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How China made a mockery of Boris Johnson’s great green jobs boast

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A bleak autumn day at Methil on the south Fife coast. In front of us, the once-thriving yard where some of the North Sea’s biggest oil and gas platforms were built is almost empty.

There’s just mud, puddles and piles of rusting steel. If Scotland had tumbleweed, it would be tumbling.

‘This was supposed to be the seething epicentre of the green industrial revolution, the Saudi Arabia of windpower,’ retired GMB union convenor Mike Sullivan, 70, tells me.

We’re standing on a low hill overlooking the yard, facing the sea. He shrugs and gestures to the scene in front of us: ‘Why is the place not buzzing? Where is all the activity?’

In the middle of the last decade, the Methil yard and two sister sites were owned by a firm called BiFab, employing more than 2,000 people directly and on contracts.

The workers had adapted their skills — honed over years of building structures to anchor fuel rigs to the seabed — for the green revolution.

They were constructing steel jackets up to 200 feet high — and weighing as much as 30,000 tonnes — which served as the anchoring legs for offshore wind turbines. Today, BiFab has gone bust.

The yard’s new owners, Harland and Wolff, have precious little business — just one contract to build eight anchoring jackets for the Neart na Gaoithe windfarm off the Fife coast, that will create between 290 and 400 temporary jobs.

The owners of the yard at Methil in Fife (pictured) have precious little business — just one contract to build eight anchoring jackets for the Neart na Gaoithe windfarm off the coast

The owners of the yard at Methil in Fife (pictured) have precious little business — just one contract to build eight anchoring jackets for the Neart na Gaoithe windfarm off the coast

Despite the rapid expansion of windfarms off Scotland, the green revolution is passing Methil by.

Only recently, the energy giant SSE, which boasts it has developed more offshore turbines than any other firm on Earth, announced details of Scotland’s biggest windfarm.

Called Seagreen — a £3 billion project with a capacity of 1.075 gigawatts, enough to supply 1.6 million homes when the wind is blowing — it is being developed just 30 miles out to sea from Methil.

Yet none of Seagreen’s steel jackets are being made there. Instead, most are being manufactured by the Fluor Heavy Industries Corporation in Zhuhai, in southern China.

Another Chinese company, Jutal Offshore Oil, is making the foundations for the turbines. When they are ready, everything will be transported by gigantic, diesel-burning barges halfway across the world to the Fife coast.

‘We thought we’d be getting Seagreen, work that would have lasted years,’ sighs Sullivan.

‘We enjoyed working there. The shopfloor management was good. This should have been the jewel in Scotland’s renewable energy crown. But it’s always been just promises, promises, promises.

‘The impact on our community has been devastating. Skilled men, fitters, welders — if they’re not unemployed, they’ve gone to lower paid jobs. The younger ones are all heading south. One guy I know is driving for Amazon.’

Pictured: Under Boris Johnson’s 10 Point Plan For A Green Industrial Revolution, which he launched last November, Britain's windfarm capacity is set to quadruple again by 2030

Pictured: Under Boris Johnson’s 10 Point Plan For A Green Industrial Revolution, which he launched last November, Britain’s windfarm capacity is set to quadruple again by 2030 

SSE refuses to say what it is paying for the Chinese jackets, but it is safe to assume they are significantly cheaper than they would be if made in Scotland — in part due to China’s low-cost, coal-fired energy.

Last time Methil got a big contract, to make 26 jackets for the Beatrice farm in 2016, they cost £4 million each.

Energy prices in Scotland are usually well over double those in China and make up around a quarter of the cost of manufacturing items like turbine jackets.

Wages in China are also lower. In 2019, the average salary in Beijing and the industrial cities of the south was £16,500 — just over half the UK rate.

A five-minute walk around Methil’s centre confirms that it’s struggling. Businesses are boarded-up. The area looks far from prosperous.

And the great irony is that for years politicians have been promising that green industries will result in huge numbers of jobs in Britain and create prosperity while at the same time saving the planet.

Back in 2009, in the days of New Labour, the then energy secretary Ed Miliband proclaimed that the offshore wind industry would employ ‘tens of thousands of workers’ by the end of the following decade — in other words, by the end of last year.

These would, he said, be in ‘manufacturing, transporting, installing and operating new turbines’.

China has captured 70% of the global solar panel market and wiped out solar manufacturing industries in America and Germany — as well as Wales. Pictured: Chinese President Xi Jinping

China has captured 70% of the global solar panel market and wiped out solar manufacturing industries in America and Germany — as well as Wales. Pictured: Chinese President Xi Jinping

In a 1,000-page white paper, he accepted that bills for both households and businesses would rise as the country converted to green energy and implemented eco-friendly policies, but the benefits would more than compensate for this: a total of 400,000 new ‘green jobs’ by 2020.

Shortly before losing office in 2010, the former prime minister Gordon Brown went further, boasting that Britain’s offshore industry was already ‘ahead of every other country’ in the world.

