The green growth race

©Aladin Abdel Naby/Reuters

Environmentally-friendly investments form part of many recently launched recovery programmes. With the right policies, they could achieve growth and a cleaner planet as well.

Sir Nicholas Stern, whose groundbreaking report in 2006 raised the alarm on climate change, recently declared that we had six years left to win the battle against global warming.

How realistic Sir Nicholas's claim is may be debatable, but there is no doubting the urgency of tackling the problem. Climate change is simply a matter of life and death.

The cost of inaction is well documented, not least by the OECD (see references), but until recently people have not talked enough about the benefits of action. That has started to change. The economic recovery programmes launched now see ecologicallyfriendly investments as a way to spur not just long-term green growth, but to jump-start a recovery. The policy is popular because it promises to deliver a healthier planet as well. Clean energy, innovation, new markets, new employment, and new wealth-the list goes on.

Korea launched the world's first "green new deal" stimulus package in January 2009, planning over $38 million in spending on various "green" projects. China is completing a $440 billion package to support wind and solar energy.

Many OECD countries are hoping green industry will be an antidote to unemployment. In May, US Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Obama Administration would create 450,000 "green collar" jobs for America's troubled middle class. Germany wants total renewables workforce to reach 900,000 in 2030.

Nor is all the enthusiasm misplaced. Even if the short-term benefits of green stimulus plans may not be large enough to compensate for jobs and income destroyed by the crisis, the positive effects of action can be felt quite quickly. In fact, before the crisis, the green business sector was already growing swiftly in some OECD countries.

Consider renewable energy. The Danish wind industry employs 28,400 people and contributes an annual €5.7 billion to the economy, according to the Danish wind industry association's annual statistics. There were 250,000 people working for Germany's renewable energies industry in 2007 (up from 160,000 in 2004), not to mention the 1.8 million that work in "environmental protection" more generally, in areas such as environmental services and investments, according to Germany's environment ministry.

Renewable energy has produced large-scale companies such as Denmark's Vestas, which recently raised $1 billion, and is currently investing around the world, creating 2,500 jobs in the US state of Colorado, although the crisis has forced it to shed jobs in Europe.

Many of these success stories did not happen overnight. Germany's reputation in solar energy was built over many years, requiring political will and government incentives along the way. The fact that Germany was already a world leader in engineering helped, too.

Renewable energy is just one source of green activity and employment; another is sustainable buildings. From state-of-the-art "green" tower blocks paraded by major architects to increasingly popular lowenergy "passive" houses, a whole new market has started to take hold. Already in California, lower overheads mean that people can buy solar-panelled houses for less than ones connected to the grid. In Europe government standards setting new norms for energy efficiency, with the likes of double-glazing and insulation, are spurring what could become a major growth sector when the property market finally recovers.

Transport technology offers possibilities for clean growth, too, as automotive manufacturers are finding out, though also aviation and shipping.

The recovery packages will give a welcome boost to the renewables sector, too. According to a report from a commercial bank, HSBC, US wind installations could drop by 20% in 2009, though would fall further if it were not for public spending. And a 30% growth rate is expected in 2010. The International Energy Agency (IEA), a sister organisation of OECD, has warned of a 38% drop in investment for renewable energy in 2009, which is more than the overall energy investment decrease of 21%.

Nevertheless, the green stimulus packages have opened huge market perspectives for renewable energy companies. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), investment in new renewable power generation, with about $140 billion, topped investment in fossil energy technologies for the first time in 2008. The renewables sector in Germany alone, where coal is still the main source of electricity generation, believes it can conquer a 47% share of power generation domestically by 2020; it held 15.1% in 2008.

Meanwhile, the European Renewable Energy Council estimates that wind should grow by 8.5% a year from 2010 to 2020 to a total installed capacity of 180 GW. From 2011 to 2020, wind targets alone will drive €120 billion of investments, avoid €20.5 billion of fossil fuel costs and €8.5 billion in carbon costs. However, more investments are needed. The IEA recently pointed out that renewable energy generation had to double its share to 40% by 2030 to help contain global warming. That's 18,000 wind turbines a year!

Governments watching these trends understandably place high hopes in green industries to support future growth as well as mitigate climate change and address other environmental challenges. And if policies are properly designed, both economic and environmental targets can be hit.

