Recession: Bad For Jobs, Good For The Planet?

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Despite the government’s grand visions, green tech will be deployed tactically not strategically, as the recovery kicks in, says Andrew Donoghue

Recessions get a very bad press on the whole. But unemployment, economic collapses and widespread misery aside, there are actually some positives.

Shifting an overheated economy from perpetually running in fifth gear to reverse is jarring but rolling along in a more modest third or even second gear is surely a healthy thing? So, you lost your job – you probably didn’t like it much anyway. Better to be sat in the park contemplating the universe and planning what you really want to do.

Ok, so it doesn’t exactly balance out like that for the vast majority who have to graft harder for less return but boom times aren’t exactly a picnic either. The stress that results from being surrounded by opportunities to earn and consume can be just as destructive.

Committee On Climate Change

That destruction is manifest not only in terms of societal pressures to succeed and accumulate but also in terms of environmental impact. Boom times are bad news for the planet. That was the consensus from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change which published its second annual report to Parliament earlier this month on the progress made in reducing emissions and meeting carbon budgets as required under the 2008 Climate Change Act.

According to the report UK greenhouse gas emissions fell by 1.9 percent in 2008 and 8.6 percent in 2009 compared to just 0.6 percent in the years preceding the recession. Now while it could be argued that some of those cuts are due to more awareness of climate change and the greater use of sustainable technologies, the reality is that when the wheels of commerce slow, so do carbon emissions.

While some of the more tree-hugging elements of society would be happy to expand the inner-city farm that sits adjacent to Canary Wharf to occupy the City and beyond, the reality is that the economy will continue to recover and the respite in emissions we have enjoyed recently will disappear.

That is if we simply seek to recreate pre-recession economic and societal models. But as the governments Energy Climate Change secretary Chris Huhne pointed out on the publication of the climate change report, remodeling, rather than recreating is vital when it comes to combating global warming while resuscitating the economy.

“As the Climate Change Committee makes clear, we mustn’t rely on economic recession to cut emissions. There has to be an enduring shift to low carbon, driving growth in new technologies, and it must be locked into the fabric of our economy in good times and bad.”

Open-Heart Surgery

Sage advice indeed but is it realistic? The government has just performed radical open-heart surgery on a critical patient. It now has five years to get the UK back on its feet before the next election. Prudence would say that a slow return to health with moderate amounts of exercise and a vegetarian diet would be the best treatment. But with the clock ticking and an eager public wanting to see results fast, the temptation to pump the patient full of pain-killers and steroids may be too tempting to pass up.

A completely re-modelled green economy, based on sustainable industry and renewable energy won’t happen in the life-time of this parliament – or even the life-time of our present parliamentarians probably. The more likely scenario is a tactical use of green tech where it can be fitted in with the governments main aim – tackling the deficit at any cost.

What this all means for green IT development is probably less of the massive strategic projects which environmentalists would prefer and more of a guerrilla style deployment of sustainable tech.

The government looks like giving less funding to green projects than had been hoped, and the austerity budget was a disappointment for anyone looking for backing for big changes.

In the IT world, we won’t see wholesale moves to migrate data centres to renewable power – although some of this is happening. More likely is that numerous small-scale moves will add up to a more sustainable whole. Encouraging staff to use their home PCs at work and recognising the benefits of video conferencing as a medium in its own right rather than just a replacement for physical travel, are just some of the quick wins.

No government – or environmental group for that matter – that wants to be taken seriously is going to advocate recession as the best way to combat climate change. But the last few years of economic turmoil hold lessons that transcend the financial world.

Recessions are certainly tough but so are boom times. Avoiding both would seem the most sensible road to take in the future and at a modest speed. Which shouldn’t be too hard to do considering we’ll all be driving electric cars by then.

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