Picture the scene. It’s the beginning of the second world war. Germany’s industrial war machine is in full production and Hitler is advancing across Europe. Back in England, the government decides that the cost and planning complications of building tanks and aircraft are just too great and lets the factories – who would be willing to build if there was a demand for them – close. In compensation, it offers the firms a grant from an already existing budget to carry out research and development.
As bizarre as it sounds, a rough equivalent of this otherwise unimaginable scenario is playing itself out at the Vesta wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight – the subject of a high-profile sit-in protest by some of its workforce. The company says that the government has failed to make the domestic market happen, and so plans to shut up shop. The government, for its part, braces to endure a crushing symbolic failure just as it publishes its strategy for a transition to a low-carbon economy, and it is reported that it has offered the firm a little compensatory R&D money (£6m).
Which brings us to the strategy itself. It arrived just weeks before the clock ticks down to 88 months left until global greenhouse gas emissions tip us into a new, more dangerous phase of risk of runaway warming.
Depending on which parts of the strategy you look at (actually having one is, of course, a good start), it seems to be characterised either by some good intent, but too few resources (renewable energy), severe blind spots (peak oil and the role of communities) or a lack of vision about real alternatives for our oil-addicted economy (transport, food and farming). Through the document you can almost feel the begrudging effort of a system coming to terms with external realities that can no longer be entirely ignored or simply “news managed”.
Symbolic events in politics can sweep away even the very best intentions. But is the Vesta case merely a symbolic blip, or something more interesting? On the one hand, it couldn’t be worse. If the UK were to specialise in any form of renewable energy, it is in wind that we are particularly wealthy. The UK has access to 40% of the total wind energy resources in Europe (pdf). And the government plans for another 10,000 wind turbines to be erected by 2020.
So for the nation’s only full turbine factory to close, and for its sit-in protesters, who were trying to keep it open, to be sacked by letters tucked in with a lunch box, it’s hard to imagine a worse message being sent to the public and the marketplace. Why bail out banks to the tune of billions, to keep profit-hungry, bonus-obsessed financiers in work, who then still fail to provide necessary capital to the productive economy, and allow the foundations of our future energy system to crumble? Anyone wishing to register their thoughts can sign a petition on the No 10 website.
One dim hope filtering from this dismal affair is the way in which the environmental and trade union movements have finally found common cause over the future direction of the economy.
It is just one incident, but the message is getting through that a low-carbon economy, and the transition to it, is going to generate a vast number of new jobs. With the vast range of skills that will be needed in a world in which we will almost inevitably do many more things for ourselves, it could also represent a rebirth of useful and interesting work. It’s not just about the number of jobs, but their quality. The reason that this won’t just happen is because the government is still in thrall to market mechanisms.
As Vesta’s business decision to move production to the US shows, markets aren’t there to solve your, the nation’s or the planets problems, they are there to make profits. That is why they need to be subservient to the social and environmental objectives that we choose. On this case, at least, if you want to know the future for employment and the environment in the UK, and whether or not we are likely to avert catastrophic climate change, the answer, my friend, really is blowing in the wind.
88 months and counting…