Consider the fiscal packages. Many of them include direct public spending and tax incentives to support "green" investments in areas such as intelligent infrastructure, energy, public transport, water, sanitation and pollution control. But because such investments stay for decades, it is important that policy avoids locking in dirty and costly modes of production and consumption, and promote clean and effective alternatives instead. The crisis is an opportunity to get those policies right.

Take regulation. While key for such things as setting standards and guiding behaviour, OECD analysis suggests the real difference for long-term activity will only come if market-based instruments are deployed. That means policies to "get the prices right" to penalise polluters and greenhouse gas emissions and encourage green technologies, production and practices. Credible market prices help diffuse new technologies and practices by giving investors a clear signal about where to make appropriate investments for the future.

Technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, will not be aggressively deployed without a significant carbon price. According to OECD calculations, a carbon price path consistent with even just a moderately ambitious goal, such as a 550 ppm CO2 stabilisation scenario, could lead to a fourfold increase in world energy spending, including on research and development, by 2050. That means more technological innovation in the fight against climate change.

Market-based mechanisms, such as cap-and-trade schemes and also taxes, will ensure the low-hanging fruit is taken care of first, where costs are lowest for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from ageing industries or inefficient technology. That should help contain costs. They also generate revenues to governments, which is useful when fiscal conditions are tight, and could also be used to offset cuts in other taxes, such as those on labour.

For coherence, this also demands putting an end to subsidising fossil fuels, costly biofuels and other environmentally damaging policies, and not just in developed countries. OECD estimates show that removing fossil fuel subsidies in some emerging and developing economies could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by almost a third by 2050. These moves would also boost competition.

To be effective, pricing needs to be complemented by other public policies. Support for R&D is one area governments are targeting, though they could do more. Between 1992 and 2005, OECD countries increased budgets for renewable energies and energy efficiency by 51% and 38% respectively. However, public R&D budgets for fossil and nuclear energy are still about double those for renewables and energy-efficient technologies.

So will the stimulus plans make a difference? Clearly, this will have to be monitored. The Obama Administration has already engaged $432 billion on environmental projects through its American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan (from water in Maryland to energy in Indiana and weatherisation in Arizona), and more is coming as we write. The EU has decided to heavily invest in clean energy. For instance, through its Renewables Energy Directive, a 20% share of total energy consumption for electricity, heat and fuels (up from 9.3% in 2005) is targeted for renewables.

To be sure, it is important not to overestimate the greenness of any fiscal package. The IEA recently pointed out that only $21 million, out of $2.6 trillion of public money announced by the G20 on anti-crisis measures, went to renewables. What's more, several projects may have a negative impact on ecosystems that could cancel out some of the green measures: think large-scale canal building and energy-intensive desalination. The environmental benefits of some other measures are questionable, such as car-scrapping schemes and road-building. Unless care is taken with these policies, the result could be a net increase in emissions.

In sum, for the low-carbon economy to expand in the coming years, there are two issues to get right. One is finding the right carbon price to give incentives to find cleaner options, drive green innovation and contain costs. The other is coordination.

True, climate change policies offering emission cuts of varying ambition are being stepped up by several countries, but no country can go it alone. It will take enhanced dialogue in all forums, including at the OECD, to pave the way for a robust agreement at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in December and create an effective framework for action in the post-Kyoto environment. That would be good news for growth, jobs and the environment. Sir Nicholas Stern would no doubt take heart, too. Frederic Benhaim, Rory Clarke


OECD (2009), "Economics of Climate Change Mitigation: How to Build the Necessary Global Action in a Cost-effective Manner?" Economics Department Working Paper No 42

OECD (2008), OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030, ISBN 978-92-64-04048-9

OECD (2008), Climate Change Mitigation: What Do We Do? ISBN 978-92-64-05961-0

OECD (2008), Cost of Inaction on Key Environmental Challenges, ISBN 978-92-64-04577- 4

UNEP (2009), Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment, available at Global_trends_report_2009.pdf

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©OECD Observer No. 273, June 2009

Economic data

GDP growth: -9.8% Q2/Q1 2020 2020
Consumer price inflation: 1.3% Sep 2020 annual
Trade (G20): -17.7% exp, -16.7% imp, Q2/Q1 2020
Unemployment: 7.3% Sep 2020
Last update: 10 Nov 2020

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