Description of the Field
The global community faces a wide array of environmental issues: air and water pollution, global warming, waste disposal, and deforestation, among many others. With society's growing concern about these issues, questions arise not only about how to protect environmental quality, but why and to what level? How are these resources valued for our generation and for future generations? How can we measure that value and determine the costs and benefits of environmental protection? These are among the difficult questions environmental economists ask and work to answer. Environmental economists try to find effective and cost-efficient solutions for environmental problems.
The field of environmental services encompasses the work of many public and private sector organizations. Those include international organizations, such as the World Bank and United Nations (UN), government agencies, both federal and state, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nonprofits, and large industrial companies and consulting firms. The environmental services field includes those entities offering expertise in environmental law and regulation, public policy and economic analysis, resource and project management as well as advocacy, and lobbying efforts.
On the Job
Entry-level positions will differ by organization or firm. An entry level job in an international organization such as the World Bank or UN may require previous experience, an advanced degree, and knowledge of a specific region’s culture or second language fluency. If you don’t initially meet these requirements, you might participate in their professional development program* or become an intern. When your skills and experience develop, you will usually work with a team on a specific regional project. For example, the team may develop sustainable solutions for local businesses in Ghana. On the national or state level, entry level positions can be as research or resource management assistants, working to calculate the costs of regulation and assess its effectiveness.
In the private sector, entry level positions include research analysts or associate consultants at environmental consulting firms. There, new hires will most likely research a variety of federal and state environmental policies and laws as well as gather data for clients' projects. Clients will range from private small businesses to large corporations that want to find the most economically efficient way to comply with environmental standards. Clients may also include government agencies. Some firms that specialize in environmental services also specialize in other areas, such as healthcare and energy.
As a new hire at an NGO or nonprofit, you may be tasked with researching and analyzing the effects of various environmental policies, writing articles on environmental issues for a blog or magazine, doing advocacy work in the form of organizing events and fundraisers, or using other means to engage public interest through media outlets. Some NGOs and nonprofits may have a specific position with clear tasks, while others may give you the freedom to be creative and come up with new ideas. The possibilities are virtually endless.
Environmental protection requires cooperation and compromise between public and private interests. Those interests often may align but when they don't, conflict arises. For example, private, for-profit firms as well as public and private nonprofits may find it difficult to comply with environmental protection measures when costs, in terms of money and time, seem to outweigh benefits. These potential conflicts have helped fuel the growth of the environmental services field, a plus for job seekers. However, these conflicts can also challenge and, at times, frustrate those working in this field.
A career in environmental services for those with economics backgrounds usually incorporates working for businesses as an environmental expert, working as a consultant at an environmental consulting firm, working at the World Bank, UN, or other multilateral organization as a project manager or director, working for government agencies as a resource manager or specialist, or working at an NGO or nonprofit as a researcher, advocate, writer, or lobbyist.
Environmental consultants' role is often to evaluate the costs and benefits of specific projects and suggest efficient, environmentally-friendly measures to accomplish goals. With a Master’s or Ph.D., an environmental economist could become an environmental consultant. Consulting is an ideal path for analytical thinkers who enjoy working on a variety of projects, either on a team or as an individual.
Project Management at the UN, World Bank, or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) would be an ideal career path for someone who doesn’t mind traveling a lot for work and has an interest in developing economies. Projects range in aim, scope, and scale, but are usually development-focused. As someone with an environmental economics background, your role could be to ensure that projects comply with sustainability standards. Projects may also have environmental goals, such as helping local businesses develop sustainable practices, or working toward lowering air and water pollution levels in a specific region.
Resource Management in a federal or state agency often has important regulatory functions to oversee resource usage rights. Government agencies that manage resource rights often face legislative and legal complications in cases where economic and environmental concerns clash. These agencies may employ environmental lawyers, economists, and policy analysts to examine regulations and rights. They also employ lobbyists, planners, and accountants to form a team that can effectively manage and enforce rights. Those with interests in environmental law, planning, and policy may find an ideal career in resource management.
Environmental Policy Advocates and Lobbyists may work for NGOs or nonprofits in tasks that are far-ranging and varied. As an advocate or lobbyist, one must conduct research to understand environmental laws and policies as well as environmental issues, such as water and air contamination. Advocates and lobbyists must also be clear and effective communicators – both in speech and in writing. Advocacy takes many forms, and this career path is ideal for the passionate individual who has multiple talents and can handle multiple tasks.
