Thinking beyond wind turbines

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Which section of the UK’s economy is as big as its food and drink industry and twice the size of the chemicals sector, but no one (or hardly anyone) knows for sure who’s in it?

It’s not organised crime but the low-carbon economy, which according to figures released by BIS last week employed more than 460,000 people in 2013, producing a turnover of £122bn and value to the UK economy of around £5bn.

Its annual growth rates are healthy too, an average of 4% a year for employment, 8% for turnover and 9% for GVA.

This is undoubtedly good news but it’s hard to know how good as BIS has stopped providing comparisons with other countries. This is part of a wider switch from its old low carbon and environmental goods and services (LCEGS) statistics, last produced for 2011/12 and showing we ranked sixth globally, to the new, and apparently more reliable, low-carbon economy figures.

Definition decisions

Despite the refined scope and methodology, some judgement calls have still been made on what constitutes a low-carbon product.

Condensing boilers are now out, on the grounds that they do not represent a step-change from existing technologies but energy efficient windows and doors are in.

Revenues from nuclear energy and incineration are in, but nothing related to low-carbon public transport systems, forestry, or low-carbon manufacturing plants which arguably are on-going industries that reduce short-term emissions too.

Commercial and domestic energy efficiency products are in as well, but not the variable speed drives manufacturers have used to improve their energy efficiency or a myriad of similar industry-focused products. I can’t see any mention of greener refrigerants either.

And, rightly, but perhaps slightly confusingly, the biggest sub-group of the low-carbon economy is the waste industry.

Just semantics?

When we’ve asked our member companies whether they are involved in the low-carbon economy many have thought we’re only really asking about wind turbines. Some say no when one of the biggest requests they are receiving from customers is for ever more energy efficient products.

Boundaries have to be drawn somewhere of course, and there will always be poster child technologies, but companies that feel as if there aren’t benefits for them in the low-carbon economy may well be more hostile to policies intended to drive the UK in that direction.

There’s also a risk policymakers are being tempted to focus too much on wind turbines when there are real opportunities to cut emissions and build new industrial strengths in other less obvious sectors. Renewable and nuclear energy generators are currently receiving levels of government support than other sectors trying to decarbonise can only dream of.

So let’s encourage a broader view of what the low-carbon economy is and can be, and an integrated approach to supporting it that encompasses skills and research policies, better waste management and support for neb w circular economy business models that cut carbon as well as resource use besides more visible drivers like carbon prices. It's definitely not just about wind turbines.


Head of Climate, Energy and Environment Policy

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