The 'Green Energy Revolution': Spinning Failure as Success

by | Jul 22, 2009

The UK government recently gave its ‘low carbon transition plan’ an airing. At the launch of the plan, the unelected Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills who has been forced, twice, to resign from previous roles within the government for his involvement in scandals, Lord Peter Mandelson said:

I am really proud of a government that has been in office for what… twelve… just over twelve or so years, that can still generate the interest, the energy, the ingenuity, and if you don’t mind me saying so, the wisdom to produce a low-carbon transition plan, a low carbon industrial strategy, that can set very very ambitious targets. But not satisfied with the targets, put in place too, the realisable plans and actions and decisions that we have to take as a country in order to realise those very ambitious targets. And I must say, it’s certainly an enormous credit to Ed [Miliband] in particular who has shown great leadership in bringing us to this point.

But Ed could not have done this without the pressure, the ideas, and the fire power of all the stake-holders, each and every individual represented in this museum tonight. So thank you very much indeed for helping bring the government, collectively, to this point. But your work is not yet done. You have to take us and help us and stand with us and take our views and our proposals and our policies out and around the country in order to generate real popular understanding for and support for what we are going to do in implementing this low-carbon transition plan. Because we are not going, in this country, to enjoy a high-carbon future. Certainly not one we can depend on, and certainly not one we can afford with finite supplies of fossil fuels, with their volatile prices being driven up by ever growing demand from fast-expanding emerging economies around the world. We need a much more dependable, safer, greener, affordable future than that…

In this very same month, the Vestas factory in the Isle of Wight, which makes blades for wind turbines, will cease production, with the loss of 600 jobs.

A press release from the government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced two days previously: ‘UK at forefront of a low carbon economic revolution‘. By 2020, it said, ‘more than 1.2 million people will be in green jobs’. It quotes Mandelson again:

The UK is already the sixth largest economy for low carbon goods and services, globally worth £3 trillion and growing, and today the government is outlining how its support for the economy will ensure our businesses and our workforce continue to lead the way. We must combine the dynamism of the private sector with a strategic role for government to deliver the benefits of innovation, growth and job creation in the UK.

The UK government, it seems, pats itself and its cronies on the back for setting ‘ambitious’ targets, and promising hundreds of thousands of new jobs, while the reality is that over a quarter of a million people lost their jobs in the spring months. The 600 workers at the Vestas factory will be joining more than 2.8 million (and rising) unemployed people at the dole queue. Who does Mandelson think he’s kidding?

As Ben wrote in the Register back in April:

But is this, as Mandelson claims, an industrial revolution? A genuine industrial revolution should make it possible to produce things more efficiently, creating greater dynamism within the economy. But this green “industrial revolution” yields no net benefit. What are called opportunities are generated at a net cost, absorbing money and labour that might be better spent on producing real industrial development, or public services such as schools and hospitals. Stagnation is spun as progress. For example, it is China’s industrial dynamism, not the UK’s, which has created markets for reclaimable materials. It is only by intervention and legislation that the UK is even able to collect plastic bottles, never mind reprocess them.

As Robin Pagnamenta, Energy Editor at The Times puts it, ‘Government claims that Britain already supports nearly one million “green-collar” jobs have been exposed as a sham’:

Britain’s Low Carbon Industrial Strategy, outlined yesterday by Lord Mandelson, claimed that the economy already supported 880,000 “low-carbon jobs” — a figure that he said was poised to grow by up to 400,000 by 2015 to more than 1.28 million. But a detailed breakdown of the figures obtained by The Times shows that they include an extraordinarily loose definition of the term.

[…] Figures supplied by Innovas showed that the total included 207 jobs in the supply and manufacture of animal bedding, 90 providing equestrian surfaces and 164 in the recycling of footwear, “slippers and other carpet wear”.

Mr Sharp acknowledged that there were some “weird and wonderful” categories. “We try to capture as much of the supply chain as possible,” he said.