Other career paths include Environmental Policy Legislative Assistants, Land Conservancy Directors, and Agricultural Economists working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), for example. Let’s also not forget the option of becoming a Professor of Environmental Economics and educating future environmental leaders!
More and more consumers are seeking companies that are eco-friendly. As a result, more firms are hiring environmental economists as consultants. Environmental consulting firms are also gaining more clients. Many companies are making a genuine effort to reduce carbon emissions and any overall negative environmental impact. Almost all companies are searching for efficient ways to comply with environmental standards. Furthermore, companies with strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) are seeking long-term solutions to manage pollution and other environmental problems. Environmental consulting is a rapidly expanding field with many opportunities in the private sector.
Another growing area within environmental economics lies within the NGO and nonprofit sector. Again, as society's environmental worries grow, NGOs and nonprofits are stepping up to meet the public’s demands for more corporate transparency or government action – whether that is in the form of lobbying Congress members to support new legislation, writing articles to better inform the public, organizing events, or conducting research.
Individuals who focus in a particular area, such as environmental economics, may have better job prospects than those with a more general background. Furthermore, those who obtain a Master’s or a Ph.D. in environmental economics will enhance their employment opportunities as well.
Qualifications Necessary to Enter the Field
Along with taking courses in environmental economics, it is crucial for those seeking careers in environmental services to understand relevant environmental policies and laws. Unfortunately, since few universities offer a bachelor’s or concentration in environmental economics at the undergraduate level, it is often up to the student to supplement studies with additional classes from the Environmental Sciences Department or the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. For research positions, obtaining an additional certificate in environmental science may be desirable. Here at UVA, taking relevant classes outside of economics will make you more knowledgeable and competitive.
For environmental consulting, a bachelor’s degree in economics and coursework in environmental economics may qualify graduates to work at some firms, especially at an entry level, but, a master’s degree or Ph.D. may be necessary to advance. Working for international organizations, such as the UN, the World Bank, or OECD will usually also require a more advanced degree as well as extensive political, historical, and cultural knowledge of a specific region, and fluency in a second language.
Sample Group of Employers
- United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) - http://www.unep.org/
- United Nations Sustainable Development - http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/
- World Bank - http://www.worldbank.org/
- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - www.oecd.org
- International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) - www.iclei.org
U.S. Government Agencies
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - www.epa.gov
- Environmental Economics (EPA) – www.epa.gov/environmental-economics
- U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) - www.doi.gov
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - www.fws.gov
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) - www.usda.gov
- National Resources Conservation Service - www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/site/national/home/
- U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) - http://www.doe.gov/
- U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) - http://www.commerce.gov/
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - www.noaa.gov
- Council on Environmental Quality - www.whitehouse.gov/ceq
- Abt Associates – www.abtassociates.com
- EcoNorthwest – econw.com
- Industrial Economics, Inc. – www.indecon.com
- KeyLog Economics - keylogeconomics.com
- SRI International – www.sri.com
- Environmental Law Institute – www.eli.org
- National Association of Environmental Professionals – www.naep.org
- Agricultural and Applied Economics Association – www.aaea.org
Non-Governmental Organizations and Non-profits
- Alliance to Save Energy – www.ase.org
- Ceres – http://www.ceres.org
- Greenpeace – www.greenpeace.org
- Nature Conservancy – www.nature.org
- Resources for the Future – www.rff.org/about
- US Business Council for Sustainable Development - http://usbcsd.org/
- Wilderness Society - wilderness.org
- World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – wwf.panda.org
- World Resources Institute – www.wri.org
Selected U.Va. Organizations/CIOS
For a full list of organizations at UVA, please see: https://atuva.student.virginia.edu/Organizations
Alternative Spring Break
Business Ethics Society
Environmental Sciences Organizations
Global Markets Group
Net Impact at the University of Virginia
Resources for Additional Information
- Environmental Economics Blog - Article on Career Opportunities
- Robert Stavins Blog - Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program
- Association on Environmental & Resource Economists
- World Bank Environment - http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/environment
- Vault Guides
- Vault Insider Guide to Alternative Energy Jobs*
- Vault Insider Guide to Environmental Careers
- Vault Insider Guide to Environmental Science and Conservation Jobs*
- *These links bring you to the respective Vault Guides folder on the ECO Resources Collab site, where you can download the specific guide you want to read.