Placing a sustainable future as an enemy to jobs is a move that truly baffles me. It’s something that the UK government seems to be adept at, despite this being a woefully inaccurate misunderstanding of the numbers.
When we try and talk about sustainability in any form, it’s only a matter of time before the questions ‘what about jobs?’ comes up in some form. And, as I’m currently on a mission to clear up the misunderstandings around demands for climate justice, this seemed like an important one to tackle.
You might be tempted to ask about jobs when we talk about a UK decarbonisation strategy, and this is rooted in the right kind of concern. We all know what happened to coal miners in the 80s; it is vital that history doesn’t repeat itself, and that citizens are safe and financially secure. But, here’s the thing, the renewable energy sector has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of meaningful jobs. All it needs is government support and investment.
We already have the natural resources we need
The UK’s offshore wind energy is the largest wind resource in Europe, with the potential to install as much capacity as the rest of the world combined. This resource is so abundant because the wind speed is high and there is a great deal of relatively shallow water on the continental shelf, stretching a long way out to sea, making for ideal building conditions. In fact, the UK has been referred to as the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind. To reduce carbon emissions to the extent needed, offshore wind will probably need to be the dominant source of UK electricity, which requires a lot of workers.
While smaller scale than offshore wind, marine energy (wave and tidal) will also be an important sector for the UK. The UK has a third of Europe’s wave resource and half of Europe’s tidal resource. The UK has a high tidal range; the Bristol Channel has the highest in the world outside of Canada. Wave power can be harnessed both out at sea or near, or on, the shoreline, although the best resources occur where strong winds have travelled over a long distance and before friction with the seabed occurs nearer the coastline. The advantage of marine energy is that tides, and therefore the energy they can generate, are predictable.
This information doesn’t account for the work that already exists in solar, hydro, or slow-moving water like rivers, and other forms of clean energy work. However recent studies have focused on these industries because this is where the UK has the most natural resources. If the UK puts in the work to stay at the forefront of wave and tidal power and build the supply chain, it would create substantial numbers of jobs.
The exciting thing about these jobs is that we have a massive opportunity to transition workers out of unethical, unsustainable and stagnant industries and into growing clean energy jobs instead. As fossil fuel work begins to slump, renewables are swooping in with better paid, more secure employment opportunities instead.
The economic argument
Beyond fossil fuel workers transitioning to green jobs, the arms sector is another area that can see many workers transition into the renewable sector.
The UK’s military spending currently sits at over £37,000,000,000 per year. The arms trade, in particular, is propped up by political and financial assistance from the government. A 2016 report revealed that UK arms exports are subsidised at over £100 million a year, direct from the taxpayer. The government spends roughly 25 times as much on arms research and development (£1.5 billion), as it does on renewable energy, (£60 million).
The UK also regularly hosts DSEI, one of the world’s biggest arms fairs, in East London for one week every two years. Here arms companies display weapons to buyers from across the globe, including countries in conflict, oppressive regimes, dictatorships and countries with extreme human rights issues. The UK government helps organises this arms fair, invites these military buyers, and helps arms companies to make deals. They do it using taxpayer money.
All of the money that props up the arms trade could certainly be put to better use. In 2016 Bob Keen, the head of government relations at BAE Systems, told the House of Commons Defence Committee “it simply is not possible to do a major defence deal without fundamental Government support.”
Essentially, the arms trade is not economically viable. It’s a waste of taxpayer money.
The government justifies its support of the arms trade in an argument about protecting high skilled jobs, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, the number of jobs in the arms industry is on a long-term decline. It’s often said that around 300,000 people work in the arms industry, but it isn’t that simple. The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills offers a higher number because they include employment “further along the supply chain”. In reality, this number sits at 115,000 UK arms industry jobs resulting from Ministry of Defence expenditure and 55,000 in arms export production, totalling 170,000 overall jobs in the private sector. Ending arms exports and halving UK arms procurement would save £7 billion per year, save hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidies and cost 115,000 jobs.
Except, it wouldn’t cost these jobs at all.
