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Don't turn off the future

The green economy in Britain is thriving - so why are politicians so reluctant to talk about it?

Photo: Getty Images

There is a sector where our economy is not dying, but flying. Somewhere that the UK continues to dominate the global stage, creating the deals, skills, services and products in an area the whole world is desperate to embrace. It will take until 2014 (at best) for our GDP to return to the pre-financial crisis level of 2007. In the same period, this sector will have grown by 40 per cent.

Unfortunately, this sector is the green economy. That means that, as far as some are concerned, it doesn’t count. Because green stuff isn’t meant to be about growth, only bills. In an oddly moralising way, many people seem to feel that something that does good can’t also bring economic benefits.

But it does. According to government data, last year we exported £121 million more green goods and services to Germany than we imported from them. £183 million more to India. £330 million more to China.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills tots up almost twice as many low carbon and environmental jobs - just under a million - than we have in motor trades. But, when a new car factory opens or closes it dominates the Today programme. If we’re talking about green and business in the same sentence, Nigel Lawson is released from his belfry to invade our morning bowl of cereal.

Part of the reason for this might be that the green economy doesn’t challenge existing sectors - it only strengthens them. While BIS takes a thorough and catalogued approach to their definition, the green sector is largely about changing current jobs, not replacing them.

So our green jobs can belong to people in the motor trade – such as those building hybrids in our factories. Our financial sector provides the financial and legal advice for a third of all the low carbon energy deals in the world. Green workers can be architects who design zero carbon buildings, or the manufacturers who have gone from making the iron bridges of the industrial revolution to the gears and turbine blades of the energy revolution.

When our nation decided to set out a regulatory framework supporting a low carbon agenda, we did so on the basis that those nations which moved first would receive the greatest benefit. Now we see that we have moved, and we have benefited. That’s why it’s frustrating to see that policy certainty threatened, just as the return is coming through.

This could be our way out of recession. According to the Treasury, in this financial year alone 88 per cent of our top 20 infrastructure projects are low carbon, and are worth £23 billion, compared to just £3.1 billion for high carbon projects. Some 63 per cent of this represents entirely private sector money. If you include what Treasury defines as public/private then the figure leaps to 94 per cent. By contrast, our high carbon spend for this year was 61 per cent dependant on the public purse.

The green economy is, as our recent analysis of this data called it, a UK success story. But there are worrying signals that the government may not want this success. It seems alarmingly focused on what we needed yesterday – a few more roads, a bundle of gas, perhaps squeeze in an extra airport. To this end, they are willing to sabotage something much more appealing to investors – the technologies of the future. The things that can attract far more investment because they haven’t already been developed. A letter was leaked earlier in the summer that made clear the Chancellor wants to ensure the energy of tomorrow is rejected for an expensive and outdated energy of the past. We can’t, as a nation, afford such a compromised infrastructure strategy - the equivalent of Disraeli ripping out train tracks because they threaten canals. We need to follow what we need, not what we needed, or we risk condemning this country to a policy that might run as follows – “Who needs the future when we have had the past?”

Alastair Harper is a senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, the environmental think-tank. He tweets: @HarperGA