Or, as Ben put it in the Register, back in April:

Citing Innovas’s report, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband said that the global green sector is already a three-trillion-dollar industry set to grow by fifty per cent. Agriculture accounts for 4 per cent of the World’s GDP of around $70tn. Is it plausible that the world’s ‘green’ economy is larger than the agricultural economy? These big numbers raise questions about the meaning of ‘green’?

“We try to create as wide a definition as possible”, says John Sharp, MD of Innovas Solutions, “because that way we can capture the supply chain. We don’t count things like toilet roll and stationery.”

But it includes the manufacture, installation, supply, and distribution of battery testing equipment, and nearly the entire chain from development to decommissioning and decontamination of nuclear power stations.

(Did Innovas’s report count journalists as working within the recycling industry, we wonder.)

Back to Mandelson’s speech and his claim that ‘we are not going, in this country, to enjoy a high-carbon future’. Mandelson claims that this is because of necessity and of material reality: fossil fuels are just too expensive and in too short supply to power the UK’s growth. The truth of the matter is that what is far more scarce than the (in fact, plentifully abundant) planet’s supply of fossil fuels is the political establishment’s supply of imagination. We’re not being offered a ‘high carbon future’ because none of the political parties have any idea about how to deliver optimistic plans. None of them have any idea about how to reinvigorate British industry. None of them even know how to make an argument for conventional energy generation. None of them can make arguments for courses of action that will create jobs as a worthwhile end without dressing it up in green, as a response to a ‘planetary emergency’ – they can’t even think of things that the huge number of people who are unemployed could be doing instead of claiming benefits. Their fecklessness and lack of credibility will manifest as the continued decline of British industry, the continued rise of unemployment, and the deepening of the mutual cynicism between the public and themselves.

The problem here is the future, and how it is defined. It is the Labour Party’s intellectual exhaustion that drives its progress from crisis to crisis. Its inability to determine a direction for itself means it looks for external crises, partly as a means to shift focus from its own incoherence, but also as an attempt to orient itself towards something… Anything. In short, because it doesn’t know where it’s going (i.e. the future), it has no idea how to get there (i.e. development and growth). Because it can’t make a positive argument for the future – it can’t raise the capital for projects; it can’t encourage development; it can’t negotiate the conflicts development will cause. It turns itself on development and growth itself and redefines ‘ambition’ as (at best) remaining in the present: ‘sustainability’, ‘precaution’, ‘security’. The present is, after all, always safer than the future. But don’t count on the opposition parties, because, as we have argued here on Climate Resistance, they suffer from exactly the same thing – none of them have any positive ideas about the future at all.

Enter climate change and the environmental ‘movement’. A general sense of anxiety about the future is given a scientific narrative – a projection, if you like, from our disoriented politics, out into the atmosphere. Mandelson asks the Green Great and the Good assembled at the launch of the Low Carbon Transition Plan to go forth and multiply the green message: ‘you have to take us and help us and stand with us and take our views and our proposals and our policies out and around the country in order to generate real popular understanding for and support for what we are going to do’. As we pointed out in our last post, the Government are only too aware that their environmental policies don’t really enjoy the public’s sympathy, and that the ideas underpinning them have not been tested democratically, and they know this is a problem. So Mandelson creates the policies, he then asks activists and journalists to generate credibility for them. This is politics backwards. Instead of creating ideas which achieve resonance among the public, thereby taking politicians and their ideas to power, Mandelson attempts to spin credibility from thin air, hoping that by making his policies appeal to the assembled movers and shakers he will reconnect his Government with the masses to resupply it with credibility and legitimacy. Obediently, messianic hacks and self-serving NGOs release missives that talk of the measures that aim to save the planet from certain destruction, but, in order to secure their undemocratic and unaccountable influence over the public agenda (much as with Mandelson), they say that the government’s policies do not go far enough.

The legacy of doing politics in this way will be a hugely inefficient Britain. If the ‘low carbon energy revolution’ will be at all successful in its aims, it will have created jobs by reducing their productivity: more people for less output. The jobs will be ‘made’ by generating scarcity, not by creating dynamism. Failure is being spun (by the Lord Spinmaster himself) as success, because Britain’s downward industrial trajectory is already a given.

