A humanitarian priority

The race to be green is on, but Britain is trailing other nations. A cohesive environmental strategy is needed to create jobs and battle climate change, says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves

Last July, the G8 signed up to cutting carbon emissions by 80%. The USA and China are on board as they realise warming is a threat to water and energy supplies.

But charting a course through the debate is virtually impossible because of the noise.

For example, ministers have rushed to support wind energy because it offers a quick-fix, ignoring the desecration of upland and coastal Britain that will further the chasm between urban and rural communities.

My view is that the quest for reduced carbon emissions must lie in conserving every drop of energy on land and harnessing every drop in the sunny sky and surging sea. But few care about conservation measures that do not sit on an annual report like wind turbines.

There are no silver bullets and the energy crisis, and how to respond to it, has stirred a cacophony instead of a symphony. However, every crisis is a stimulus and an opportunity to start afresh. Sigmund Freud’s famous hypothesis hasn’t gone unnoticed as some of the world’s political leaders talk openly of a new green deal that will herald a different world order for urgent action on climate change.

And it’s great because all the talk at Copenhagen in December is likely to be pretty gloomy. Almost everywhere, scientists, opinion formers and policy makers are now saying what we feared to think: it’s all over. But, true or not, we must not give up. Technofix solutions are not the only answer to climate change. First, there needs to be a fundamental shift from the consumer madness that has stripped the earth of finite resources, to a new economic model that’s about nature, nurture and replenishment.

Technological advances must be firmly rooted in cultural change and development within environmental limits. If we can alter our thinking along these lines, there’s good business to be done and a better quality of life to be had. The stakes are high; the opportunities, breathtaking.

The water, energy and environment sectors will have a vital role to play in the green revolution. Meantime, UK unemployment is set to top three million by the end of the year and the Treasury expects the economy to shrink by at least 1.2%. Children’s Secretary, and former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Ed Balls, thinks that the world’s economic climate is the worst it has been for a hundred years.

However, there is an alternative view that is gaining momentum. Climate change has to be tackled and it will be considerably cheaper to do so sooner rather than later. It means restructuring the economy – and there is no better time to do it. The era of procrastination is over.

As developed countries struggle with recession, the concept of green-collar jobs has entered the government lexicon of solutions. Investment and planning will be crucial to making it a reality. Consequently, the gauntlet will be thrown down to spatial planners to move communities into the low-carbon economy. It is unacceptable that energy-inefficient and waterwasting developments are allowed simply because there is no law to stop them.

Climate change adaptation should be a prerequisite of planning consent. But this raises the spectre of the skills gap that pervades the environment professions. Unless there is investment in training and skills, it is hard to see how the UK will emerge as a leader in green technologies. At the same time, the idea of a skills gap when the pain of redundancy across the environment sector is not only fresh but ongoing, looks like madness.

Environment Agency Chairman Chris Smith has called for a national policy on the

environment. Fat chance of that while ministers face both ways on green issues.

Yet the recession offers a belated opportunity to structurally transform the economy to a greener hue. A goal to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050 may be bold, but this is a government with more than ten years’ experience of setting targets and failing to reach most of them.

Some well-spun initiatives to boost renewables and home insulation aside, “limp” is the politest description of the UK’s progress on the environment. Our competitors are about to seize the initiative. The USA, China, South Korea, Japan and Germany have all unveiled multimillion pound programmes for investing in green technologies, creating millions of green-collar jobs.

With a £3trillion global marketplace that is growing at 5% per annum, the dash for green technology is about to replace the arms race of previous decades. These nations understand that whoever gets there first will benefit the most, particularly by selling their technology to laggards.

That is why recycling equipment is sold in such vast quantities to the UK, which is left paying minimum wages to the staff sorting the rubbish.

They are banking on billions in future revenue. We are banking on, well, bankers.

What is needed is a cohesive environmental strategy that looks to unite green jobs with technologies in the battle against climate change, backed up by a version of spatial planning the like of which we have yet to see in this country.

The UK used to lead the world in industrial and economic development. Ever get the feeling the country is about to miss the boat again?

Because, if you put policies in place five to ten years after other countries, you end up buying their technologies. So, what’s to be done? Plenty, as the Environmental Industries Commission has made clear in representations to ministers. For example, the Chancellor should create a £10B green investments fund with £6B for infrastructure, £1.5B for domestic energy efficiency and £1B for retrofitting public buildings.

Also, increased funding for green jobs training and more money for research and development in environmental technologies. In addition there should be mandatory refurbishment standards for sustainable homes and buildings. All this supported by a formal growth strategy and industry forum to co-ordinate policies. Part of the problem is the government’s narrow perception of the issue. It equates policies on the environment with carbon-cutting initiatives. Yet other countries work to a wider definition and consider everything from forestry to air and water to noise pollution.

The UK is in a race to be green that not only requires an investment of cash but a change of mindset at the heart of government.

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