In his glittering green future, offshore wind alone would generate ‘up to 70,000 jobs by 2020’.

The pledges continued under David Cameron’s coalition. In 2011, the Lib Dem energy secretary Chris Huhne, later jailed for lying over a speeding conviction, addressed the annual conference of RenewableUK, the green energy lobby group.

‘Renewable energy technologies will deliver a third industrial revolution,’ he said, ‘blazing a trail of start-ups and jobs.’

Nowhere was the hyperbole quite so extreme as in Scotland where the former SNP first minister Alex Salmond boasted that the country would become ‘the Saudi Arabia’ of renewables.

His deputy, John Swinney, claimed building wind farms off the Scottish coast would create ‘28,000 direct jobs and a further 20,000 indirect jobs in related industries by 2020’. In Methil, the promises have turned to dust.

Certainly, since 2010, there have been plenty of new offshore windfarms. Britain’s capacity has doubled to 10 gigawatts, and under Mr Johnson’s 10 Point Plan For A Green Industrial Revolution, which he launched last November, it is set to quadruple again by 2030 — so creating (of course!) ‘tens of thousands’ of new manufacturing jobs.

A coal-fired power plant of China Guodian Corporation in Datong city, north Shanxi province

A coal-fired power plant of China Guodian Corporation in Datong city, north Shanxi province

Furthermore, the PM’s announcement at the Tory conference that all electricity in the UK will be powered by clean fuel by 2035 has only added to hopes of employment opportunities.

But, in reality, few of the jobs have materialised in Scotland. In fact, offshore wind manufacturing here is in severe decline.

In 2018, Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Unite trade union revealed that far from the promised 28,000 Scottish manufacturing jobs in offshore wind, there were just 1,700. And since then, the situation has deteriorated.

Last month, Scotland’s only factory making turbine towers, at Campbeltown in Argyll, closed permanently.

So no one is making offshore towers in Britain, although turbine blades are still made at the Danish firm Vestas on the Isle of Wight, and Siemens Gamesa in Hull.

As for solar energy, Britain’s only large panel factory, in Wrexham in Wales, shut down in 2013, with the loss of 615 jobs.

A report by Strathclyde University last June said that in 2019 there were 1,190 full-time Scottish manufacturing jobs across all types of renewable energy, including hydro power, solar, onshore and offshore wind, and a further 1,000 ‘indirectly’ employed in the renewables supply chain.

It claimed renewable energy in total accounted for 22,900 jobs, but this figure included those working in areas such as ‘real estate’, ‘accommodation and food services’, ‘communications’ and ‘arts and recreation’.

In 2018, FOIs revealed that far from the promised 28,000 Scottish manufacturing jobs in offshore wind, there were just 1,700 and since then, the situation has deteriorated (file photo)

In 2018, FOIs revealed that far from the promised 28,000 Scottish manufacturing jobs in offshore wind, there were just 1,700 and since then, the situation has deteriorated (file photo)

‘We’ve been reduced to scrabbling for crumbs from our own table,’ says Gary Smith, the GMB’s General Secretary.

‘Sure, there are some jobs in assembly, maintenance and sweeping away the dead birds. But the claim that we’re creating thousands of high-value manufacturing jobs isn’t true. We just haven’t had a green industrial strategy.’

Yet while dreams of vast numbers of green jobs have been dashed here in Britain, the very opposite is happening in China.

As the story of the Seagreen wind farm shows, the country is ruthlessly taking advantage of the West’s conversion to eco-friendly energy production.

This week, the Global Warming Policy Foundation will publish a paper by economist Professor Jun Arima of Tokyo University, who represented Japan at 15 UN climate change conferences, of which the latest, Cop26, is taking place in Glasgow from the end of the month.

‘Chinese companies are the main beneficiaries of the green agenda’, the report states boldly.

‘China is becoming dominant in the wind power market. Seven of the world’s top ten turbine manufacturers are Chinese,’ it adds, warning that, as Britain heads for Net Zero emissions, ‘cheaper Chinese-made wind turbines are expected to take a large share of the market.’

Already, the paper reveals, China has captured 70 per cent of the global solar panel market and wiped out once-booming solar manufacturing industries in America and Germany — as well as Wales.

The cheapest electric car in Britain is the Skoda CITIGOe iV, at £15,000 but in China, a 'locally manufactured  EV priced at £3,000 is selling well' according to Tokyo University's Prof Arima

The cheapest electric car in Britain is the Skoda CITIGOe iV, at £15,000 but in China, a ‘locally manufactured  EV priced at £3,000 is selling well’ according to Tokyo University’s Prof Arima

Other elements of Britain’s green policies will benefit China too, says Professor Arima. For example, China has long found it difficult to compete with established car-makers in Britain, Europe and Japan. But when it comes to electric vehicles (EVs), he says, ‘China is on the same starting line.’