There are massive economic benefits to investing in the renewable energy sector, which is still chronically underfunded. Because the UK is home to such substantial wind, wave and tidal resources, among other renewable options, increasing investment in these sectors could create four times as many jobs as the arms trade currently provides. These jobs would also be in technologies that will be in high demand, have huge export potential, and will help countries around the world lower their emissions. All that is required is government investment and a transition strategy to help workers move from the arms industry to the renewable sector, where they can use their skillsets for good, in better and more secure jobs. A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated in 2012 that offshore wind alone could increase net exports of energy and equipment by around £20 billion a year by 2030.
There is also a precedent for what happens if these ideas are ignored. In 1976 Lucas Aerospace workers created an Alternative Plan for the future of their corporation as their jobs started to be threatened. Around 50% of Lucas’ output was military contracts, and employees proposed 150 alternative products the company could focus on instead across medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanic, and telechiric machines. Some of the suggestions included hybrid car engines and wind turbines, which were commercially viable but not widespread like today. The employees were unfortunately ignored, and Lucas Aerospace closed down. If they had listened and invested in these technologies, they could have been a leading employer in a thriving renewable sector.
The defense market worldwide is worth a trillion dollars annually. The energy and environmental market is worth at least eight times this amount. The former is set to contract… the latter is set to expand exponentially, especially in the renewables arena.
The skilled work argument
Right now the renewables industry is being held back by a major skills shortage, which is part of a larger STEM shortage in the UK. This means that the UK is missing out on large numbers of supply chain jobs in green energy.
In 2017 the Trade Union Congress called for the formation of a Shadow Defence Diversification Agency to look at alternatives to arms production jobs, the answer is clearly in the renewable sector. Jobs in renewables require many of the same skills as the arms trade, employ many of the same branches of engineering, and need skilled personnel. There is also significant overlap in most areas of the two sectors, from large-scale offshore construction to component level. These jobs would be in an industry that is growing, rather than declining, providing better job security and meaningful work.
And then there are the numbers. Right now there are approximately 16,000 UK jobs in offshore wind. With adequate investment, it is estimated that this could rise to at least 150,000 jobs. Wave and tidal power, while a much smaller and newer sector, could provide at least 60,000 jobs.
Whether workers transition from fossil fuels or arms work, training would likely be required for highly skilled jobs roles. However, there are also many roles where this would not be very difficult, for example in roles like construction, technician, and installation.
It’s also worth noting that some companies are already working across both sectors, so transferring wholly to renewable projects would not be too difficult. For example, the work of the shipbuilding industry would be vital to installing and maintaining more offshore wind.
Examples of companies that already work across both sectors include:
• Aluminium Marine Consultants, who have produced numerous catamarans for the offshore wind industry and hovercraft for the military138
• BMT produce both military craft and “windfarm support vessels”
• Cammell Laird refit warships and is “a base port for the construction of the Gwynt y Môr wind farm in the Irish Sea”
• Harland & Wolff, once known for shipbuilding, now specialises in offshore renewable energy.142
• Mustang Marine’s offerings include wind farm support vessels and bespoke aluminium vessels to “military standard”
It is clear, therefore, that many of the big players in the arms industry already recognise that the skills required for work in renewable energy are the same, as so many companies are already involved in both sectors.
The moral argument
When it comes to the arms industry, the UK currently exports arms to over 100 countries, including many oppressive regimes and dictatorships. This is most obvious in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, as Saudi Arabian forces use UK-made weapons to perpetuate the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. These weapons are funded by UK taxpayer money.
Arms exports continued to Israel during its devastating attack on Gaza in 2014. Saudi Arabia used BAE Systems armoured vehicles to help suppress pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011, and vigorous arms promotion continues to both these authoritarian regimes. The missiles of a single company, MBDA, were sold to the Gaddafi regime in 2007, were extensively used by the UK and French military in the 2011 war in Libya, and were also supplied by Qatar to rebel forces in Libya. Regardless of the obvious lessons to be drawn from this, Libya was again categorised by the government as a priority market for UK arms sales the following year
While politicians dismiss this under the argument of UK job provision, this argument is weak at best considering that the industry is stagnant and jobs are in decline in the arms sector. It’s a waste of money and a poor excuse for such immoral leadership.