This form of spin is not unique to the UK. For instance, in the US, the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming published this on its website:

The nation that leads the race for clean energy technology will have a global economic advantage for the next century. With millions of manufacturing and high-tech jobs on the line, the United States cannot afford to fall behind.

Though we invented solar technology, the United States now lags behind Germany in solar power and manufacturing. The Germans control 47% of the global photovoltaic market, and Europe deployed 13 times more solar photovoltaic power than the United States last year.

The race for green energy? The intention here is to imply that at the end of the ‘race’ is some huge payoff. But there is no ‘race’ for ‘clean’ energy because ‘clean’ energy grants no advantage in itself – it’s only an advantage if there is a regulatory framework in place which creates a market for it. You can’t do more with ‘clean’ energy. In all likelihood, you can only do less. It’s not even comparable to some symbolic race, for instance to put people on the moon, because it doesn’t represent any ‘giant leap’ for mankind that can be identified as the fruitful expression of a nation’s commitment to its positive ideas. Instead, what’s driving the race is the fantasy, exploited by vapid politicians, that we stand on the edge of doom. If it’s a giant anything, the ‘renewable energy revolution’, by increasing our dependence on natural processes such as wind is a giant step backwards to feudal modes of production.

The article continues:

Denmark leads the world in wind power, even though our shores stretch thousands of miles longer.

Denmark made a commitment to wind power long before it became fashionable and invested heavily. This investment created a boom for wind turbine giants, Vestas – the company closing its Isle of Wight factory. Yet despite Denmark’s investment, its effect on the country’s CO2 emissions its unremarkable, and is only able to use 20% of it. The remainder is sold to Norway and Sweden, where it is used to ease the pressure on hydro-power – wind power only makes electricity when the wind blows, but water can be stored behind dams.

The article continues:

50 percent of all new jobs created in Ireland last year were clean energy jobs.

The Irish economy is currently deflating at an unprecedented rate – faster than any other. As this bleak article says, it shrank a whopping 8.5% in just the first quarter of this year. Unemployment in Ireland rose to 11.9% last month, and is expected (by the Prime Minister) to hit an eye-watering 15.5% by the end of this year, and continue its rise into the next. That 50% of all new jobs created in Ireland last year were in ‘clean energy’ means almost nothing – it could have been as few as 100 – and it certainly doesn’t represent the emergence of a golden new age of industrial dynamism and creativity. On the contrary, it is the failure of Western economies that is driving a version of the ‘Green New Deal’ in each of them. Each promising jobs, and each promising huge investments.

China is spending $12.6 million PER HOUR on clean energy development.

China is preparing to invest $440 to $660 billion this year in clean energy development.

China brought the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid car to market, ahead of the Chevy Volt, and has plans to develop a network of electric vehicle charging stations. Korea and Japan are leapfrogging America in battery and electric vehicle technology that will power the vehicles of the future.

There is no surprise that China is investing in green technologies. Its dynamism and ability to actually deliver development – in contrast to the flailing Western economies – means that it will be able to take advantage of the market for green products that is being opened up by regulations, laws, taxes and subsidies here. Meanwhile, British, European and American firms are likely to be crippled by environmental legislation. Rather than attempting to create optimistic ideas about how to transform our economies and industries into something resembling China’s, we hear instead that we have to aspire to less energy consumption, with higher energy prices, and less efficient and less productive jobs… Meanwhile, the 600 jobs at the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight have moved to the East. This is the ‘race’ that the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming thinks the USA – formerly the powerhouse of Western capitalism – thinks it can win. It has already lost. ‘Green New Deals’, can only make it lose further; they do not address the political problems – the intellectual poverty of Western political elites – that make our economies duller and duller.

The Waxman-Markey legislation will launch a renewable revolution, one that draws on our manufacturing might and technological advantage and positions us to lead the world in wind, solar, efficiency, and carbon capture and sequestration technology.