The cheapest electric car in Britain is the Skoda CITIGOe iV, at £15,000. By contrast, Prof Arima says, in China ‘a locally manufactured EV priced at just £3,000 is selling well… the trend towards electric vehicles is extremely advantageous for China, and sweeps away the decades of technological advantage its competitors have accumulated’.

The benefits for China are also set to increase as a result of its grip on the world supply of rare earth elements.

These are vital for making a wide range of products, from huge magnets in wind turbines to the lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles and mobile phones. 

China, says Professor Arima’s report, already produces more than 60 per cent of the world’s supply.

But how has the People’s Republic managed to undercut the global market for green goods so efficiently? The supremely ironic answer is through its shameless use of one of the cheapest — and dirtiest — fuels on the planet: coal.

In the first of a series of exposés of China, I described the staggering degree with which the country’s CO2 emissions are increasing as it continues to build new coal-fired energy plants.

China has 1,080 coal-powered plants, compared to just four in the UK (and Boris Johnson has pledged to end coal-power generation here by 2024).

Coal-burning power plant in Baotou, in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (file photo)

Coal-burning power plant in Baotou, in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (file photo)

The coal-fired plants China has in the pipeline alone have a greater capacity than the entire UK electricity network.

It is coal that has enabled China to establish global dominance in vital, energy-intensive industries — steel, aluminium, plastics and cement, to name a few — where UK production has plummeted thanks to high energy costs.

Now another sector needs to be added to that list — renewable technology. Just as it once stole ‘ordinary’ industrial jobs from other countries, China is now stealing green ones, too, on a formidable scale.

So we are importing more and more green technology made as a result of burning coal from the country with the highest CO2 emissions on the planet. And sacrificing British jobs as we do so.

Renewables advocates love to brag that the cost of building wind farms is falling. One reason, it is clear, is that manufacturing them has gone to places with much lower costs, such as China.

Certainly, China is investing hugely in green energy for its own domestic purposes, but as I revealed last month, renewables still contribute minimally to the country’s national grid at present.

Tokyo University’s Professor Arima says that China’s heavy use of coal means, for example, that ‘embedded emissions’ in Chinese solar panels are far higher than they would be if made elsewhere.

(In May, a report by Sheffield Hallam University also claimed that Chinese solar panels are made with the help of Muslim Uighur-forced labour in detention camps.)

‘China is manipulating Western climate policy for its own advantage,’ Professor Arima told me.

‘As a UN Cop negotiator, I have seen that they do whatever they consider necessary,’ he added. 

‘One day their emissions will peak out. But when they do, it won’t be to prevent global warming but because they’ve decided that’s in their interest. This is very different to how naive Americans and Europeans see them.’

Jeremy Nicholson, a senior strategist at the International Federation of Industrial Energy Consumers, which represents manufacturers in the UK and EU, agrees. ‘Why are people so gullible?’ he asked. ‘Why are we giving a free pass to the world’s biggest carbon emitter?

‘If you’re trying to compete internationally, you can live with carbon prices and targets — but only if your rivals do, too.

‘The starting point for Cop26 should be that China is a prosperous, industrial economy, and so must shoulder its share of environmental responsibilities. Yet they’re getting away with vague statements and weasel words.’

Last month, RenewableUK held a conference on global offshore wind at London’s Excel centre.

There were 3,500 delegates, and 150 exhibitors from firms of every size. You only had to look around the vast exhibition hangar to see that this is a booming industry.

But why is it that, despite its growth, and despite politicians’ repeated promises, so little benefit has filtered through to places such as Methil?

The Government is clear that it wants to see a bigger UK element in offshore development, saying that in future such a requirement will be written into suppliers’ contracts. But as Gary Smith of the GMB points out, governments have said this sort of thing before.

Meanwhile, as well as making UK renewables, China is increasingly owning and controlling them too.

One of the Excel exhibitors was Red Rock Power, part of the Chinese state-owned company SDIC. It already owns several UK windfarms and is developing the multi-billion pound Inchcape field near Fife, which when finished will be — at least for a while — Scotland’s biggest. It is bidding for several more.

Mr Smith’s anger is palpable. ‘We’ve spent far too long being promised rainbows and unicorns,’ he says. ‘But they gave us empty rhetoric, never concrete planning.

‘In oil and gas we grew a world-leading industry in Aberdeen. And now we have this almost imperialist idea that China will soon be less competitive because it will follow Britain’s emissions lead — as if China’s Politburo cares what happens in 10 Downing Street.’

Back on the little hill in Methil, in a section of the yard which was once a part of BiFab, a disused oil platform is being cut up for scrap. To its left is a single, demonstration wind turbine, resting on its jacket. And that is all.

‘It doesn’t much look like the Saudi Arabia of wind, does it,’ says Mr Sullivan. ‘For now, it’s just about clinging to life.’



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