Though the sector's job creation could outstrip mining, lack of capital and skills is an impediment.
The latest Independent Development Corporation research projects claim that more than 460 000 jobs could be created by South Africa's green economy — more than by the entire mining industry.
The IDC report, and a second report prepared by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, predicts that 98 000 green jobs will be created within the next two years and 462 567 jobs stemming from green activities will be created in the next eight years.
In comparison, the mining industry currently creates 389 000 jobs, according to Statistics South Africa's most recent Quarterly Labour Force Survey, published on Tuesday.
The utilities sector employs less than one-third of that, providing 129 000 jobs.
According to the IDC survey, the total number of people employed in South Africa increased by 383 000 between September 2012 and 2013.
Going green will increase the number of jobs by a similar amount over the best part of a decade, the IDC report said.
Looking closely at the data
A review of the research has been published by Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) researchers Jacqueline Borel-Saladin and Ivan Turok.
Published in the September/October South African Journal of Science, the article, titled The impact of the green economy on jobs in South Africa, looks closely at the data.
"Considering that this figure (460 000) refers to jobs created in a limited number of sectors, the estimate is very substantial," the HSRC authors said.
Borel-Saladin and Turok, while positive about the contribution the green economy can make to South Africa when it comes to job creation, warn that the IDC figures might be a little generous because they do not take into consideration cost constraints and are based on assumptions that there will be the required skills, funding and regulatory environment necessary to stimulate this level of growth in the sector.
When it comes to looking at job growth, what constitutes a "green job" is also a contentious issue. "There is no widely agreed definition of a green job," said the HSRC authors.
"A strict definition comprises only those jobs in industries and sectors that produce environmentally beneficial goods and services.
Green job or not
Borel-Saladin said: "Say you've got someone manufacturing wind turbines in a factory, but they are using coal-based resources [to perform their operations]. It is arguable whether that is actually a green job or not."
"Broader definitions consider the wider impact of green growth policies and include indirect and induced jobs.
"They count jobs created in the supply chains for the products or services of the 'green industries' (indirect jobs) as well as jobs generated out of the spending power of those employed in industries supported by green policy and investment."
In its report the IDC uses the stricter definition of a green job and has calculated the number of jobs created on a "net basis", meaning that it takes into account expected job losses in other areas as a result of the green movement.
Borel-Saladin said that although it was plausible for the IDC to have made such estimates, the report did not make it clear exactly how these job losses were factored into the calculation.
"These are just estimates. You wouldn't put your head on a block for the numbers," she said.
However, Saliem Fakir, the head of the living planet unit at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), whose colleague, Peet du Plooy, provided consultation for the IDC report, believes the numbers are a reliable indicator.
"The numbers are robust," said Fakir. "We have a very good idea of jobs created per kilowatt, and so forth."
But Fakir and Borel-Saladin said that the IDC's estimates did not take into consideration the challenges that might result in slower job growth in the sector.
First, the research omits the costs of the various technologies used. The IDC admits that cost is a critical factor in determining the feasibility of implementing green growth strategies, say the authors.
Related shortcomings are a lack of clarity about the predicted scale of investment and "the source of funding for greening growth".
According to Fakir, whose unit has conducted extensive environment-related economic studies, this is arguably the greatest foreseeable impediment to green growth.
Hurdles not so big
"The innovation that needs to take place is in the area of financing [green projects]," he said.
"With a lot of these technologies the hurdles are not so big, but the capital cost is high. The financial benefit of investing in such projects, such as solar heating, shows over a short period of time. But people don't have the capital to pay for it upfront," said Fakir.
"If the cost hurdle is too high, then a higher subsidy is needed to create scale and market penetration," he said.
Another factor that will determine success is whether or not South Africa can meet the skills required to fill the jobs opened up by green growth.
"Many … segments of the green economy require technically skilled labour," said the HSRC report. "The dearth of skilled workers in South Africa is a major constraint on the feasibility of these green-job predictions."
A further factor of critical importance, according to the report, is an enabling regulatory environment. The "slow pace" of revision and development of new regulatory frameworks is a "major obstacle" to the development of the green economy.
Green economy for sustainable job creation
Criticisms aside, the HSRC researchers believe that the green economy can provide for sustainable job creation.
"Despite the questions surrounding these estimates, green economic activity does appear to generate more local jobs than fossil-fuel based industries," they said.
"The figures discussed represent a promising starting point that warrants further research and policy involvement in greening the economy in South Africa."
The IDC report identifies three main areas under the "green economy" banner in which jobs will be created. The first, dubbed "energy generation", includes renewable electricity such as wind and solar power, liquid fuel and recycling efforts.
This category is projected to create 130 000 jobs over the next eight years. Energy and resource efficiency, such as solar heating and rain-water harvesting is expected to bring in just less than 68 000.
Emissions and pollution mitigation, which includes initiatives such as clean stoves, air-pollution control and acid mine water treatment, is expected to create the most moderate amount of jobs, at 31 600.
Natural resource management
The area in which the majority of jobs is expected is in the fourth and last category: natural resource management. Jobs under the banner of "biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration" are expected to proliferate to about 121 600 posts.
This category includes, for example, organic farming, which is more environmentally friendly and requires more labour than current commercial methods, according to Borel-Saladin.
In the same category, "soil and land management initiatives" are expected to bring in more than 111 000 employment posts.
The Eastern-Cape based Working for Land programme, which rehabilitates degraded land to restore the original flora, and the Working for Water programme, which aims to remove alien plant species to alleviate pressure on water demand on biodiversity, are examples of this, she said.
But Fakir cast doubt on the ability of the natural resource management sector to create jobs in the long term.
Although they play an important role in the short term, "I'm sceptical about land reform programmes [as job creators] in the long term, because they are subsidy based," he said.
"The green job issue is not just about greening, it has to have other co-benefits," said Fakir. "It must be aligned to our economic potential."