Britain’s green economy has shrunk since 2014, heightening concerns that the government will miss targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the decade.
The number of people employed in the “low carbon and renewable energy economy” declined by more than 11,000 to 235,900 between 2014 and 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Green businesses fared little better, seeing their numbers drop from an estimated 93,500 to 88,500 over the same four-year period.
The ONS said there was a small increase in the number of people employed in the green economy between 2016 and 2018, but this was not enough to offset a huge drop in the number of jobs and businesses between 2014 and 2016.
Critics of the Conservative government’s record of support for the low carbon and renewables sector blamed the Treasury’s dramatic cut in subsidies to the solar power industry for the sudden loss of employment.
Solar panel installers were among the many businesses connected to the industry that went bust after the Treasury cut subsidy payments by 65% in 2015 before abolishing them altogether last year.
Of the UK’s four countries, England saw the biggest fall in the number of green jobs followed by Northern Ireland and Scotland. Wales was the only area to see an increase – from 10,000 to 11,400 jobs.
Adding to the downbeat analysis, the ONS said the recent increase in activity was also mainly due to acquisitions in the renewable sector rather than an increase in investment.
A report by the Committee on Climate Change, an independent government advisory body, found that UK emissions met the government’s 2018 target, following a decline in emissions to 44% below 1990 levels. But a recent slowdown meant it was “not on track” to meet the next target, which covers the period 2023-27, or to reduce emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels by 2050.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy said the figures for 2014 were distorted by a change in the way the ONS estimated employment and that since 2015 the number of green jobs had risen from 200,000 by more than 24,000.
Andrea Leadsom, the business secretary, said: “A greener economy creates enormous opportunities for new employment, with the low-carbon sector potentially supporting 2m green-collar jobs by 2030.
“As we seek to end our contribution to climate change entirely by 2050, I am determined that these numbers will increase even further in the years ahead.”
TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said recent progress was “still far too slow” and meant the government had a “dreadful record”.
The Royal Society of Arts and Manufacturing said the figures “should be a wake-up call for ministers” who have pledged to cut greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050. The thinktank’s director of economics, Asheem Singh, said: “It is pretty clear that the UK is well behind in meeting its next milestones and the 2050 target.
“Reaching the target is inextricably linked to the growth of the green economy and it is clear from these figures that this just isn’t happening.”
Britain’s renewable energy industry has expanded in the last three years, mainly in response to the growth of offshore windfarms. The share of total electricity generation from renewables reached 38.9% in September, the highest recorded and higher than gas generation for the first time.
But the industry employs relatively few workers in service companies while most turbines are manufactured abroad, limiting the scope for a dramatic rise in the number of people employed across the industry.
The ONS figures showed that £6.3bn worth of imports of renewables and low carbon services exceeded the value of exports by £1.2bn, leaving the UK with a 20% deficit in the balance of green trade.
Caterina Brandmayr, senior policy analyst at Green Alliance said the figures “expose the yawning gap between the UK’s net zero law and policy in most government departments to drive decarbonisation”.
She said most efforts to cut carbon had focused on the offshore wind sector, “but other sectors have huge untapped potential to decarbonise”.
She added: “Efforts to cut carbon emissions from transport and buildings have been woefully unambitious. Transport emissions have flatlined since 1990 and buildings energy efficiency policy has been stalled for years. And there is very little policy at all to improve industry’s resource efficiency.”
The Treasury is expected to put forward several measures to encourage investment in industries that promise to reduce carbon emissions, but investments are likely to take several years to bear fruit.