It’s time to put America back in the driver’s seat in the global race for clean energy jobs and technology.

This is not a race to create a dynamic economy. It is not a race to create a new liberating politics. It is not an attempt to improve people’s lives. There is only a race, across the Green West, to stifle development, to prevent progressive change, and to remove entirely any form of aspiration from politics. That is the ‘revolution’ it wants to create. It is being advanced by people who are simply unable to make a case for any positive form of development, because they lack any sense of what that development might consist of, and lack any form of connection with the public. They are held over a barrel by unaccountable, unelected, self-serving and self-appointed Non-Governmental Organisations that increasingly oppose the very principle of economic growth and of technological development, and are increasingly hostile to the idea that people are able to and should be allowed to make decisions for themselves. This ‘revolution’ is being blindly constructed by people who, even if they did have a good argument for development on its own terms would not be able to frame it on such terms, because they have entirely lost faith in the idea that life can be improved. Instead, capital for political ideas is generated on the premise that material reality dictates that life simply cannot be improved. Politics is accordingly limited to a choice between different self-serving dysphorias and dystopian visions.

The cost of this move is a massive debt of credibility of the present to the future. The result will be hostility to politics and to science, and generally to trust in public institutions. Just as with the intense borrowing and spending that going on – rather than reflecting on what’s caused our current circumstances – this debt will grow and grow until the political reality really gets called in. Meanwhile, mere deferment of political crisis is being spun as progress. No wonder politicians are so terrified of the future. There may well be environmental problems, but as we often say: the crisis is in politics, not in the skies.


  1. George Carty

    How can we possibly rebuild our industries though, when China and India have dirt-cheap labour and we don’t?

  2. geoffchambers

    Congratulations. Not so long ago, an article of this quality would have been considered worthy of inclusion on the comment pages of any major newspaper, of left or right. I’ve just posted a link on the comments thread to Ed Milliband’s article at Guardian Environment. My comment is awaiting moderation, but since nearly all my recent comments have been removed, it probably won’t get through. I do recommend your readers to spread the word outside the confines of this blog.

  3. Vinny Burgoo

    A comma after the fist ‘Mandelson’, please.

  4. Vinny Burgoo

    First, not fist.

  5. Alex Cull

    A very good, and very sobering, account of where this is all heading. A very strange feeling came over me when reading the transcript of Lord Mandelson’s speech. I know that it has become a cliche to say of someone that they’re living on another planet, but his words read as if they really did come from someone in another place, a galaxy far far away in a parallel dimension, perhaps. From a world that really was threatened by runaway global warming, and where a courageous, successful and ambitious Labour Party really was creating hundreds of thousands of Green jobs that would simultaneously kickstart the economy and help to save the planet from harmful trace gases.

    “But Ed could not have done this without the pressure, the ideas, and the fire power of all the stake-holders, each and every individual represented in this museum tonight.” Um, by “this museum”, does he mean the UK? Sorry, couldn’t resist that. In a bit of an Eeyore mood tonight, after reading the above.

  6. Joel

    I am continually impressed by the thoughtfulness of the commentaries on your web log. I hope that such clear thinking and rational discourse will have more effect than the pompous and misanthropic posturing of the “green” left.

  7. DennisA

    Brilliant analysis and commentary as usual.

    Another example of the madness here, although unlikely to happen as with most of these big capital ideas. Keeps the consultants in work though. 1.8 billion to save 20 minutes on a journey?

    “There are reports that the rail line between south Wales and London is to be electrified, with an announcement possible as early as Thursday.

    Prime Minister Gordon Brown confirmed he would announce a “major investment” in electrification on two lines.

    That follows newspaper claims that the UK government is “finalising plans” to electrify the Great Western line.

    The report said this would be part of a drive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from transport and would involve electrifying the route from London Paddington to south Wales, including Oxford, Reading and Bristol.”

    Hey boss, where da power comin’ from?

