Wind turbines and solar panels into nuclear weapons: the UK's new industrial strategy?

UK government financial support is being cut from green industries, while there is no similar austerity for the military industrial sector. Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, examines what is happening.

Article in The Ecologist, 15 October 2015

The government has spent the summer announcing cuts to financial support for solar panels, wind turbines and other green energy technologies, while at the same time pledging new funding for military industrial programmes, especially those for nuclear weapons. Is this a sign that the government’s current industrial policies represent a slide back towards a Cold War-style ‘military-industrial complex’ and away from the growth of the green economy?

The largest green industrial sector that the government has been cutting is renewable energy. The Conservatives have long had a particular dislike for onshore wind farms, but now they have broadened their attack to include other renewable energy technologies. The main changes that are being implemented are: an early end to subsidies and increased planning restrictions for new onshore wind farms; reducing subsidies for converting coal power stations to wood fuels; and ending the exemption for renewable energy from the Climate Change Levy – a tax specifically set up to penalise carbon emitting fuels. The latter measure alone is expected to increase the costs of renewable energy by at least £450m a year. In the pipeline are further cuts, including ending or reducing subsidies for small-scale renewables – especially solar – by up to 87%. The reduction in help for community renewable energy schemes seems particularly misplaced.

The justification given for making these changes is to prevent an overspend in the government’s budget allocations for renewable energy projects. This overspend has been projected to reach £1.5bn by 2021.

The incredible success of renewables is not to everyone's liking

Key among the causes have been improvements to renewable energy technologies that have led many of them to become cheaper and more competitive with fossil fuels. As a result, targets for the deployment of many small-scale renewables have been met five years early, offshore wind farms have proven to be more productive than expected (by nearly 20%), and wood fuel use has increased significantly.

While it is entirely reasonable for subsidies to be reduced as technology costs fall, the proposed cuts go well beyond this, effectively punishing the success of more rapid deployment or the generation of more electricity than predicted. The clearest evidence of the success of renewable energy sources is that they now produce about 25% of the UK’s electricity – more than either coal or nuclear – an impressive achievement. This means less carbon and other forms of pollution, less dependence on imported fossil fuels, and more jobs in the sector. If the government needs to control overspend, it should cut support for sectors which are not performing well.

But it’s not just renewables that are being targeted. Arguably, the worst hit sector is the buildings energy efficiency industry. The summer saw the end of the Green Deal and zero carbon targets for new homes and other buildings – with no clear replacements on offer. The Green Deal – a nationwide scheme aimed at helping people insulate their homes – had been badly mismanaged by the government since its introduction in 2012. As a consequence, the annual rate of home energy efficiency installations fell by over 60% and continues to fall. But the solution lies in learning the lessons and improving the scheme, not scrapping it, which leaves those in badly insulated housing in limbo and the insulation industry laying off many workers.

Bolstering nuclear weapons and the arms industry

There is an ongoing debate about whether shortfalls in the funding of renewables and energy efficiency programmes should instead come from redirecting some of the large subsidies received by the fossil fuels or nuclear power sectors – which have been estimated to be several billion a year. However, in this article, I want to contrast the treatment of the green industrial sector in the UK with that of the military industrial sector. Why? One crucial reason is that they employ similar numbers of engineers and scientists, many with similar skill sets – as recent analysis points out. Another factor is that the government’s military equipment budget is very large and continues to be protected from cuts as part of the government’s austerity policies. A further issue is that military industrial programmes often go well over budget or the equipment doesn’t work as planned. An additional factor is international security. The UK government has acknowledged that climate change is a multiplier of the risks of international conflict, hence action to reduce carbon emissions can help reduce security risks.

Let’s look at these issues in more detail. The government’s annual budget for military equipment is £16bn. In its latest equipment plan, the Ministry of Defence has laid out programmes of how it intends to spend this budget over the next ten years. The programmes include:

  • £40bn on submarines, the bulk of which is planned to be spent on the four new nuclear-armed vessels planned to replace the current Trident system;
  • £18bn on warships, including completion of the two huge Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers; and
  • £18bn on combat aircraft, including Typhoons, F-35 Lightning II’s, and new military drones.

No austerity for nuclear weapons

Although the final decision on whether to proceed with Trident replacement will not be taken until next year, the government has already spent over £4bn on research, development and other preparatory costs. During the summer, in contrast to the hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of cuts to the funding for renewables, chancellor George Osborne announced a further £500m of contracts to upgrade the Faslane naval base where the nuclear-armed submarines are hosted. Let’s not forget just how controversial Britain’s nuclear weapons are. Currently, the payload of one UK Trident submarine has an explosive power greater than that of all the bombs dropped in World War II – and more than enough to cause a ‘nuclear winter’. It is with good reason that the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said he wouldn’t use them if he became PM.

Another major programme causing concern is the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. Beset by a variety of problems, the cost has spiralled and is now £2.6 billion higher than the contracted budget. The two aircraft carriers are designed to be a staggering three times larger than the previous generation – in order to carry the new F-35 Lightning II fighter-bombers. But the costs of the US-led F-35 programme have also ballooned and there have been major delays, meaning that the number of planes ordered by the UK has been markedly reduced and they are unlikely to be available in time for the planned deployment of the carriers.

Turning to the Typhoon fighter jets – formerly known as Eurofighters – the project has also encountered numerous problems, including the difficulty of adapting them to new military roles following the end of the Cold War. Currently, the RAF is not using them for air strikes in Iraq, preferring the 30-year-old Tornadoes, because the latter can carry the latest Brimstone missiles. It will take another four years before Typhoons have been modified to use these weapons. The cost of the Typhoons has also spiralled. The programme is currently £2.4bn over budget – and the only reason that it is not much higher is because the numbers of planes ordered by the MoD has been reduced by a third.

Punishing success and rewarding failure

So let’s summarise some key points. The government is cutting financial support worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year to the renewable energy industry – a sector that has been generating much more electricity than predicted, saving huge amounts of carbon emissions and other forms of pollution, providing increased energy security, and creating numerous high skilled jobs. Such cuts will badly damage the sector.

At the same time, the government is refusing to cut funding for the military industrial sector – despite major projects going billions of pounds over budget, repeated failures to deliver equipment with the adequate capabilities, and serious questions over the defensive value of key programmes.

The government is demonstrating dangerous levels of bias. By punishing success in the green industrial sector and rewarding failure in the military industrial sector, it is risking our environment, our economy and our security. It’s time that was changed.

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility. He has written widely on ethical issues related to science and technology, and is an author/ editor of numerous SGR reports including Offensive Insecurity, Soldiers in the Laboratory, UK Nuclear Weapons: a Catastrophe in the Making? and Shale Gas and Fracking: Examining the Evidence.

This article was originally published in The Ecologist on 15 October 2015. Republished with permission.