openDemocracyUK

Green jobs for British workers?

Thomas Ash
18 December 2009

As Copenhagen stutters to its conclusion, our attention should return again to what individual countries can do to tackle climate change absent a global deal sufficient to the problem. Most of the actions available to them are quite painful, with a risk of other nations free-riding on their efforts, and are consequently politically problematic. But there is one policy that appears to pull off the magic trick of combining balm for the environment and jam for the voters: the creation of so-called 'green jobs'.

Strangely enough this approach, heavily emphasised by the political leadership in America and much of continental Europe, has failed to attract comparable attention in Britain. This despite the fact that unemployment was reported on Wednesday to have reached two and a half million, the highest level in almost fifteen years. There is plenty of slack productive capacity in the economy (as unemployed workers are sometimes described, lumping them in with other factors). Jobs created by governments in these circumstances are often derided as 'make-work' affairs, but even if they would not always be considered the most effective use of resources, they produce more than redundant workers eking out benefits would do: real motorways or - to take a greener, less nineteen thirties example - real wind farms.

Commenting on my earlier post on unilateral action on climate change, Anthony faulted David Miliband for failing to match German incentives for domestic solar panels which can feed excess power produced into the grid. According to John Bradbury, this initiative has seen "250,000 employees and new industry as a result of encouraging Joe Public to invest" - proof if it were needed that green jobs are not a mirage. Miliband's special advisor on these issues has explained this failure thus: "The trouble is that the Treasury, Ofgem and government officials have driven this policy with a towering lack of ambition ... If they were five times as ambitious, it would only cost the average family another £2 a year. But energy companies and Ofgem don't want to go down that path – they have created a cosy oligopoly which produces non-renewable energy and ever-spiralling prices."

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I do not mean to paint an overly rosy picture of green jobs. There is some tension between the desire to help the environment and the political imperative of easing unemployment. I won't soon forget reading a colourful message from Joel Parker, international vice president of the Transportation Communications Union, bemoaning the fact that "the labor leadership is totally out of touch with the rank and file, who are still trying to figure out what the f**k a green job is". Conversely some government initiatives, such as the obscene and damaging subsidies given to American corn farmers who turn their crop into ethanol rather than food, can go too far in the opposite direction, creating jobs for which their is only a superficial environmental rationale. But this is a needle that can be threaded with programs such as the one Anthony has suggested, and it would be nice to see our government at least try.

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