  8. George Carty

    Electrification of major railways is always a good thing, but why does the government have to use climate change to justify it? (Especially given that – as you pointed out – most of our electricity still comes from fossil fuel combustion.)

    Reducing our consumption of oil (which electification would definitely do even if primary energy consumption is simply shifted to the other two fossil fuels) is surely a good thing due to all of the nasty geopolitical consequences of the West’s oil addiction.

  9. George Carty

    By the way, why hasn’t anyone replied to my first comment?

    The original post claims that environmentalism has gained ascendancy amongst the Establishment because it can be used to portray economic failure in positive terms.

    However, what can really be done to revive industry in the West, when anything we could possibly be make could be made cheaper in China or India? Isn’t this despondency the root cause of the rise of reactionary politics in the West — both environmentalism on the Left, and Christian fundamentalism (US) and neofascism (Europe) on the Right?

  10. Luke Warmer

    George to comment on your 1st & last comment.

    Why do you want to revive industry?

    The same question could have been applied 100 years ago about reviving agricultural jobs. As Marshall pointed out most of the so-called structural change in employment was due to re-classification. The same with the green jobs.

    If someone does repairs for a supermarket chain and is employed in-house, they’re classified as working in retail. If they jump ship and spin-off as a separate company doing the same work they are then classified as construction. Ditto for in-house accountants, though they jump to professional services, or HR or whatever etc etc.

    So my questions are a) why revive? b) to what level would you want to revive it? c) who should revive it?

  11. George Carty

    Why revive industry?

    Mainly to reduce the trade deficit, but also such that less people need be employed in “make-work” government jobs – I suspect such people are at the heart of NuLab’s control-freak tendencies…

  12. Alex Cull

    Perhaps the government will start raising impossibly strict tariffs on manufactured goods coming in from overseas, in an attempt to force companies to make such items as turbine rotors, tidal electricity generators and other green paraphernalia in the UK, despite the higher labour costs? They’d call this a carbon-cutting measure, I suppose, as they could say it would eliminate the CO2 released as a result of shipping these items from elsewhere, although I think it would be a trade war by another name. Would we end up with Chinese gunboats sailing up the Thames, in a sort of reversal of 19th century British foreign policy?

  13. TomC

    Fantastic article as usual, and equally good comments thread.

    George Carty:

    While Luke’s comment has some merit, both of you could gain by reading some credible Economics literature, and by that I mean more Austrian than Keynsian, if you get my drift.

    The thing about comparative advantage is that, while it does depend to some extent on actual cost of labour, and there is no doubt that China is favourably placed, 2 important issues need illustrating:

    Firstly, a country can never have an absolute advantage in everything, like the lawyer who’s the best in town but is also a better secretary than the best in town. He will employ a secretary who is less good than himself because his absolute advantage in law will make him more money in spite of the fact that he could do his secretarial work better than his employee.

    How do we find what we’re good at? By the free market and the fact that investors will take their money to whatever stocks bring in the most profit.

    Secondly the argument about labour costs, while being an absolute one in terms of relative profitability between competitors, is really one of Productivity. This means that there is always some innovation waiting in the wings, that through technology or good management, might allow increased productivity through the same, or reduced workforce. The West has been pretty good at that historically, but now finds itself stifled and handcuffed by the forces of evil:

    These issues require a sense of optimism and a belief in human ingenuity and passion for human progress; a love for humanity even; all the things for which the Greens (or Reds in another coat) have the greatest hatred and contempt.

  14. Robert Wood

    So well written.

    What bewilders me, and I am one who is slow to bewilder, is that supposedly literate, erudite and, presumably, numerate people can not do the numbers; the basic math; see reality.

    A case in point:

    On Wolfe Island in the Thousand Islands, a point where Lake Ontario empties into the Mighty St. Lawrence River, a wind farm of 86 twiddle-sticks has been built at a cost of $C470 million. Annual maintenance costs will be in excess of $C1 million. They have come into operation over the past month.