Beyond this, the UK Ministry of Defence has identified climate breakdown as one of four “key drivers of change”:
Out to 2040, there are few convincing reasons to suggest that the world will become more peaceful. Pressure on resources, climate change, population increases and the changing distribution of power are likely to result in increased instability and likelihood of armed conflict…
Climate change will amplify existing social, political and resource stresses…. The effects of climate change are likely to dominate the global political agenda, especially in the developed world where it will represent an increasingly important single issue.
The idea that increasing arms production will help keep order through military control isn’t smart. A preventative approach is needed, which looks like rapidly and urgently decarbonising and moving away from our arms trade.
The added benefit? It will create a lot more jobs.
The security argument
Additionally, when we think about security, it’s important to think about where the UK sources their energy. The UK is currently a huge net importer of energy, with imports accounting for 47% of UK energy use in 2013. Its coal imports are dominated by Russia, US and Colombia, natural gas comes from Norway, Qatar, the Netherlands and Belgium, and oil comes from the Netherlands (which is a major trading hub so the fuel is likely to have originated elsewhere), Russia, Sweden, Kuwait and the US. Beyond the emission and financial cost of such heavy imports, this high reliance also puts the UK at risk due to volatility in international gas prices, and increased instability as the climate crisis escalates.
Beyond increasing jobs it also, therefore, makes sense from a security standpoint to maximise domestic energy production as much as possible. This will help the UK to retain independence by avoiding reliance on individual suppliers from other countries and will avoid the perceived need for military intervention to secure energy supplies (which we’ve historically been doing for oil for many decades).
Renewables create more jobs
While the UK government is the second biggest arms dealer in the world, the number of jobs created by arms exports has been falling steadily for years. According to the Aerospace, Defence & Security group, arms exports accounted for roughly 55,000 jobs, roughly 0.2% of the UK workforce with arms counting for around 1.4% of exports in 2010.
Campaign Against Arms Trade’s research shows that prioritising offshore wind and marine energy could produce more jobs than the entire arms industry. With the right investment and support, the Government could help to create over 300,000 jobs in these two renewable sectors alone.
Here are some extracts from their research (I know it’s wordy, but focus on the numbers):
We estimate that 30,000 jobs are required for the installation of each GW of offshore wind capacity, dropping to 22,000 jobs per GW by 2030. Added to this are 660 jobs per GW in maintenance each year. So the up-front jobs are design, manufacture and installation, and then as time goes by and the installed capacity increases there is a greater emphasis on maintenance.
The Offshore Valuation Group calculated the number of direct jobs per GW installed to be around 20,000-25,000. The calculations included operation and maintenance and the need for repowering the generating capacity around every 20 years. They did not include indirect jobs in the supply chain, which would be substantial, or jobs arising from the need for a substantially expanded electricity grid. Nor did they include export potential.
The more ambitious proposals put forward by the Centre for Alternative Technology and Campaign against Climate Change, as well as the Offshore Valuation Group’s “scenario 3”, envisage around 9GW being installed each year. This would mean 275,000 jobs in the first year that it was achieved. Fifteen years on, the number of jobs would be around 290,000…
There is greater uncertainty about the numbers of jobs that are likely to be created by wave and tidal energy. Estimating potential job numbers Wave and tidal stream are similar to offshore wind jobs in many ways. However, as the technology is at an earlier stage, the number of jobs needed to develop and install a given GW capacity is greater.
The number of jobs is approximately 60,000 per GW installed capacity (though it should be noted that the employment figure includes those derived from exports). Tidal range, on the other hand, has more of an emphasis on large-scale construction than tidal stream and wave energy.
