Charlotte Sophia Bez, Lorenzo Feltrin – Why Europe must address the problem of ‘noxious deindustrialisation’

Many areas in Europe are seeing a sharp decline in industrial jobs, without high-polluting industries disappearing

Charlotte Sophia Bez is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the FutureLab CERES at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and MCC Berlin. Lorenzo Feltrin is a Leverhulme Early-Career Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

Cross-posted from LSE EUROPP blog

Taranto, Southern Italy – an important example of noxious deindustrialisation (Picture: hillman54)

The problem of ‘noxious deindustrialisation’ – employment deindustrialisation in areas where significantly noxious industries are still operating – is a global reality, and Europe is no exception.

Over the last two decades, according to ILO estimates, the share of manufacturing in total employment in the European Union has fallen from 24% to 15%, a decline that started from a much higher point in the 1970s. Despite this fall, and despite better technological standards, the ecological crisis caused by industrial production has worsened due to material output growth and the cumulative nature of environmental degradation.

mapping of European industrial pollution and its socioeconomic effects shows that noxious deindustrialisation does not proceed evenly across space. Instead, the naturalisation of the ‘right to pollute’ based on economic power maintains and reinforces a geography of left-behind places where social deprivation and exposure to noxious pollutants go hand in hand, entrenching spatial injustice.

Places like Taranto in Southern Italy or Lusatia in East Germany share the experience of productive and social lock-ins leading to regional abandonment. This process is driven by employment deindustrialisation coupled with sustained toxic harm by industrial activity, such as steel production or lignite-fired power plants. However, noxious deindustrialisation has more than one face. In fact, two distinctive patterns emerge from the data, which we call grey noxious deindustrialisation and green noxious deindustrialisation.

Grey noxious deindustrialisation

Grey noxious deindustrialisation occurs around factories characterised by a lack of investment in the best available technologies needed to reduce pollutant emissions. Industries with sticky backward technologies pollute more but displace fewer factory workers, therefore grey noxious deindustrialisation is more noxious and less deindustrialising than its green comparator.

But deindustrialisation it is nonetheless, as in such regions there is still a decline in the share of manufacturing employment relative to its historical peak. Such decline can be partially due to offshoring to lower-wage countries but, to the extent that noxious factories remain in place, it is explained by the fact that even laggard technological change has sizeable labour-saving impacts over the decades.

Grey noxious deindustrialisation areas tend to be in the lowest income regions, are often specialised in polluting, scantly diversified, and low-complexity industries, and typically have low capital-labour ratios, which makes the adoption of clean-tech innovations less profitable. In such left-behind places, the presence of dirty factories has a positive impact on employment and wage levels in manufacturing, but a negative one on the regional labour market as a whole.

Such left-behind places find themselves locked in their poor economic trajectories while dealing with a heavily impaired environment due to sustained pollution. This results in a dependence on noxious industrial specialisation, locking in the manufacturing workforce’s reliance on toxic and decaying plants. Many left-behind places still depend on heavy industries processing metals, minerals, coal, and other raw materials with outdated technologies. The major polluters are often within-sector low-efficiency outliers. The lack of alternatives leads workers and their families to move away. In fact, grey noxious deindustrialisation areas are strongly characterised by net migration outflows.

Taranto is one of the direst examples of grey noxious deindustrialisation in today’s Europe. There, the local share of manufacturing employment in 1971 stood at 37%. By 2011, this figure had fallen to 16%, and it must be lower today. Despite this, Taranto’s Ex ILVA steelworks are still operating, with obsolete machineries releasing extreme amounts of carcinogenic emissions every day.

The Taranto population has thus been facing both severe toxic pollution from active factories and a decline in factory jobs. However, because such industrial activity has hindered the creation of alternative employment, a considerable share of the workforce still depends on Ex ILVA’s employment to make a living, while higher-than-average incidences of cancer and other pathologies are still a reality.

Green noxious deindustrialisation

Green noxious deindustrialisation takes place around toxic industries endowed with cutting-edge technologies. Here pollution is significantly slashed, but so are the factory jobs, as green tech often has substantial labour-saving effects. Green noxious deindustrialisation is thus more deindustrialising and less noxious than grey noxious deindustrialisation. Additionally, green noxious deindustrialisation has positive spill-over effects on the overall regional economy thanks to innovation, economic diversification, and increases in ‘green’ jobs.

Nonetheless, green noxious deindustrialisation is still noxious. In the first instance, this applies to industries – such as fossil fuels – that are unsustainable regardless of whether they use the best available technologies or not. Second, green techno-fixes in large-scale industry have been offset by the cumulative nature of environmental degradation, so that moderate improvements are inadequate for addressing our current predicament. Thirdly, efficiency gains in a mode of production predicated on infinite commodity growth are frustrated by the so called ‘Jevons paradox’, in which more efficiency does not result in less consumption, because – as prices fall – demand grows and so does material output.

The Ruhr area, once a complex industrial growth pole specialised in coal, iron, and steel, is in many respects exemplary of green noxious deindustrialisation. With coal mines closing and steel markets becoming more competitive, thousands of blue-collar jobs vanished, yet such losses were offset by successful economic restructuring through the creation of good quality service jobs.

Hence, the Ruhr was transformed into a knowledge-based hub of green industries and expertise, with significant employment in environmental technology research and development, and it has often been touted as a successful prototype of low-carbon energy transitions. However, this narrative conceals strong regional disparities, as economic revitalisation and diversification have not been taken up universally, as well as the fact that many unsustainable industrial complexes, especially in the energy and steel industries, are still operating in the area.

Beyond noxiousness?

The green and grey noxious deindustrialisation patterns we have just outlined occur with different degrees of intensity and ‘purity’ in different localities, and sometimes elements of both coexist in the same areas. Undoubtedly, green noxious deindustrialisation is preferable to grey noxious deindustrialisation because it delivers better health and environmental outcomes and, while factory jobs are lost, economic reconversion and reskilling can – if successful – generate better paid and less noxious employment in knowledge-intensive services and high-tech industries.

This shows that the jobs-environment dilemma is not unescapable. However, the crux of shifting from grey to green noxious deindustrialisation is ensuring a ‘just transition’ to the blue-collar workers who risk unemployment because of cleaner and labour-saving technologies as environmental and labour efficiencies usually come in tandem. Just transitions in left-behind places require the participation of stakeholders – particularly labour unions and community organisations – as well as compensatory redistribution for those otherwise left-behind by environmental policy.

However, the ‘noxious’ in green noxious deindustrialisation remains the problem. Green noxious deindustrialisation is ‘green’ only because it pollutes less than its grey relative, but this does not mean that technological fixes are sufficient to tackle the ecological crisis. Ultimately, green noxious deindustrialisation is the industrial policy manifestation of ‘green capitalism’, and it shares the limitations of the latter, the most crucial being that no technology can erase the noxiousness of ever-growing commodified production.

For example, electrification is now the emblem of the green capitalist quest to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Yet digitalisation and decarbonisation – the so-called twin transition – are causing an explosion in the demand for metals. This prospect is alarming, as it will trigger further stratifications of environmental and social inequalities. From a global perspective, if the current status quo of neo-colonial extractivism and unequal consumption persists, the outcome will be a thoroughly unsustainable deepening of productivism and injustice, albeit with reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

In sum, the just transitions required to move beyond the ecological crisis will need to encompass changes in both technology and social relations, pushing back the frontiers of commodified production. As working-class people are those most affected by pollution and its impact on labour markets, they have a potential material interest in developing the ‘ecological class consciousness’ necessary to bring these transformations about.

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