    The wind farm will be profitable, as it is being paid 27 cents per kWh. The retail price on my electricity bill is 5.7 cents per kWh.

    Why does no one see the problem here? It is not progress to pay more for something which is already in plentiful supply. It is stupidity.

    Sorry, I ranted a bit there.

  15. Robert Wood

    George Carty, there is no reason why it is a good thing to reduce consumption of energy, unless energy becomes more expensive.

    Consuming energy makes life more productive.

    There is only one absolutely finitie and irreplacable resource: TIME; particularly MY TIME, or your time. Maybe in 10,000 years, if progress were allowed to continue, this part of the equation will become less important. But right now, if I can shave a few minutes off a journey by burning more energy, I do.

  16. Robert Wood

    Alex Cull

    “…would be a trade war by another name. Would we end up with Chinese gunboats sailing up the Thames…”

    Wot, you mean like the Dutch in the 17th. Century :-)

  17. George Carty

    Tom C,

    Yes, I am familiar with Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. What the free-trade ideologues don’t say though is that comparative advantage is only relevant if capital is internationally immobile. If capital is free to move, absolute advantage takes over, and cheap labour provides absolute advantage in all sectors.

    Anyway, isn’t China’s huge competitive advantage at least partially due to policies of the Chinese government, which make the renminbi artificially weak?

    Robert Wood,

    I never said it was a good idea to reduce consumption of energy. I said it was a good idea to reduce consumption of imported oil and gas because of the geopolitical consequences of this dependence.

    Because of its addiction to oil, the West is forced to prop up odious regimes such as the House of Saud, which in turn causes terrorist retaliation against Western countries.

    Europe’s addiction to Russian gas (exacerbated by anti-nuclear traitors such as former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder) dangerously increases the power of the regime in the Kremlin.

  18. SJones

    TomC said “These issues require a sense of optimism and a belief in human ingenuity and passion for human progress; a love for humanity even; all the things for which the Greens (or Reds in another coat) have the greatest hatred and contempt.”
    Sorry, but I don´t see how disregarding the environment and environmental problems is commensurate with a sense of optimism, passion for human progress or love of humanity. And why concern for the environment implies hatred and contempt for these things.

    Clean air, clean water, uncontaminated land and seas are all environmental concerns. Our health depends upon the health of our environment. Poisoning the air we breathe, degrading the land and the seas can not be defined as “human progress”.

    To move away from filthy destructive 19th century practices towards cleaner energy production and efficiency will require great human ingenuity and creativity.To ensure quality of life for humanity without degrading our world is the major challenge of our time. You cannot simply dismiss environmental concerns from the equation.

    The editors said there may well be environmental problems. Yes there are, and they need addressing. To pretend otherwise is blind foolishness.

  19. Alex Cull

    Robert Wood: “Wot, you mean like the Dutch in the 17th. Century :-)”

    I’ve just done a bit of reading up on the Dutch Wars (or the English Wars, as they say in the Netherlands) – and yes, ultimately these were all about economic power and who got to dominate the trade routes. They certainly liked the direct approach in those days!

    Of all the various forms of “green” technology being developed, my money would be on solar power as one of the front-runners, eventually (once it becomes more cost-effective). To a complete layman such as myself, the combination of solar and nanotechnology appears highly promising, e.g. the sort of thing that Nanosolar and some other outfits are working on ( Hopefully the current recession won’t slow them down too much.

  20. No Water No Electric Yes We Can!

    I now wish we could build an eco town – in all honesty, I don’t really know what an eco-town is – either it is plain old nasty development with “eco” in front & a few trees planted to justify it all Or they are some form of well, actual eco- towns

    At any rate I would like to see a real town cut off from non local supply chains and powered by the wind & sun – by the by, any suggestions for renewable energy that would capitalise on our real climatic conditions rather then the warmist fantasy – rain power or crap British summer power?

    Either way it would be nice to check out that it is all well and good and you wouldn’t create a massively divisive situation with social disorder, theft, crime & black markets all directed at basic commodities for example


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