Powering ahead: the case for a new green industrial strategy

If a week is a long time in politics, as Labour’s Harold Wilson famously said, this last month has felt like an eternity. It is scarcely more than a month since the UK took its most important collective decision in post-war history and voted to leave the European Union. Twenty days later, Theresa May became the UK’s second female Prime Minister.

Given the complexity of leaving the European Union, Mrs May’s time in No. 10 may be dominated almost completely by Brexit, yet all other policy issues – health, education, security, the environment and much more besides – are still there to be addressed.

From a trade union perspective, it has been a welcome surprise to see the new Prime Minister address a number of issues that have long been of great interest to us. These include corporate governance and the importance – or otherwise – of British companies remaining British. Particularly important has been Theresa May’s early commitment to an industrial strategy, even reorganising a government department to take that forward.

Yet some have expressed concern that climate change, a central part of the government’s agenda under both the last Labour administration and the Coalition, has been downgraded. Early action to dispel that fear would be welcome.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) believes that on this issue, we could kill two birds with one stone. Our new publication, ‘Powering Ahead’, puts the case for a sustainable industrial strategy. By sustainable, we mean it must take account of social, economic and environmental concerns. It is natural that industries are born, grow and ultimately die as technology moves on, but the upheaval involved cannot always be left to the whims of the market. In recent decades, deindustrialisation has caused serious disturbances, to put it mildly, in the lives of families and communities. That is why trade unions call for a just or fair transition as we move to more green jobs and away from more polluting ones.

Based on new research from Germany and Denmark, ‘Powering Ahead’ calls for a target of 50 per cent of UK energy coming from renewable sources by 2050. The market, by itself, will not deliver this objective. In Germany and Denmark, two countries that have made great strides towards environmental technology, the enabling role of government has been harnessed in a mission to break into those industries.

The UK government needs to step up to this challenge, with its potential for significant economic and industrial rewards. The economist Lord Stern has predicted a future annual global market of $500bn in environmental goods and services, so investment in these sectors today could reap very real economic benefits tomorrow.

We also believe that government should steer new green tech jobs towards the UK’s former industrial heartlands, which lost their livelihoods with the demise of heavy industry and too often have not seen new opportunities moving in to take the place of jobs lost. The referendum campaign showed that too many people do not believe globalisation has worked for them.

‘Powering Ahead’ explores a range of policy options the government could adopt. It calls for funds to support companies and universities, working together, to tackle the problem of storing renewable energy. It also calls for the development of a proper strategy, based on the building of a political consensus and using a social partnership approach. As readers might expect, the TUC looks enviously at the role of Danish and German trade unionists, utilising their countries’ models of social partnership to influence company decisions from an employee perspective. Politicians of the centre-right, such as Angela Merkel in Germany, seem most comfortable with this approach. Germany’s continued success as the strongest economy in Europe bears witness to its value. Collaboration must also be international; for example the report argues for cross-country effort to develop Carbon Capture and Storage technology, if this is too expensive for the UK government to fund by itself.

What is undoubtedly true is that pollution and environmental degradation know no borders and affect all of us, young and old, rich and poor, supporters of all political parties and of none. We all have an interest in the future of the planet and none of us have a monopoly of wisdom in how to safeguard it.

Outside of the EU, the TUC believes that challenge has become even harder. It was Lord Deben, described by Friends of the Earth as “the best Environment Secretary we’ve ever had”, who said he first became interested in environmental issues in the 1990s when the UK was described as the “dirty man of Europe” due to its poor recycling rates. Brexit may mean Brexit, but there is no mandate to return to those dark days and the Conservative Government needs to demonstrate how the UK’s environmental standards will be maintained and enhanced outside of the EU. The Green Conservatism project of Bright Blue has an important role to play on this issue and the TUC stands ready to support its work. 

Tim Page is senior policy officer at the TUC

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.