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Can low carbon enterprise zones help deliver sustainable development?

Philip Monaghan considers the potential of low carbon enterprise zones to deliver sustainable development and urges a careful approach to ensure real and lasting environmental, social and economic benefit.

Philip Monaghan is Founder & CEO of Infrangilis. He is a writer and strategist in the fields of economic development and environmental sustainability. Monaghan’s forthcoming book How Local Resilience Creates Sustainable Societies will be published by Earthscan on 27th February 2012.

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 amongst 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?

Such city-led ‘low carbon enterprise zones’ are rapidly on the rise in 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.

But 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, in cases like Liverpool, they bring developers, economists, urban planners and environmentalists 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 away toward renewable energy? (Incineration of non-biological domestic waste, for example, is not). Does it help alleviate poverty and local unemployment or do staff commute to the workplace from other wealthier areas? (Do they provide, 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, I believe that low carbon enterprise zones should in principle be warmly welcomed. Particularly 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 any titans of business or city planners who see this as a panacea economic ills, need to think very carefully about exactly who benefits from all of this, both in today’s struggling societies and tomorrow’s generations.

A version of this article was originally published on the Greenleaf blog.

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