Low-Carbon Enterprise Zones: A game changer or lemming run for green growth?

Philip Monaghan

As I travelled by train from Madrid to Huesca during a recent Spanish business trip, I could not help but be impressed by the window view that greeted me – kilometre upon kilometre of onshore turbines that lit up the dry and deserted landscape. A stop-off in Zaragoza provided a fascinating opportunity to listen to local non-profit environmental organsiation ECODES talk about their role in the emergence of a nearby low-carbon business cluster on water efficiency. Not surprising perhaps for one of the water-scarce regions of Southern Europe, with levels of unemployment as high as 20% and mostly among the disillusioned youth.

But is this innovative combination of entrepreneurship and urban planning a game changer or a lemming run when it comes to sustainable development?

Onshore wind turbines

Such city-led ‘low-carbon enterprise zones’ are rapidly on the rise in the UK – with the newly announced Humber Estuary Renewable Energy Super Cluster joining similar ones related to electric vehicles in Newcastle and smart grids in Liverpool. The trend is true across the rest of the globe too, from Canada to China, with LED technology in Toronto to solar energy in Baoding respectively. For political leaders these designated areas of green growth are a silver-bullet solution to the twin perils of stalled climate deal negotiations and a painful recovery from a lingering economic depression. After all, these enterprise zones would appear to provide a “good news story”, unlike the sacrifice associated with adapting to climate change – to fly less or pay carbon taxes on products we consume. This is about being able to compete for a healthy slice of the annual US$6 trillion market in low-carbon services – to get people back to work, provide energy or water security and be kind to the environment.

So is this all too wonderful to be true?

According to UNEP’s International Resource Panel (IRP) we need to uncouple development from resource consumption by linking economic strategies to resource flow strategies. Their analysis concludes that by 2050 the level of resources used by every person each year will need to fall to between five and six tonnes in order for us to live within our environmental limits. IRP also points out, however, that rapid urbanisation combined with technological and systematic innovation offer an historic opportunity to reduce our over-consumption. So, on the face of it, low-carbon enterprise zones would appear to be a great example of this happening in practice. And refreshingly alike is the case in Liverpool. It involves developers, economists, urban planners and environmentalists all coming together to challenge “business as usual” when it comes to prosperity that is handcuffed to carbon.

Some governance questions remain to be answered, though. In particular, are the technologies involved a genuine move toward renewable energy? (For instance, incineration of non-biological domestic waste is not.) Does it help alleviating poverty and local unemployment or do staff commute to the workplace from other wealthier areas? (For example, youth apprenticeships that are a pathway to well paid careers, with a long-term future.) Is this low-carbon trade displacing high-carbon trade? (Or is it adding to our woe of unsustainable growth in an over-populated world?)

In short, low-carbon enterprise zones should “in principle” be warmly welcomed. Particularly like those springing up in cities such as Liverpool with their strong emphasis on retraining local, unemployed youths for jobs in clean energy. This type of zoning is a process innovation that is challenging how we think about sustainable urban development. But other titans of business and city planners alike, who see this as some kind of snake-oil remedy for their economic ills, need to think very carefully about exactly who benefits from all of this, both among today’s struggling societies and tomorrow’s generation.

An article by Philip Monaghan

Sustainability in AusterityPhilip Monaghan is a writer and strategist in the fields of economic development and environmental sustainability. He is Founder & CEO of Infrangilis and the acclaimed author of the books How Local Resilience Creates Sustainable Societies (out February 2012) and Sustainability in Austerity (2010).

Sustainability in Austerity (paperback) is one of the many titles available at 40% discount as part of Greenleaf Publishing’s December sale. See the Greenleaf Publishing website for more details.

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One thought on “Low-Carbon Enterprise Zones: A game changer or lemming run for green growth?

  1. 21st Century Telecom, Inc. is creating the nation’s first minority-owned superstation and multimedia mobile network including mobile specific content to cell phones and digital devices. It will become the 1st fully sustainable “green telecommunications” firm in the United States. The Company is developing “micro-grid infrastructure.” This initiative includes Regional Solar Schools, Solar Walks, Solar Concerts and Solar Decathlon components including solar manufacturing facilities on the interstate highway system in a staged growth initiative by 2020.

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