The Green Economy in Bristol & the West – a Call for Resilience Planning

Bristol Green Economy Report

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The Green Economy in Bristol and the West of England (pdf) - a report to Bristol Green Capital – is published today. As with most inquiries, this had some unexpected twists, turns and conclusions. It has suggested to this author that all stakeholder groups in the region must together develop and enact the concept of Resilience Planning.

The headline figures in the report suggest that the green economy is doing well in terms of the environmental technologies (ET) sector in the region. The South West Environmental iNet at the University of the West of England supplied the bulk of the data. For 2010, they estimate the following:

Value of sector: £2.4bn
No. of companies: 1,086
No. of jobs: 19,292

Their data says that between 2005 and 2008, the renewable energy sector grew 160%; compare this with 10% for the economy as a whole.

The “green economy” itself is a tricky concept to define, and environmental technologies, which include areas such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, are only part of the picture. The report includes a detailed discussion on the matter of definition, and an annex devoted to exploring some of the other aspects of what makes an economy green.

The reason the ET sector is the area most fully explored is threefold. Firstly, we are measuring what we value. Given that both energy and climate security issues are served by investment in and deployment of environmental technologies, this area is the one most investigated in terms of numbers. Secondly, it is easier to define. Thirdly, it is not easy to get data on energy and other internal matters from companies, meaning that the greening of business can be challenging to quantify, as well as to assess qualitatively.

It is important to understand the green economy at all levels, however, for one main reason: it cannot be developed in isolation. A green economy is an holistic subject, just as the economy is an integrated system. Fundamentally, it must run on a benign energy system. Renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand management are all critical. The food system should be allowed to work at a local level, and return nutrients from local consumption to nearby land where possible. The transport system should be decarbonised, optimised and connected. Green building, procurement, waste and many other issues are involved. The list would mirror those produced in many studies and projects around the world. The big issue highlighted here, is the matter of connecting them all.

What is new to this author is the clarity concerning three key areas, human behaviour and relationships, the challenge to our imaginations and mindsets, and the connection of the whole ‘greening the economy’ concept under the term ‘Resilience Planning’.

Building a green economy means getting all these areas in sync, which requires a level of strategic cooperation and collaboration that we have hitherto been incapable of. Not only do we have immediate concerns and numerous resource constraints in our lives and occupations, but we also have basic animalistic issues of territoriality and survival in the local ecosystem. We only work together when, on balance, it suits everyone to do so. The problem is, this does not occur frequently enough, nor on an ongoing strategic basis, and certainly not on a level commensurate with the challenges we are facing.

Perhaps more fundamentally, we haven’t yet seen the world we must plan for. What we have to engage in is an educated guess at what would work, to at least increase local resilience. But, few people make plans based on conditions they don’t live within, or have experience of. We behave according to the logic of the system we inhabit, and our role within it. So, the need is hard to identify, and it is a hard sell when macro-economic circumstances are breeding fear and risk aversion.

During the research phase, the subject of peak oil came up numerous times, but rarely with regard to Bristol. A report was published in 2009 on this, but it seems as though the subject has not caught the imaginations of local actors sufficiently. This echoes the comments above regarding the immediacy of concerns and the capacity to sell ideas.

As also referred to above, a strong claim can be made that the ‘green economy’ looks the way it does today because it is driven by the attractiveness of investment in energy-related sectors. This is driven partly by climate and energy policies relating to CO2 emission reductions, and partly by energy security concerns. No matter how sanguine the fossil industry may be with regard to the development of ‘unconventional energy sources’, the economics, and the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) simply can not stack up very far into the future.

How the interaction of major complex variables such as climate change, energy security, resource depletion and allocation, technological compensations, population and financial dynamics will play out over the next few years and decades, is impossible to predict. But, the development of resilience through local investment in local assets, and the development of an overarching resilience plan, is vital. As the term ‘sustainability’ seems to have been increasingly re-purposed by business to simply mean financial sustainability, ‘Resilience Planning’ could be re-purposed from its “business continuity” definition. A web article on the subject states that successful resilience planning requires:

  • clarification of your priority needs
  • greater awareness of resilience threats and opportunities
  • an ability to reduce dependency on vulnerable supplies
  • having alternative options
  • practising being resourceful
  • effective collaboration

Applying it in the case of regional strategy, it should encompass and connect key areas such as economic development, planning, investment, energy and cost saving strategies, education and skills, information and resource sharing, and social capital and well-being development.

Public policy which guides the integration of such Resilience Planning issues will need to be developed in collaboration with all stakeholder groups. Optimising the use of existing resources, developing new resources, and exploring efficient division of labour among local groups will be crucial. Bristol and the West of England has so many relevant natural and human assets to build on, in terms of skills, institutions and activities, that it has a chance to take a national and even global lead on this process.

The West of England, like most of the world, faces impending challenges it has barely begun to grasp. My hope is that this report will be of use in guiding some strategic collaborative thinking and doing on getting to grips with these complex issues. I am sure I am not alone in feeling that as much as this is daunting, and burdensome in many ways, this is also a hugely exciting opportunity for us to literally make our own future.

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