Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A green fix for the economy

Sorry for not blogging for a while, Progressive Comment is a busy dude. But when I do blog I promise it'll be worthwhile.

A number of environmentalists, economists and international trade unions are now arguing that a 'Green New Deal' is the way to beat the worldwide recession. This is not a fringe demand: a number of governments and environmentalists are grouping themselves around the UN's Environmental Programme advocating massive public expenditure programmes that are sustainable and green in colour (i.e renewable energy and housing insulation, not finance sector jobs and bombs). In the mainstream, President Obama has also paid lip service to this idea. He might not deliver it to the extent that Achim Steiner, the UN's chief environmental economist, envisages. Then again, with market forces as uncertain as they are, who knows?

If Wales had it's own place at the UN I am sure that we would be amongst those forward-thinking and generally left-leaning governments that are advocating a green solution to the global crisis. After all, climate change is part of the cause of the crisis. The global economy as it stands is unsustainable. The recession offers a perfect chance to transform the economy. We have never had the excuse to do it so far (if it ain't broke, don't fix it). We're pretty broke now so a sustainable solution is just what we need.

The Labour-Plaid government has it's own mini, scaled-down 'Green New Deal' based on the Green Jobs Strategy. I haven't seen it so can't comment, but the Welsh Government's biomass strategy is expected to create 'about 1,000 jobs'. There are huge risks with biomass, particularly the huge Prenergy plant at Port Talbot. Once a wood-burning plant comes on stream, it needs wood otherwise the lights go out. Smaller scale, decentralised and localised plants, getting their wood from within a certain geographical radius, are a much safer bet and should be promoted- as long as they do not overwhelm local communities. One such plant is planned in Barry, but locals are very disheartened. Their views should ultimately come first and we have to ensure that biomass plants are sensitive to the communities they are going to serve. Put them out of the way of the views of houses!

So with biomass being a start, what form could a Green New Deal take in Wales? I'm almost certain we don't have the powers or the budget to develop our own response as a society to the downturn. We will have to wait and see what Gordon Brown and his Environment Secretary Hilary Benn come up with. However it's clear that in Wales we have a huge potential for an expansion of renewable energy, energy efficiency, recycling and building insulation. This could ultimately form a green employment nucleus of tens of thousands of jobs for the Welsh economy. On both a local, national and global scale it would ensure that the post-recession world is a different one to that of the unregulated free market economy that caused the crash. It's time for unchecked economic growth to be replaced by natural, sustainable and balanced development.

Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Environment Minister, said: "there are moments in history when an idea's time has come."

Wales was at the forefront of the industrial revolution- the next one won't begin in any one country, but we have to make sure we don't miss the boat.

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