The challenges of defining a green job

‘Green jobs’ is a topic that often comes up in debates on the environment. In this, understanding which definition of a green job is used is essential. But how can we actually define what constitutes a ‘green job? On the day we publish a new article about the challenges of defining a ‘green job’,  Leah Harris looks at the different definitions in use, including ones for which the ONS currently produces data. 

The environment and environmental policies have understandably become a focus for the Government. With interest in cutting carbon emissions and in a ‘green recoverythe topic of ‘green jobs’ has come up regularly. 

Often it is not specified exactly what the ‘green jobs’ are. There is no single, universally accepted, definition for the term ‘green job’. Indeed, adding to the challenge, there is no single definition of green’. ‘Green’ could refer to reducing carbon emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change; it could also refer to topics on nature and ecosystems, or wider issues around sustainability and resource use.  

There are various approaches that could be used to set a definition for a green job for a specific news article, policy brief or data analysis. Understanding which definition is used, and which analysis it enables, is essential. This blog summarises some options, with more detail in the more detailed article published today.  

One definition often used is the Environmental Goods and Services Sector (EGSS) definition, which follows international guidelines from the United Nations. This covers a wide range of activities, from the production of renewable energy to waste removal and recycling to the protection of biodiversity and landscapes. The ONS produces annual estimates of EGSS using the UN guidelines. 

The ONS also runs and publishes results from the Low Carbon and Renewable Energy Economy (LCREE) survey. It estimates employment (and other variables) in businesses related to activities that are either ‘low carbon’ or associated with the production of renewable energy. It uses seventeen activity categories which cover, for example, low emission vehicles, energy efficient products, and various means of energy production such as wind or solar. 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has its own definition of ‘green jobs’, which it has used as part of its own portfolio of work on the topic, such as its report on ‘Greening with jobs.’ It defines green jobs as those which “reduce the consumption of energy and raw materials, limit greenhouse gas emissions, minimize waste and pollution, protect and restore ecosystems and enable enterprises and communities to adapt to climate change. In addition, green jobs have to be decent.” This addition of a ‘decent jobs’ criterion raises some extra questions – what is job quality? How could that be measured? The answers to these questions are complex and beyond the scope of this blogthe ONS has explored them elsewhere. 

Often research on ‘green jobs’ will select a sector or two of interest. This helps narrow down the range of potentially relevant jobs. Popular sectors include renewable energy (International Renewable Energy Agencyand low emission vehicles (London School of Economics), and jobs related to ecosystems or nature protection (ILO and World Wide Fund for Naturehave seen growing interest. In these cases, the definition used will be jobs in that sector and which could support, in some way, addressing a ‘green’ issue. For example, if looking at jobs in solar power, a ‘green job’ in this context could be any job to design, install, or maintain solar panels. This definition is easier to use than others, but does not lead to comparable estimates across different groups. 

Another challenge in understanding ‘green jobs’ is about just how ‘green’ a job could be (especially when considering the nature of the ‘green transition’, jobs are likely to be somewhere between strictly ‘green’ or ‘non-green’). Linked to this is the importance of skills, as we need to understand which skills are needed for the transition, and where there are gaps. As an example, this paper from Energy Economics explores skills in a US context. 

Even when one of these various definitions has been chosen, it is difficult to find the right data to count the ‘green jobs’ and to analyse them. Many papers choose to combine definitions, based on their specific question and the available data. The sectoral approach to a definition is common because (in part) it’s easier to find data for one sector rather than the whole ‘green economy’. 

So, these are some ways that a ‘green job’ could be defined. At the ONS, we produce estimates of EGSS because this is an internationally comparable standard, which is continuously reviewed and updated. We also focus on the LCREE survey as this meets domestic policy needs and provides us with useful data at a level EGSS cannot provide. Indeed, some LCREE data is used in the compilation of the EGSS accounts. 

Understanding what definition has been used in any article or paper is important to understand the wider message. The ONS will be monitoring and reviewing further updates in this area, as well as continuously improving our EGSS and LCREE estimates. This will ensure we are working to improve data availability for a popular and pressing topicbuilding on our existing expertise, and will directly support our Strategy (Statistics for the Public Good).

For more information see our article. You can also email   

Leah Harris is an economist in the Public Policy Analysis directorate of the Office for National Statistics.