Is a Green Economy Possible? How Congress can save money and invest in a brighter future

Restoration project in Gallatin National Forest in Montana. Photo by Joe Kerkvliet.

Ask people who work for conservation organizations about the best parts of their jobs and they’ll likely wax poetic about time spent amongst parks, refuges and other amazing lands.

They’re far less likely to talk about math homework.

The truth is that the arduous tasks associated with developing policy is just as vital as exploring beautiful places. The latest testament to this comes in the form of the “Green Budget,” a hefty set of 2011 spending recommendations that 34 conservation and public interest groups lead by The Wilderness Society have delivered to Congress.

The goal? Provide elected officials with a roadmap for investing in a green economy that creates jobs, cleans air and water, and eliminates wasteful spending that damages the environment.

“We recognize the need for the federal government to tighten its belt,” said William H. Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. “The president and Congress have some tough decisions to make but we believe sound economic and environmental policy go hand-in-hand. So while frugality is key, we must continue to invest in the kind of environmental initiatives that create jobs and protect our natural resources.”

The wide-ranging spending cuts indentified would save billions of dollars per year by ending tax breaks and other giveaways to the oil and gas industry and other big polluters that are enjoying record-breaking profits. For example, closing the loophole that lets big corporations write off oil and gas production would save $13.3 billion over nine years. Cutting taxpayer subsidies for dangerous and expensive new nuclear technologies would save more than $220 million in 2011 alone. Congress could also save billions in subsidies to corporate agribusinesses that destroy land and pollute our water and instead invest in cost-effective programs like conservation, nutrition and deficit reduction.

The savings outlined in the Green Budget are just a sampling of the ways our tax dollars subsidize pollution and could instead be invested in environmental protection and clean, renewable energy.

“Last September, President Obama pledged to end subsidies to fossil fuels,” said Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica. “The Green Budget provides him a way to start delivering on that promise. There’s no reason billions of our taxpayer dollars should be going to ExxonMobil and other polluting corporations. Eliminating these giveaways will unleash resources we can use to build clean energy jobs and a stable, healthy future for our country.”

Producing tomes like the Green Budget require tons of work from many people. The organizations working on this document spent weeks burning the midnight oil with a calculator in one hand and energy-boosting drinks in the other.

“Congress and the White House rely on the conservation community to provide in-depth analysis that helps them make decisions that best serve the health of our economy and our environment,” said Alan Rowsome, a Wilderness Society policy advocate who was a leader in organizing the annual Green Budget project.

The organizations producing the Green Budget believe the money saved by eliminating wasteful spending can be used to invest in creating a green economy — one that creates jobs and protects natural resources. Their plan details what federal agency funding is needed to sustain clean air and water, protect lands, oceans and wildlife, and solve energy and transportation problems. They’re also quick to remind Congress and the administration of the vital economic role public lands play in the economy: The Outdoor Industry Foundation estimates that outdoor recreation — hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, and similar activities — contribute $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy and supports 6.5 million jobs across the country. A study by the National Parks and Conservation Association, meanwhile, found that $13 billion flows annually into gateway towns, creating 250,000 private sector jobs.

Developing such comprehensive ideas and hoofing along Pennsylvania Avenue to get them in front of the right eyes is often a tireless and often thankless enterprise — yet a valuable one.

“Some of the work we do may not be glamorous but it makes a huge difference,” Rowsome said.

Learn more: Examine the Green Budget recommendations.