Growth debate 2: Welsh economy needs a shove

John Osmond asks whether we should be putting ‘green’ aspirations on the back burner while we catch up with the rest of the UK

Is ‘green growth’ an oxymoron? That was a question that went through my mind as I sat through a breakfast briefing the other day on how Wales should put itself on a path towards economic development that is compatible with environmental limits and the impacts of climate change.

My question implied that any growth at all must, by definition, be damaging to the environment. But that surely cannot be the case, can it? This is tricky territory. What are green jobs? For instance, we were told at the seminar that there are more people employed in green jobs in Wales today than work in the financial services or in the motor trades. But cannot some people who work in the financial services also be working in a ‘green’ way? And if you’re developing a car run on hydrogen, cannot that be green, too?


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What in this terminology constitutes being in a ‘green’ job? The answer, broadly speaking is if you work in what the statisticians call the low carbon and environmental sector. Apparently 41,500 people were employed in this sector in Wales in 2010-11. Together they achieved an increase in sales to a total of some £5.3 billion on the year before – a growth of 4.5 per cent. These statistics were supplied by Andrew Thurley, Director of Sustainability and Climate Change with PwC who has been collaborating with the Climate Change Commission for Wales on thinking about a green growth strategy. His presentation can be found here, on the Cynnal Cymru website. At the seminar Peter Davies, Chair of the Climate Change Commission, declared:

“A low carbon economy provides a significant opportunity for Wales to generate sustainable economic growth while tackling the significant challenges of climate change. Wales has made steady progress so far but if we want to be green market leaders there is a lot of work to be done. We need to ensure that strong leadership is in place, along with the policies to increase investment. A Clean Revolution for Wales will set out the interventions needed, enhance consensus amongst business and political leaders, along with planning the steps to a low carbon Welsh economy.”

Peter Davies is right to say there is a lot of work to be done. Andrew Thurley’s main message for the seminar was this:

“Wales has already started its journey – but there is no common ‘green growth’ thread. We are not fully grasping the potential.”

Instead we have economic strategies, initiatives and campaigns in a multitude of directions coming out of our ears. Thurley listed some of them:

  • Green Skills Strategy
  • Climate Change Strategy
  • Jobs and Sustainable Growth programme
  • Energy Wales: A Low Carbon Transition
  • The Climate Group’s Clean Revolution campaign
  • Arbed
  • Green deal
  • Enterprise Zones Wales
  • Key Sector strategy with sector panels made up of private sector business people

Where is the connectivity in all of this? Who is doing the joining up across government? You might say that we’ll find some integration lurking in the recesses of the legislation the Welsh Government is offering to make sustainable development its ‘central organising principle’. However, we have three legislative initiatives being promoted in the coming year – the Sustainable Development, Environment, and Planning Bills. I wouldn’t hold your breath in discovering the magical elixir of an overarching strategy for ‘green growth’ in that mix.

We need some serious thinking around this agenda. Wales is currently languishing at the bottom of the UK prosperity league, below the North East and Northern Ireland. This week we learned that our Gross Value Added (GVA) figures, which measures total value of goods and services produced, showed that in 2011 we were 75.2 per cent of the UK average per head, up from 74 per cent in the previous year. Despite this welcome, if modest, uplift our economy has been going backwards for more than 20 years.

It may be that if we’re to address this seriously we’ll have to put ‘green growth’ on the back burner for a while, and just go for ‘growth’. That would mean finding the political courage to embark on a number of seriously large investment projects, like the Severn Barrage, say, or a new nuclear power station in Anglesey, and certainly a Metro system for south-east Wales. We need to start thinking in terms of pump-priming our economy in a much more ambitious way for probably a couple of decades before reaching a point where we can say that we can afford to find a greener way to a steady state equilibrium – but on the basis of a more equitable level of living standards with the rest of the United Kingdom.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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