Andreas Späth

The green economy works

2014-11-24 16:10

Andreas Wilson-Späth

As far as I’m concerned, the prospect of a planet not wrecked by run-away climate chaos is enough of an incentive to have us move from our existing, dirty, fossil fuel driven economy to a greener, low-carbon alternative.

But if you’re not persuaded by such sentimental treehuggery and require cold, hard figures involving rands, cents and job creation statistics, read on.

Last month, a study released by the Imperial College London Business School showed that public policies which encourage innovation in businesses that use clean technologies – think electric cars and wind mills – lead to greater positive impacts on economic growth than the polluting industries they replace, because green tech innovations tend to result in more frequent knowledge ‘spillovers’ in which novel developments benefit not only the originator but many other companies as well.

Now, a comprehensive new review published by the UK Energy Research Centre puts the spotlight on the employment creation credentials of the low-carbon energy sector.

The authors point out that in the EU, green jobs already account for 1.7% of all paid employment. That’s about 3.4 million jobs – more than those provided by either pharmaceutical companies or car manufacturers.

Crucially, they set out to answer the question of whether governments should employ policies to support and subsidise the renewable energy and energy efficiency segments of their economies in order to create jobs. (Before you complain about the market-distorting effects of government subsidies, it’s well worth remembering that the global fossil fuel industry is massively subsidised by governments itself).

The findings are interesting:

- Available evidence suggests that in general, renewable energy projects and energy efficiency measures are more labour-intensive than generating electricity in coal- or gas-fired power plants. This is true both in terms to short-term jobs created during the construction phase and for jobs available for the entire lifetime of a project, although there are marked differences between the various green technologies, wind power being relatively less labour-intensive than energy efficiency and solar power, for instance.

- In the short-term, investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy capacity will create more jobs than making equivalent investments in new fossil fuel power station (longer term impacts are harder to predict).

Now if someone could just relay this information to Eskom and the SA government please! While you’re at it, ask them to add it to the mountain of other reasons why they should stop wasting our money on coal-fired electricity plants to the detriment of renewable alternatives.

The green economy isn’t all about high-tech innovations though. Something as old-fashioned and basic as the humble bicycle has plenty of low-carbon economic benefits to offer. Say what you will about fixie-riding hipsters, at least they’re actively contributing to making cycling cool.

Last year, the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) put some numbers on the economic benefits that cycling and the cycling industry provide for the EU (health benefits, easing traffic congestion, fuel savings, reduced carbon dioxide emissions, and reduced air and noise pollution). They came up with a staggering cumulative estimate of more than €200 billion (well over R3 trillion) per year!

Next week, the ECF will release a new study on jobs in the European cycling-related sector. Here’s a sneak preview of some of the findings:

- Cycling has a greater job creation potential and contributes more to local economies than other modes of transportation.

- There are already around 655 000 people working in the EU’s greater cycling industry (everything from manufacturing, selling and servicing bikes to bike infrastructure investments and bicycle tourism). That’s more than are employed by the European steel industry or have jobs in mining and quarrying.

- If cycling were to double its share as a mode of transportation in the EU, over 400 000 additional jobs could be created by 2020.

It seems increasingly obvious then, that greening the way we do business and run our industries doesn’t only make environmental sense, it’s good for the economy, too.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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