A Centre for Economics and Business Research report into lagoons indicates that there would be around 20,000 direct and indirect employees required to install 16GW capacity over the course of a 12 year construction period. That is around 15,000 jobs per GW of installed capacity. There are also fewer jobs in operation and maintenance. As the numbers for marine energy are so approximate, and as wave and tidal stream are expected to have higher employment figures than offshore wind
Using the figures above, we estimate that marine energy employment would be around 60,000 in the first year that 2GW installation were to be achieved, and would stay fairly steady following that.
Remember, these reports focus solely on wind and marine, so don’t account for jobs in solar, hydro or other clean energy technologies.
Additionally, the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group released the ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ report in 2014. They argue that, for a relatively small amount, we can create a million secure government jobs across renewable energy, insulation of homes and public buildings for efficiency, expanding public transport, education and training roles, and forestry and agriculture. When you read through the report, it’s very achievable.
The geographic argument
While it is increasingly clear that the number of jobs provided by the arms trade is overstated, arms companies are still vital employers in specific areas, such as Barrow or Glenrothes. Therefore it’s important to consider the geographic and human factors that are key to a smooth transition to renewable jobs.
Luckily, with the right government strategy and support, this isn’t a major problem. Jobs in the renewable sector are widely distributed across the country, while many supply-chain roles can be located anywhere.
The South West, East Midlands and South East of England are the areas with most arms employment, followed by Scotland and the North West of England, while offshore renewable energy projects are spread around the coast according to the technology.
The largest wind sites are along the east coast of England but there are multiple allocated sites or identified resources around Scotland, North West England, Northern Ireland, Wales, South West England and, to a lesser extent, southern England. Wave energy is mainly focused in North West Scotland, with further resources to be found in North Scotland and South West England and Wales. The largest tidal stream resources can be found in northern Scotland, but there are also large amounts along the west and south coasts of Scotland, Wales and England. Tidal range is highest in the Bristol Channel, North West England, in the Wash and off Kent.
Studies indicate that there would be more jobs than needed in Scotland, Wales and down the west and east coasts of England. Central England, Northern Ireland and South East England are the areas where the fit between renewable energy and arms employment isn’t so obvious. However, there would be tens of thousands of supply chain jobs that could be located anywhere. For example, the bulk of project management could be located anywhere in the UK and turbine manufacture can be anywhere on the coast. The manufacture of turbine foundations and offshore substations would need to be based on the coast, ideally near the wind farm they’re built for. However, around 60% of the cost of the substation is the electrical system, which could be produced anywhere.
Overall, in addition to the jobs that would need to be in specific locations, 55,000 manufacturing jobs could be located anywhere.
In summary, if the renewable energy sector were expanded and supported, whilst also moving away from the arms trade, there would be many more jobs than displaced workers would need. The skills required for jobs would be similar, and there would be appropriate work available in most areas where workers are already located, meaning minimal disruption or displacement would be caused. Where there wasn’t work, the government could ensure that jobs that can be located anywhere move to these areas, providing more secure and meaningful jobs to more people.
Campaign Against The Arms Trade suggests the following for moving forward:
• the UK government starts a fundamental review of its security policy and role in the world. These are presently focused on military approaches, sidelining wider security threats and the underlying drivers of national and international insecurity such as climate change. We consider that an objective review along these lines should stop the business of exporting arms and radically cut military procurement.
• the government promotes renewable energy and low-carbon technologies. This should be through its policies and legislation, with the top priority being a binding renewable energy target for 2030 to provide the stability required for investment, and increased public funding, in particular for Research & Development and investment in infrastructure such as ports.
• the government should commit to building the domestic supply chain for renewable energy
• as the government radically reduces arms procurement and exports, it should prioritise early identification of areas that are less equipped to provide new jobs for arms industry workers and put effective measures in place to encourage alternative sources of work to locate there.
Honestly, these measures are not that difficult to achieve. Of course, it will be a complex transition that will require planning, but it is far from impossible. The government loves to pit a sustainable, regenerative future against economic growth, but this just isn’t the case. Transitioning to a low carbon future can provider scores of jobs, while also giving us cleaner air and a healthier, carbon-free world.