know them as solar panels) and wind turbines to scientists developing biofuel from algae (a technology in which the UK leads the world), there are green jobs in facilities management – has everyone switched off the lights for the night? – and the waste industry. In 20 years, chemical engineers currently employed to get oil out of the ground will be paid by governments to clean up after the oil companies. In the next 50 years, some believe many green jobs will be in climate-change mitigation, such as flood defences and carbon sequestration.

But that's all some way off. This summer, the green jobs revolution stalled on the runway when the Danish firm Vestas, the only major wind-turbine manufacturer in the UK, pulled out of the Isle of Wight. Citing the absence of a viable market in the UK and a growing market in the US, Vestas and its business logic can't be faulted: 425 jobs were lost in Britain but Vestas created 5,000 more in the US and China. The company decided it made greater economic and environmental sense to build its turbines close to where they would be used. Dan Ledger, a wind-turbine installer in the UK, explains further: "The irony is that the British public will be swamped with wind farms in the next five years and the seas off Cornwall will be covered in them, but they won't be made here. If the government had introduced new regulations five years ago during the building boom, it would have been different."

Legislation, says Cartland, drives much of the worldwide green jobs boom, from the £300m for green-jobs training provided by Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of February to the 285,000 jobs in Germany's clean-energy sector. Munich-based Siemens, Europe's biggest employer, expects to reap an additional £13bn worldwide over the next three years from assorted stimulus programmes, with green tech accounting for 40 per cent of ' the order book. But they see only 500 new skilled jobs in the UK's green sector. Instead, their factories will be in the Midwest of America, where the financial incentives are greatest.

There are lessons to be learnt from across the Atlantic. In a tale of two cities, Professor Joan Fitzgerald, an expert in green economic development from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, compares the fortunes of Austin in Texas, a high-tech city with a supportive political leadership and an educated workforce, with Ohio's Toledo, an old-fashioned, blue-collar manufacturing city. Which city is thriving today? After updating its industrial base, especially its glass manufacturing, Toledo now has 6,000 new jobs in 15 businesses in the solar-energy sector. Progressive Austin, a city that passed a renewable energy resolution a decade ago, is struggling. Expensively funded high-tech enterprises have delivered hundreds rather than thousands of jobs.

Back in Britain, Paul Cowley of Bristol's Sustainable Energy Installations is complaining how hard it is to find qualified workmen to fit photovoltaic panels: "They're few and far between, so most travel big distances." Yet, despite the recession and the botched introduction of a feed-in tariff, due next April, for home owners with wind turbines and solar panels to sell clean energy back to the national grid, Cowley believes the prospects for installers are good. By 2016, all new homes in Britain will have to be carbon- neutral, so, says Cowley, "the bread-and-butter work for electricians and roofers will change in the next few years."

Are we ready for the green industrial revolution? Although innovative companies such as Elektromotive (see box, page 9) manufacture in the UK, these sorts of stable, long-term jobs and their valuable hands-on skills are thin on the ground. "We are good at finance but aren't performing so well in manufacturing," agrees Cartland. And installers of green technology like Ledger complain they are wrapped up in red tape before they set foot on a ladder. But, with world energy consumption set to double by 2030 according to the International Energy Agency, perhaps it's time to brush off the CV and start swotting up on biofuels.