BZE – Billions and Zillions of Employment

The latest exercise in fantasy economics is making a splash in the media. Beyond Zero Emissions’ (BZE) Million Jobs Plan certainly has an eye-catching claim, but there is both less and more than meets the eye.

Less is the number of jobs created. The million jobs figure is arrived at by counting job-years. The plan is for five years, so one job that lasts for those five years is, er, five jobs by BZE’s reckoning. Notably, the ongoing jobs are more in the order of 200,000. This would still be impressive if they were new jobs, but many of them aren’t. BZE’s housing plans would at best, fill part of the construction gap that is forecast as we deal with the fallout from our first recession in 30 years. Also quietly glossed over is that – given a key purpose of the plan is rapid decarbonisation – workers in fossil fuel sectors will find themselves out of work as the assets their jobs are based around are rapidly stranded. This could include almost 16,000 people who work in gas supply, over 6,000 who work in oil refining and other fossil fuel manufacturing, at least 10,000 working at coal power stations and their mines. Presumably there will be some job losses in motor car, parts and fuel retail as we switch en masse to cycling and public transport as the plan dictates.

More is the extent of government control of the economy that would be required to implement the plan. This includes: essentially directing (given the short timeframe) industries, businesses and households to switch from fossil fuels to renewable and electrified alternatives, setting attractive fixed power prices for manufacturers, setting up a range of new manufacturing sectors (wind turbines, batteries, electric bus chassis…), creating and enforcing local content and recycled material rules, requiring cultural change in the mostly male-dominated industries that will benefit to ensure more women enter them, and so on. BZE seem oblivious to the irony in badging this a “Five Year Plan”. They are enthusiastically playing into the belief of certain progressives that climate action requires a switch to socialism.

While the scale of ambition inevitably requires a good deal of top-down direction from the Federal government (the implausibility of which at the current time needs no further explanation) it will somehow dovetail seamlessly with community participation and indigenous self-determination. Other pesky irritants such as: unanticipated consequences, supply chain bottlenecks, skills gaps, maintaining grid security and reliability through an annual buildout of renewables three times the size of the record breaking 2019 for five years straight are either ignored or breezily explained away as with the chapter on “training and education” that will magically deliver the detailed technical skills to, say, design a transmission line extension, build a wind turbine or install an electrolyser. Presumably the authors wouldn’t know a pink batt if you poked them with it.

It’s admittedly churlish to overly criticise such a well-meaning plan. Maybe unrealistic ambition is the starting point for something more manageable that allows for organic growth of demand, some time to build the skills base, and can be scaled later in the decade. Certainly, a large fiscal boost to dig us out of the recession makes sense, and if so, we might as well “lean green” and direct more of it to areas such as energy efficiency, the early stages of a hydrogen sector, rolling out electric charging stations and so on. Conversely the risk is that it is just another weapon in the climate culture wars that have plagued Australia for over a decade.