Gordon Brown launched his “green new deal” last week to put low carbon technology at the heart of the UK’s economic recovery. But is it enough to save the planet?
To many it may have just been the meeting at which business secretary Peter Mandelson got covered in green custard. In reality last week’s Low Carbon Industrial Summit was an important milestone in the UK’s approach to tackling climate change.
It was also an important milestone for the struggling economy. While there were no promises of new investment there was unquestioning political support for the development of a low carbon economy in the UK. It is an economy worth supporting.
According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the UK’s low carbon market last year employed 880,000 people and contributed some £107bn to the economy. The expectation is that, given the right stimulation, it could grow by another £45bn over the next 10 years.
Speaking at the summit on Friday, prime minister Gordon Brown set out his intention to provide such stimulation and tap into the £3 trillion global low carbon market as a key to reigniting the UK economy.
“I want to create a global ‘green new deal’ that will pave the way for a low carbon recovery and to help us build tomorrow’s green economy today,” said Brown. “In Britain we can expect 400,000 new environmental sector jobs over the next eight years with a total of 1.3M people employed in these sectors by 2017.”
Without a doubt it is a welcome message. The recent Climate Change Act and the target of cutting CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050 present the UK with a monumental challenge. Sadly it is a target which, without a step change in approach, many fear we will miss.
The scale of the environmental and economic challenge means that only a paradigm shift in thinking will bring about success. As Atkins chief executive and Construction Industry Council chairman Keith Clarke told the ICE Council last week, doing what we’ve always done is no longer an option. “Simply trying harder and doing what we have traditionally done doesn’t get us where we want to be,” said Clarke. “Just trying harder doesn’t get you there. A 40% reduction [in emissions] can be achieved but not more – not an 80% reduction.”
The government’s Low Carbon Industrial Strategy aims to bring about this step change in four key areas:
- Energy efficiency
- Developing low carbon energy infrastructure and a “smart” electricity grid
- Developing low carbon vehicles
- Ensuring we have the necessary skills to develop low carbon technology.
The fact is that, in the US President Obama’s economic stimulus package involves spending $15bn (£11bn) a year on low carbon technology. Brown’s attempt to get the economy moving is still based on spending on traditional infrastructure rather than on low carbon industries.
To achieve the desired 80% reduction the UK needs to ramp up its aspiration and adopt an Obama-scale commitment. But judging from the tone of last week’s summit, and perhaps spurred on by Brown’s recent meeting with Obama, the government is now at least getting its head around the scale of this challenge and how meeting it will require a total transformation of the economy.
At the summit Brown was flanked by climate change secretary Ed Miliband, Mandelson, science minister Lord Drayson, government climate change advisor Lord Stern, former BP boss Lord Browne and the CBI director general Richard Lambert. All made it pretty clear that the low carbon infrastructure agenda offered a major opportunity for the UK.
Low carbon is not a sector of our economy, it is, or will be, our whole economy, and a global market
Peter Mandelson, business secretary
“Moving to a low carbon economy is the way to secure the economic recovery and growth we need at home and take a lead internationally to protect the future of the planet,” said Miliband. “Tackling climate change doesn’t just make moral sense, it makes economic sense too.” Clarke agreed and urged engineers to lead the change in thinking and start to move further ahead of the wave so that infrastructure is not out of date the moment it is completed. He urged a move towards so-called “carbon critical design” and to help clients to move away from simple financial investment models.
“If we continue to design in the way we do, we will not achieve what we need to achieve,” he said. “We need to change design teams so that they come up with not just a CAD design but a meaningful way to design out carbon.”
Clarke pointed to recent Atkins-designed buildings such as the Bahrain World Trade Centre and the DIFC Lighthouse in Dubai by way of examples. These buildings were cutting edge and although their owners still love them Clarke said the lack of attention to proper carbon budgeting left the designers of these projects looking “naïve and stupid”. All this must change, said Clarke, pointing out that this Autumn’s Copenhagen world climate change meeting “will be the most important event of my life”.
Given that nobody is prepared – or wants – to go back to “living in tents”, a shift in thinking about how we design and what we design to cater for our lives is vital. And it is a scary prospect because it will, of course, mean getting quite radical about the way we approach future infrastructure design. For engineers, one of the key challenges will be to convince clients that investing for longer term returns will bring reward.
The bad news is that there is not much time get ourselves organised. All the current indicators are that even the most optimistic forecasts suggest that this is today’s – not tomorrow’s – issue. The key thing for everyone in civil engineering to understand is that the future low carbon economy will require different skills and will present different opportunities to grow businesses.
So if you don’t have these skills you will quickly be out of business. “Low carbon is not a sector of our economy, it is, or will be, our whole economy, and a global market,” explains Mandelson. “A low carbon industrial strategy must seize the opportunities that will come with change. That requires a new industrial activism for a new green industrial revolution.”