Green cities, green jobs

March 7, 2010

Green jobs are hot. All three political parties want to shift Britain onto a low-carbon growth path. It’s a powerful meme. Two questions, then: what are green jobs? And where will they be? My guess is: mostly quite boring. But they will be everywhere, and they will be a big deal for towns and cities.

So what are ‘green jobs’? ippr’s new report suggests that ‘all jobs should be green’ in future. I’m not sure. Let’s focus on activities with the biggest carbon footprint: energy, waste, transport and construction. Some jobs in other sectors can be greened too, say if manufacturers adopt more sustainable workflows.

Where will green jobs be? To answer that, we need to consider how the UK moves onto a greener growth trajectory. There are two basic approaches, impling different roles for government – and different levels of political engagement.

Let’s call the first the Green Industries approach. This is about increasing the UK’s global share of high-value green activity – like wind turbines and low-carbon vehicles. It also encompasses major infrastructure like high-speed rail. National Government holds the policy levers: public money, tax breaks, business support (and to an extent, picking winners).

The second approach we could call Green Places. This is about making towns, cities and households more sustainable. The focus is on non-traded activities: buildings, energy and waste systems, local public transport – and things like repairing windmills on roofs.

Local government has a critical role here, alongside Whitehall: via recycling, local planning standards (like the Merton Rule), procurement and PPPs (like the ESCOs in Woking and Birmingham). Whitehall matters behind the scenes – for example, through DECC’s new Feed-In Tariff rules.

Green Industries are the sexy, photogenic things politicians get excited about, and are the focus of Labour’s Low Carbon Industrial Strategy, the Conservatives’ ‘Marine Energy Parks’ idea, and the Lib Dems’ green growth plans. Interestingly, the Tories seem keener on Green Places than Labour – see proposals for a ‘green deal’ for households, and support for micro-generation.

My guess is that Green Industries, though exciting, will only take the UK so far. First, only a few places will have them. The range of green technologies is vast. With no global standards, potential for international growth is capped. Most importantly, geographies of innovation, production and sales already differ. Silicon Valley leads the US in ‘cleantech’ R&D – but large-scale manufacturing is already shifting from the US to China and other cheap locations.

Second, the UK is already lagging. In wind turbines – where Britain should be a leader – the top firms are German and Scandinavian. (From this perspective, one of the saddest things about last year’s Vesta dispute is that Vesta is Danish).

Third, policy options are pretty limited. Green industries in the US are supported by Government stimulus money and a massive VC sector. Other European governments have funded producers for years. Britain has plenty of strategy, but limited cash to back these up. Low Carbon Economic Areas have no funding attached, and rely on existing RDA / LA budgets plus local ingenuity. The experience of Science Cities, a similar approach, doesn’t get my hopes up.

The Green Places approach is much more prosaic, but will have bigger impacts on more people. Cities’ carbon footprint is large: the C40 group estimates that worldwide, urban areas represent around 75% of the world’s energy use and CO2 emissions. Fiscally, Green Places largely involves redirecting existing budgets. (Some costs are passed on to firms and households – but councils should be allowed to use tools like TIF to ease financing constraints.)

Finally, British local government is already on the case. The Merton Rule is a classic example of how local policy innovation has shaped national thinking. Woking is a leader in decentralised energy. And Greater Manchester’s LCEA proposals look pretty good, with a five-year retrofit programme, small-scale renewables and smart meters for thousands of households across the city.

The UK needs both green industries and green places. But let’s not get over-excited about the first, while underplaying the second. Green jobs might be more dull than we thought. But they’re important as ever.

2 Responses to “Green cities, green jobs”

  1. Tom Says:

    I completely agree Max, green places is much more important than green industries. We came across this in our work with Birmingham, where they have an incredibly ambitious low carbon agenda (-60% by 2026). This might lead to green industries, but should not be the aim of the policy.


  2. […] Dermot (and Adam Marshall) have rightly criticised eco-towns for distracting from the much bigger task of greening Britain’s cities. As I’ve explored elsewhere, that’s a job which should have both a significant impact on the UK’s carbon footprint, but also much greater economic development potential. […]


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