Answer not blowing in the wind

Some say we could generate jobs by exporting green technology like wind turbines, such as these...
Some say we could generate jobs by exporting green technology like wind turbines, such as these on the Tararua Range. Photo by Reuters.

Where will jobs for young people come from? Certainly not from pie-in-the-sky hopes for renewable energy and sustainables, says John de Bueger.

In a recent report - the "World of Work"- the International Labour Organisation (ILO) highlighted the potential for a worldwide wave of major civil unrest caused by a lack of jobs for young people. In this country for example, while national unemployment is about 6.5%, among the young it is about 25% and rising.

The world has entered a new phase of economic weakness and the ILO believes that over the next two years barely half the 80 million jobs needed to return world employment to pre-crisis conditions will eventuate. Some countries have already dropped back into recession. They also say there is only, "a brief window of opportunity to avoid a major double-dip in employment and the next few months will be critical".

The growing anger over a lack of jobs and the perception of inequitable sharing of the pain is global. The risk of social unrest is rising in more than 45 of the 118 countries studied by the ILO - with signs of stress showing strongly in the EU and Middle East, and to a lesser extent in Asia. The devil does indeed make work for idle hands and political leaders ignore such matters at their peril. We have witnessed the recent riots in Athens on television where Greek youth unemployment has hit 43% (Spain is even worse at 48%).

This matter is probably the most serious issue facing this country, and the response from National and Labour in the first leader's debate was disappointing. Both the PM and Phil Goff ducked it in favour of asset sales and superannuation.

Instead, we got platitudes about youth pay rates, apprenticeships, or how jobs for the young would appear by magic once their particular party's policies had sorted out the economy.

It is a truly intractable problem. For those of us on record as having predicted nearly three years ago that the Global financial crisis was unlikely to ever end, one wishes somehow that one had been wrong - or if not wrong, then unduly pessimistic.

Only the Greens have attempted to address this political quandary, but unfortunately, their solution is the usual pie-in-the-sky nonsense that afflicts most of their utterances. Their fix for New Zealand is to invest heavily in research into renewable energy and sustainables - with job growth coming from our exporting the resulting intellectual property and products to an eager, waiting world. Yeah, right.

Such policies may well appeal to the idealistic young, but the Greens are ignoring hard, current-day reality. Only last month New Zealand's sole wind turbine manufacturer, Windflow, barely managed to stave off liquidation - despite having a state-of-the-art machine fully certified for really windy conditions.

Meanwhile, Meridian Energy have finally flicked-off WhisperGen, a Canterbury University conceived gas-fired home power generation system that looked extremely attractive on paper. If these well-backed ventures could not make a go of renewable technology, then what chance do any others have of generating the huge numbers of jobs required to get the young off the streets?

The current Green Party leadership have probably (conveniently), forgotten that apart from geothermal power, the only green technology this country ever exported successfully was hydro-electric engineering - now a truly unmentionable subject among many of them. We also export green agriculture, but they don't like that either.

My dismal economic outlook prediction of some years ago was based on the stark reality of Peak Oil and the fundamental nature of the link between oil production and global GDP. The Greens have made a lot of mileage out of the dependence of the current global economy on this dwindling necessity.

Their solution is to ditch oil and go solar. Given that the solar resource is both huge and truly infinite, at first sight one might think that at long last the Greens have finally hit the jackpot.

Not so. I am sorry to disabuse you. Peak renewables are actually in a worse state than oil, and according to the United States Department of Energy, 14 essential elements will hit critical short supply in little more than five years. The sun won't run down anytime soon.

The problem is that catching its rays in a practical way requires high-tech devices, and these depend on transition elements and rare-earth minerals. They are well named indeed - most being much scarcer than oil.

Few of us have even heard of yttrium, neodymium, tellurium, indium, lanthanum, cerium, dysprosium, etc. Neobium is essential for the high strength magnets in laptop hard drives, wind-turbine generators and electric car motors. Cadmium telluride displaces expensive silicon, and is essential if solar cells are to become a practical reality. Without indium there would be no touchscreen displays. Dysposium is essential for magnets required to operate at very high temperatures.

Without lanthanum and cerium you can forget about hybrid car batteries, and terbium and yttrium are needed for TV screens and long-life fluorescent bulbs.

Detailed uses for all 14 elements and the US findings are spelt out in a June article in New Scientist.

The 7th billion human arrived last week, but it will be a miracle if even half this number exist at the end of this century.

Sounds like it won't be long before youth unemployment isn't the only thing we need worry about.

 - John de Bueger is a New Plymouth writer and engineer.




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