Manifesto Check: Labour ready to go green, but remains grey on detail

All in for renewable energy. Danny Lawson/PA

Welcome to The Conversation’s Manifesto Check, where academics from across the UK subject each party’s manifesto to unbiased, expert scrutiny.

Labour’s energy and climate policies appear to be based around two main ideas: more government oversight of energy markets to ensure a fairer deal for customers and greater direction to efforts to tackle climate change; and support for the green economy as a driver of new employment.

Green jobs

The headline promise to create a million additional green jobs is optimistic but based on a reasonable analysis of employment trends.

An increase in low-carbon jobs is a logical by-product of the decarbonisation of the economy scheduled through the carbon budgets established by the previous government and continued by the coalition: more people servicing wind farms, for example, and fewer servicing coal-fired power stations. According to a recent UKERC study, renewable energy is also more labour intensive than fossil fuel-based energy, which suggests a natural net increase in jobs.

Other green economy job types also exist. The US Bureau of Labour Statistics defines green jobs as relating to renewable energy; energy efficiency; pollution reduction and removal, greenhouse gas reduction, and recycling and reuse; natural resources conservation; and environmental education and enforcement.

However, the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, estimated that in 2011-12 there were just under a million low-carbon jobs in the UK. A further million means doubling this total. A wider definition of “green jobs” would yield a larger figure, of course, but more detail is needed before a promise of a million new green jobs could be seen as other than optimistic.

Augmenting the Green Investment Bank might fill some funding gaps but the lion’s share of finance will need to be charmed out of financially motivated overseas investors and the emerging cleantech investment sector. Achieving one million jobs would almost certainly also require large-scale manufacturing and exports in areas where the UK is strong in research and development, such as wind and solar-photovoltaics, but where commercial production has tended to go overseas.

Clean economy

The commitment to speeding up the decarbonisation of the economy is also shown by the promise to remove carbon from the UK’s electricity supply altogether by 2030 – beyond the requirements of the Climate Change Act.

This is somewhat undercut, however, by the promise to permit the extraction of unconventional oil and gas – aka fracking – provided that a robust environmental and regulatory is in place, as this would increase fossil fuel extraction.

Price freezing

Imposing an energy price freeze would be merely the latest in a series of moves between free and regulated energy prices. Energy prices are regulated in many countries, and were in the UK until privatisation in the 1980s. Although a price freeze could in principle wreck the profits of energy companies if wholesale energy costs rebound after their free-fall in 2014, the freeze is only intended to last until 2017 and Labour is aware that energy companies need to make money if they are to continue to provide energy investment.

However, price guarantee feed-in tariffs for renewable energy mean that investment will continue to flow, so this promise is really an electoral gesture and signifies very little.

It is difficult to evaluate Labour’s promise to combat manipulation of the energy market by obliging the Big Six energy companies to split their generation and supply businesses, although standard economic theory suggests that this could be effective.

Summing up, Labour’s energy policies show ambition and awareness of the challenges, but a lot more detail is needed.

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