Building a low carbon economy: the pathway from recession

SGR Conference and AGM 2009

Alan Baxter and Associates’ Gallery, London, UK; 24 October


  • The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan - Where are we going?
    Dr Tim Foxon, Sustainability Research Institute, Leeds University/ SGR
  • Arms conversion for a low carbon economy
    Prof David Webb, Praxis Centre, Leeds Metropolitan University
  • A trade union programme for the creation of one million climate-change jobs
    Dr Gareth Dale, Brunel University

Eight posters were presented in the afternoon session.

Summary by Kate Macintosh and Stuart Parkinson



Stuart Parkinson, SGR’s Executive Director, welcomed the 70 participants to the conference. He pointed out the timeliness of the event with the Copenhagen climate negotiations rapidly approaching. The day comprised three main speakers, eight poster presentations and SGR’s AGM.


The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan: Where are we going? 

Tim Foxon from Leeds University began by outlining the urgency of the climate issue and the requirements for action by the UK. He gave the government credit for being ahead of most other countries in having passed, with cross-party support, the Climate Change Act, which set a legally-binding target of an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (from the 1990 level). In addition, they have published the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan which set out targets and measures for key sectors, such as electricity.

However, Tim pointed out that a recent report by the government’s climate advisors has argued that progress towards the 80% goal is already slipping and that a step-change in emissions reduction action is needed – especially in reforming the electricity market, supporting home energy efficiency, and speeding up the introduction of electric vehicles. Tim also highlighted proposals for a Green New Deal, which includes radical economic reforms to support the transition to a low carbon economy.

Tim concluded that the government’s ideological devotion to short-term market forces was obstructing action on climate change. He also argued that government’s proposal for an extra £180 million for expansion of the renewable energy industry was far too small.

Full presentation


Arms conversion for a low carbon economy

David Webb of Leeds Metropolitan University continued the theme that UK climate action needs a step-change. He quoted a statement by Gordon Brown which said that low carbon industry could be a major employer and export generator, but pointed to the inadequacy of the policy follow-through. The proportion of UK energy from renewable sources is one of the lowest in the EU and research and development spending has only recently started to reach levels comparable with other leading nations.

He contrasted this with Britain’s performance in the military sector. The UK military budget is the 4th largest in the world, with spending having risen 21% since 1999. The UK is also home to BAE Systems, the world’s second largest arms company. David also showed figures illustrating that government R&D spending in the military sector is 40 times that spent on renewable energy.

Moving on to employment, David pointed out that jobs in the military industrial sector only made up 2.3% of the total number in the manufacturing sector – much less than commonly realised. There has been a series of reports in recent years exploring the opportunities for arms conversion to assist the expansion of the low carbon economy, and he summarised some of the main findings.

Critically, the costs of many current or proposed military programmes are extremely high but generate comparatively few jobs. For example, the total cost of Trident replacement (including operation) has recently been estimated at up to £100 billion. The two aircraft super-carriers on order will cost at least £33 billion over their lifetime. But between 50% and 130% more jobs could be created by investing the same amount in sectors such as home insulation or public transport. Furthermore, most military industrial jobs are in areas of high employment (such as south east England) so a reduction in the sector would have limited impacts.

Full presentation


A trade union programme for the creation of one million climate-change jobs

Gareth Dale of Brunel University gave a presentation which outlined the basis of the ‘Green Jobs Charter’ being drawn up by climate campaigners, trade unionists and academics.

Gareth started by arguing that the two crises we currently face – the economic crisis and climate change – can be solved together, but only if conventional economic thinking is abandoned. He criticised the lack of ambition in government policy, pointing out that new money earmarked for the renewable energy sector is much less than the bonus package payable to staff at the part-nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland. He argued that the lack of support given to workers made redundant at the Vestas wind turbine factory demonstrated the government’s true lack of commitment.

The Charter proposes an annual £50 billion investment in renewable energy, home energy efficiency and public transport. This, he argued, could create over one million jobs by 2020 and meet the emissions reduction targets laid down by the government’s climate advisors. For example, 300,000 jobs could be created in home energy efficiency leading to a 51% cut in emissions.

Where would this funding come from? Gareth argued that £20 billion could be found from a range of sources including: cancelling Trident replacement; taxes on the highest earners, windfall taxes on excessive profits; or ‘quantitative easing’. The other £30 billion would be generated by the employment itself, including income tax, avoided benefit payments, energy bills, public transport fares, indirect job creation etc.

Detailed figures will be published in a report due for completion in early 2010. A summary of the Charter will be available shortly.

Full presentation



Discussion covered a wide range of issues from nuclear power to nationalisation. Many questioned why government persisted in policies which were either ineffectual or would actually increase emissions. It was argued that a root cause of the problem is the over-cosy relationship between ministers, senior civil servants and big business. There was much pessimism about the potential outcome at the Copenhagen negotiations.


SGR Annual General Meeting

Philip Webber, Chair of SGR, opened the AGM. Stuart Parkinson summarised SGR’s activities as documented in the 2008-9 annual report. There had been a number of successes – for example, publication of the briefing, Behind Closed Doors, which critically examined the military influence on UK universities, numerous public lectures, and a range of advocacy work. Treasurer, Patrick Nicholson summarised the accounts, pointing out that SGR’s finances remained tight. The annual report and accounts were approved by the meeting.

This was followed by the election of the National Co-ordinating Committee for the coming year. Three committee members stepped down – Martin Quick, Hilary Chivall and Sean Rose – and they were thanked for their services. The remaining members stood for re-election, together with Martin Bassant. All were elected unanimously.

Stuart Parkinson then gave a brief update of SGR activities since March. In particular, he highlighted the successful launch of the in-depth report, Science and the Corporate Agenda, which had taken place a few weeks before the conference. Press interest had been especially high. Patrick Nicholson then discussed SGR’s recent finances, discussing the difficulties brought about the economic downturn.

Finally, a vote of thanks was given to Chris Langley, SGR’s principal researcher, who was retiring after six years with SGR. He was the lead author of the organisation’s high profile reports, Soldiers in the Laboratory, Behind Closed Doors and Science and the Corporate Agenda.

Kate Macintosh, Vice-chair of SGR, closed the event.


Poster presentations

Biofuels in Power Generation - Camilla Royle

Desertec - Robert Palgrave

An Economy with Personal Asset and Income Limits - Alan Cottey

Financial Viability of Artificial Trees - Karl Miller

Light Pollution - Paul Marchant

Militarisation of Space - Philip Chapman

Rational Strategies for the Design of Zero Carbon Commercial Building in the Northwest of England - Alex Mitchell

Science and the Corporate Agenda - Chris Langley and Stuart Parkinson

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