The major debates have focused on the economy, austerity, public services and immigration. When green issues have been mentioned, energy has been the clearest dividing line. Labour’s promise to freeze energy bills to 2017, if elected, drew the ire of the “big six” suppliers, with warnings that it would reduce their ability to generate green power, destroy investment and jobs and possibly lead to power cuts.
At the other end of the scale, David Cameron’s vow to end subsidies for onshore windfarms was attacked by renewable energy companies, many of which are small independents reliant on a clear pipeline of projects.
Richard Mardon, chief executive of Airvolution, a windfarm developer, was uncompromising. “If the Conservatives win the general election, job losses will be inevitable,” he said.
Energy billpayers should also take note, warned Ian Marchant, chairman of Infinis Energy, representing the British Wind partnership. He said: “Failing to harness the full potential of onshore wind will be bad news for British billpayers, costing hundreds of millions of pounds every year in more expensive alternative technologies.”
The Conservatives were unrepentant, insisting that the existing stock of onshore windfarms would be sufficient and that offshore turbines should be preferred. The party also pointed to its deal with EDF on a new nuclear reactor as evidence that low-carbon power would prosper.
Labour’s other main manifesto pledge on the green economy was to create 1m new green jobs by 2025, but no detail was given on what sort of jobs these might be or how such a target would be achieved.
The current estimates of green job numbers include major utilities such as water and waste management and big sectors with large numbers of employees, many of them in lowly paid but vital positions. It is hard to see how that amount of jobs can be scaled up significantly. Therefore, most of the growth will have to come from other areas including renewables, insulation, building, design, carbon capture and storage and low-emissions vehicles. A Labour party spokesperson said the pledge was “an ambitious target”.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto, meanwhile, contained a pledge for decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030. It also pledged no net increase in runways, alongside programmes on natural capital and resources. But the response from green groups was lukewarm. Friends of the Earth said: “The Lib Dems failed to sufficiently stand up to the Conservatives in office. Their manifesto has some bold environmental commitments, but they are still too wedded to fossil fuels.”
Is the green economy being sidelined?
While each of the main parties devoted a handful of manifesto policies to green issues, they have played a very minor role. In a year in which governments around the world are gearing up to make-or-break talks in Paris, which will determine the global response to climate change for decades to come, that may seem strange.
At a time when the green economy has been showing more resilient growth than many other sectors, now contributing £128bn a year, or 8% of GDP in 2012, then its poor showing in manifestos must be notable.
When one considers that, by government estimates, there are already nearly a million people in the UK working in green jobs - which means more people than are involved in sectors that gain plenty of political attention, such as the automotive industry or farming, and about as many as are employed in financial services - then something seems seriously awry. Why is green business receiving so little attention in a general election at a time when job creation is crucial?
Douglas Parr, policy director at Greenpeace, was clear about the reason: politicians are stuck in the past and failing to see the future potential of green businesses. Serious risks to future prosperity are the result. “The UK green economy has been a growth story in spite of, rather than because of, political support. The election campaign so far, with a few notable exceptions, has mimicked that by ignoring it or being actively hostile,” he said.
The Green Alliance takes a different view, positing that it is the very success of the green economy and campaigns on climate change and other environmental issues that led to politicians devoting less public debate to these issues. With broad political agreement on the main thrust of green activity, the tendency has been to concentrate on other areas of major difference, it said.
“An election this tight is leaving no room for anything beyond the core issues over which the parties disagree,” explained Alastair Harper, head of politics at the group. “Given that the parties are broadly aligned on the need to decarbonise, this explains why it’s been relatively quiet. But with over £172bn in low-carbon infrastructure investment currently planned by 2020, it will be a high priority for the next government to secure it.”
For many in the green economy, however, there is concern that the relative silence means politicians have quietly abandoned support for the environment.
Charlotte Morton, chief executive of the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association, said that while politicians might have lost sight of these questions, mainstream businesses had not. “Green issues aren’t getting as much attention as they might, partly because political consensus around the importance of low-carbon has frayed since 2010, and it’s not seen as having the political importance it had,” she argued.
This was in sharp contrast, Morton said, with the economy at large where “green is now business as usual. In particular, business is acutely aware of the pressure on resources, and the need for energy security, which can only come from low-carbon sources.”
She warned that if more political attention was not paid to the sector, the UK would end up the poorer. “The UK is in danger of throwing away a leading position - over the next parliament, we could develop expertise and technology to export to the world.”
For Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, the industry itself should become more outspoken. “I’d encourage more green business leaders to speak up, though I understand their reluctance to get involved. We have something to shout about and something worth fighting for,” he said.
Case study: Lloyd Godwin, project engineer at Airvolution
Lloyd splits his work life between the office and the construction site. During the construction phase of a wind energy project, he must work closely with local authorities, electricity companies, civil engineers and electrical contractors. His remit involves managing these various parties as well as ensuring the scheme is delivered safely, on time and on budget. “It’s my job to ensure solutions are sought and the project runs smoothly,” he says.
He had not aimed to work in renewable energy when he set out, gaining a master’s degree in civil engineering at university. His interest in the sector grew through his studies, however, and he now enjoys working on wind construction as it requires applying technical skills developed through years of experience, with the satisfaction of developing and constructing projects. It also allows him to “visit different places and meet new people”. Some of them are involved because they are “wholly passionate about green energy and proactive in their support”, while for others “it can be just another job they are pleased to undertake”, whether it is putting up fences, digging trenches or building a substation.
He comes across opposition, too. “There are some that do not like wind turbines, but working in development, you always come across people with varied views, and - importantly to me - I feel confident in the fact that I’m helping to provide the UK with more clean, home-grown electricity.”
For Godwin, speaking up for green jobs is important. “It makes sense to me that green jobs will continue to prosper as we work towards becoming a more sustainable world - although, I will be concerned for green industries and job prospects in the UK in the event of a Conservative-majority government.”
Case study: Heather Jones, community liaison officer for REG Windpower
Jones is the first point of contact for communities where the company’s windfarms are being developed. “I ensure people are kept up-to-date with information about construction timetables, I work with parish councils to ensure any disruption is minimised, and highlight the funds we set up for local community projects and good causes,” she explained.
The job also involves looking at the potential for local ownership of turbines, running visits to wind farms for schools and university students, and being heavily involved in all the consultation processes. “A lot of my work is showing people the realities of wind energy. It’s frustrating when some people will only believe the myths they’ve heard so often, instead of seeing the merits of onshore wind,” she says.
Getting involved in the sector was a conscious choice, making up part of Jones’s studies at undergraduate and master’s degree level. She started working in the wind sector immediately on finishing university.
“I really enjoy my job,” she says. “I enjoy meeting people, I enjoy the travel. I believe we should be increasing our use of renewable energy in this country, and I’m proud to be playing a part in a move towards greater acceptance of renewable energy.”
Most people find her having a green job “unremarkable - it’s just a normal job”, she says. Though, she adds, “if anyone ever finds it more surprising or unusual, they tend to be older”.
For Jones, however, despite her enthusiasm for her job and the sector she has chosen, there are troubling signs on the horizon. “I’m worried about my job and the future of green jobs in the UK. I find it really concerning that a future government could put at risk an entire industry and thousands of jobs when polls consistently show that 70% of people in the UK are supportive of onshore wind. I’m 26 years old and already having to think about a career change.”
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