Death and taxis: Why the Green Growth and Sustainable Development Forum matters
The Electric Flats was the name given to a group of houses on the corner of the street in what’s now called North Lanarkshire, Scotland, where I grew up. It’s not that the rest of us didn’t have electricity (we even had indoor toilets) but the Electric Flats had a radiator in every room. Nowadays, you often see images of these blocks of 1960s and 70s social housing being dynamited to make way for something nicer. But at the time they were built, they were a great improvement on the picturesque slums the tenants had lived in before. Very few houses had central heating (look at how much clothing people wear indoors in old films) and when the first Scottish winter in their new flats arrived, the chosen few basked in the glow of modern home comfort. Then, as Glasgow writer James Kelman described it, it was as if somebody had thrown a giant switch and all the heating snapped off on the same day. The day the electricity bills arrived.
That’s the “fuel poverty” the February 2013 OECD survey of the UK economy mentions, so the problem obviously hasn’t gone away. It sounds incredible, given that GDP per capita has risen from less than $15,000 to over $35,000 in real terms since the Electric Flats were built. However, the expansion of the economy hasn’t benefited everybody equally and while many have done well, inequality is actually growing worldwide according to our latest figures. That’ll be the first thing discussed at the Green Growth and Sustainable Development Forum taking place at OECD headquarters on 13-14 November. This year’s theme is “Addressing the social implications of green growth”.
Looking at the agenda of big meetings like these, you can get the feeling that they’re abstract. But when I started writing this article, I was only going to use my neighbourhood as the intro, until I realised that that in fact you could use it as a microcosm of everything that’s being discussed at the Forum, and how it matters to “real” people in “real” life.
The inequality discussion looks at “multi-dimensional living standards and inclusive growth”, meaning not just income, but access to education, public services and so on. The next session looks at the impact of energy sector reform on households. The issues here vary considerably from one country to another. In OECD countries, the debate tends to focus on whether renewables can offer a reliable, reasonably-priced alternative to fossil fuels (and nuclear in countries such as Germany that are phasing out or reducing nuclear energy programmes). In a developing country, the issue may be building an energy infrastructure. The kind of energy supplied could also be an issue. The IEA, co-organising this session, calculate that developing countries spend over half a trillion dollars a year subsidising fossil fuel consumers.
The Forum includes “sustainable growth” in the title and other IEA work provides a grim example of why the vague-sounding “environmentally friendly” growth is, literally, vital. Research with the WHO on energy poverty reported in the 2010 World Energy Outlook shows that cooking will soon kill more people in developing countries than malaria, tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS. Indoor air pollution from burning biomass in inefficient stoves causes over 1.5 million premature deaths per year, over 4000 a day, especially young children. The IEA point out that 1.4 billion people don’t have access to electricity (other than costly batteries). That number will drop by 2030 thanks to general economic expansion, but only to 1.2 billion. Electricity also makes a whole range of other activities from studying to shopping in the evening easier.
Governments play a key role, which is why the Forum flyer says that the event is designed for “those with hands-on experience of shaping policy and advising policy makers in national and local government.” Here’s an example of how policy can make a difference. To go back to old films again, one standard shot of London used to be a double-decker bus poking its way across Westminster bridge in thick fog. The buses are still there, but the “pea soup” fogs like that of 1952 that caused 12,000 deaths (and even caused cinemas to cancel shows because you couldn’t see the screen) are a thing of the past, because the 1956 Clean Air Act made “smokeless” fuels mandatory in certain urban areas.
But let’s leave the big city behind and return home. Across the road from the Electric Flats was the Ravenscraig. It sounds like the setting of a romantic novel, but it was in fact one of the biggest steel works in Europe. It’s no longer there. It was shut down in 1992, then dismantled and sent to Malaysia. The environmental benefits of closing the Craig were immediate and long-lasting – no more sooty rims on flowers, no more racing pigeons dropping dead after flying too close to the smoke stacks… But what about the 800 or so men who worked there and the 10,000 other people whose jobs depended on the plant indirectly?
For some reason, huge numbers of them bought taxis, and the local train station had as many cabs as a major international airport until the implacable law of supply and demand that destroyed their salaried jobs destroyed their business too. The unemployment rate is still 20% above the Scottish average. A joint session at the Forum with the ILO will look specifically at what kind of skills policies can ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen, and the Forum will examine the labour market implications of green growth more generally.
In North Lanarkshire, other indicators of “inclusiveness” like life expectancy are worse too, so let’s hope that the Forum organisers are right when they claim that “Green growth’s combination of strong economies and a clean environment could increase the well-being of all citizens” and that the Forum helps those attending to make sure that “the right policy mix is applied.”