Conservatives care for much more than a strong economy, important though that is. Beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife all have intrinsic value. They improve our quality of life, and conservatives should protect and enhance them.
However, the dichotomy between economic progress and safeguarding the environment is a false one. We are now seeing that the transition from polluting fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources offers a major economic opportunity. Policies to tackle climate change sometimes get framed as harmful for economic competitiveness. But countries that take a strong lead on environmental action can gain a competitive advantage in the new global low-carbon economy. Global investment in new green energy infrastructure is boosting economic growth and creating jobs.
A number of reports have come out in the past month, which have quantified the size of this green economic dividend. These include a major study by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This blog will highlight some of the principal findings.
Investment in global renewable energy in 2015 was $286 billion, according to REN21. This is an increase on the previous year’s total of $273 billion. It is also double the amount of investment that new coal and gas-fired power attracted over the same 12 months. In the rankings of countries for renewable power investments, the UK came fourth, after China, the US, and Japan.
A major milestone was achieved in 2015, as renewable investment in developing countries outstripped that of developed nations. Moreover, this crossover has occurred before the effects of the Paris Agreement in December 2015 have been felt, where additional finance assistance was pledged to developing countries to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change.
There were just over eight million jobs in the green economy globally last year, according to the IRENA data. Europe’s share of this green employment was 1.17 million in 2014. Following a 20% increase in solar installations around the world last year, solar energy is now the biggest green employer overall.
The latest ONS figures show that the UK’s green economy employed 238,500 people in 2014 and turned over £46.2 billion. Energy efficiency is the biggest employer within this sector, supporting 155,000 jobs. That statistic underlines the imperative for a successor policy to the Green Deal to ensure this market continues to thrive, which we will be exploring in the second report from our Green conservatism project.
Low-carbon transport makes up over half of the UK’s green export market, generating nearly £3 billion for the UK economy. This reflects the current strength of the UK’s automotive industry, which now manufactures and exports pure electric vehicles around the world. For example, the Nissan Leaf is produced for the whole European market in Sunderland. With news this week that there are now globally over one million electric vehicles on the road, the potential for growth in this sector is significant.
But do these green jobs outweigh jobs lost in other sectors, such as fossil fuels? The UK Energy Research Council produced a report last year examining this very question. It's clear that net employment is what matters in this debate, as government spending in a particular sector will always boost short-term employment. Their study found reasonable evidence the renewables sector is more labour-intensive than fossil fuels, both in the construction phase and the average lifetime of the plant.
The UK in the green global race
The low-carbon transition is happening across the world, and momentum is gathering. The issue is not whether the UK participates in this, but whether it leads and wins big shares of these important new markets. At the moment, the UK is in a good position. It was the first country in the world to put into statute a framework for cutting emissions and it is now the first developed country to phase out coal-fired electricity. The UK is also the world leader in offshore wind with the most installed capacity of any country.
In the last Parliament, the Prime Minister would often refer to the ‘global race’. In few sectors is the opportunity as great or the competition as fierce as the green economy. Conservatives should champion environmental policy, as it will help Britain succeed in winning the green global race.
Sam Hall is a Researcher at Bright Blue