Green Jobs, Clean Energy Grow In UK, Struggle In USA

Britain’s coalition government has put shrinking the deficit atop its list of priorities, and even supporters or Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity agenda have acknowledged it has yielded painfully slow growth. But on renewables? The U.K. says the private sector is powering ahead there.

The government said companies announced investments totaling £2.5 billion ($3.9 billion) in clean energy projects from April 1 through Nov. 16, 2011. The Department of Energy & Climate Change said these investments, sprinkled throughout the country [PDF], had the potential to create some 12,000 jobs and “revealed more evidence of the economic benefits of renewable energy.” The government also said the investments would help it stay on track in reaching its European Union commitment of producing 15 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources by 2020.

UK renewables

image via Wikimedia Commons

The numbers here aren’t so striking – given their interim nature, it’s difficult to know exactly how they compare to previous years and other countries (although this chart from Pew does lend some context). No, what’s striking is to hear a budget-slashing government display such enthusiasm for expanding renewable energy development. It’s evidence, again, that things are just different in Europe.

Listen to the quote put out from Energy Secretary Chris Huhne and try to imagine a Republican politician in the United States saying it: “Renewable energy is not just helping us increase our energy security and reduce our emissions. It is supporting jobs and growth across the country, and giving traditional industrial heartlands the opportunity to thrive again.”

Now, it is true that Huhne is a Liberal Democrat, and his place in the coalition government has at times been shaky. And it’s also true the PM’s vow to lead “the greenest government ever” in Britain is taking a shellacking from critics. But amid the inevitable disappointments – something U.S. greens who backed the Obama candidacy in 2008 know all about – the government is still at least talking green. And they can – and did – point to progress.

Along with the rah-rah renewables investment data, Huhne’s department noted a separate report to the European commission on the U.K.’s energy progress [PDF] that included these achievements: a 27 percent jump in renewable energy consumption from 2008 (42.6 terawatt-hours) to 2010 (54 TWh), which boosted renewables to 3.3 percent of all energy consumed; a 46 percent increase in wind generation, with 5 gigawatts of offshore and onshore wind capacity installed in 2010; and a big jump in the use of biofuels in the transportation sector, from 1 percent of total road transport fuel in 2007/8 to 3.33 percent in 2010.

As for the U.K.’s 2020 renewables target of 15 percent, that’s actually modest by European standards; the EU-wide target is 20 percent. Still, Huhne said, “Our renewable target is less demanding than other EU member states, but the effect is bringing real jobs and investment. I do not want the U.K. to be left behind by turning our back on the green economy. The agreement to negotiate a global deal secured at Durban has reinforced major nations’ commitment to cutting carbon. We cannot afford to stand alone while the world wises up.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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