Clinging to a climate of optimism

It has been a tough few days for those businesses committed to building a sustainable future, but succumbing to environmental defeatism is not an option

23 Apr 2013, 15:24

It never rains, but it pours. It really has been a pretty depressing few days for anyone who cares about the fight against the existential threat that is climate change.

As a self-avowed New Environmentalist I am naturally optimistic about mankind's ability to respond to the many environmental challenges we face - the countless green success stories I write about every day make it impossible to be anything but. And yet, while I remain positive that a sustainable economy can be built, I have to admit that my optimism has been dented over the past few days. I dare say you are feeling much the same way, it has been that kind of week.

To recap, first up Bloomberg New Energy Finance confirmed that global investment in clean energy fell during the last quarter. Yes, clean energy capacity is continuing to increase at a rapid clip and there are plenty of reasons why a short term slowdown in investment does not constitute a crisis for the sector. But when clean energy investment levels ideally need to double by 2020, a quarter of falling investment is anything but helpful. As if that sobering news was not bad enough, our elected leaders in Brussels then confirmed that they were incapable of supporting even modest proposals to deliver a modest improvement to a carbon market that they had previously hailed as the centrepiece of Europe's climate change strategy.

That double blow was depressing, but then came the devastating one-two of reports from the International Energy Agency and the Carbon Tracker group, confirming what we already knew but can be understandably reluctant to admit: despite all the progress of the green economy and the emergence of cutting edge clean technologies, greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to climb at an exponential rate, and if we are to do anything about it we must leave billions of pounds worth of fossil fuel assets in the ground.

Taken as a whole these developments are deeply, deeply worrying. The outlook is as bleak and cheerless as a Daily Mail editors' meeting, just without the crippling cynicism.

There are, of course, various silver linings to this cloud. In the short to medium-term the prospects for green businesses remain as strong as ever. The fundamental drivers behind the transition to a low carbon economy - energy efficiency gains, improved energy security, cleaner air and water, resource efficiency, public and political pressure - are as robust as ever. Growing numbers of clean technologies can now compete with polluting incumbents without relying on subsidy or policy measures, making the shift towards greener and more sustainable business models inevitable. As the IEA report acknowledged, encouraging progress is being made with electric cars, the cost of solar power, and the continued emergence of gas as a cleaner alternative to coal that could enable a "transition" towards a low carbon fuel mix. A week after warning that renewable energy investment was falling, Bloomberg New Energy Finance yesterday released updated projections suggesting that falling technology costs meant clean energy investment will top $630bn a year by 2030, making it far and away the dominant energy category.

Meanwhile, the green policy landscape is not as bleak as last week's events suggest. At the same time as the EU was voting to undermine its own emissions trading scheme, China was reasserting its commitment to introducing its own national carbon market, John Kerry was signalling that his appointment as US Secretary of State will herald a more ambitious approach to climate policy from the US, and Walmart was revealing staggeringly ambitious plans to increase its already significant use of renewable energy six-fold inside seven years. For all of their scary predictions, many climate scientists maintain that the avoidance of "dangerous" levels of climate change is at least technically possible.

But while cause for optimism remains, any honest appraisal of the latest evidence can only lead us to conclude that progress is not being made nearly quickly enough. As global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise we continue to sleepwalk towards numerous environmental disasters. Despite admirable gains for the green economy, our political, corporate, and technological responses to this unfolding crisis are hopelessly inadequate. It is hard to resist the conclusion that we are, to borrow the vernacular, screwed.

How should we process this flurry of depressing information? What are its implications? There are countless terrifying projections detailing what a three, four, or five degree warmer world will look like from an environmental, economic, and humanitarian perspective. But ultimately the only lens we have through which to consider this future is personal; after all the only experience we have is personal.

From that purely personal point of view, the one thing that always strikes me as most worrying about climate projections is how tight the timelines have become. We seem to be stuck with the "think of the grandchildren" response to climate change that established itself in the 1980s, but anyone who is middle aged or younger really should start thinking about themselves (as well as the grandchildren, obviously). I am 33 and while life is inherently fragile and unknowable I'm hoping to enjoy a long and healthy existence. That means that if I live to the average age for a UK male I'll see the 2050s, if I get lucky and emulate the most long-lived of my grandparents I'll make it to the 2070s. Given advancements in medical science, there are significant numbers of my coevals who will celebrate New Year in 2080. A child born now has a reasonable chance of seeing in the next century.

My point is this: if you are over 45, then you are on track to bequeath the rest of us a pretty scary inheritance. But if you are under 45, then you have a good chance of experiencing some of the more devastating results of our failure to leave fossil fuels in the ground for yourself. You will see first-hand whether we are capable of building a genuinely sustainable global economy by mid-century or not. You will find out if it is possible to support nine billion people in a warmer world. You have a direct stake in this game. Is this a selfish way of looking at things? Definitely. But if we can't honestly acknowledge the direct risks we face, what hope is there of taking the necessary moral leap and considering the threats faced by our contemporaries born into those countries on the front line of climate impacts.

What will we face in 2050? It is impossible to see the future, but if the environmental projections are even half right it will be daunting. In fact, we already have a taster of some of the pressures to come, given that many of the economic and humanitarian challenges that relate to climate change are already evident. The bulk of the inflationary pressures currently impacting the UK relate to environmental issues as volatile weather and resource scarcity push up the prices of food and key commodities. With greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise, the carbon intensity of global energy infrastructure flat-lining, and a political and economic settlement capable of keeping fossil fuels in the ground a long way from being realised, all the best estimates continue to point to average global temperature increases of four degrees plus by the end of the century. The balance of risk suggests that without a global economic revolution or an entirely unanticipated natural phenomena - either of which would have to be so dramatic that they could realistically described as miraculous - the world by mid-century will already have a remarkably hostile climate.

Warnings such as this inevitably attract accusations of scaremongering. Climate sceptics and their allies will continue to argue that none of the worst climate impacts will ever come to pass. I envy them their scientific ignorance and cavalier attitude to risk; envy it and hold it in the highest contempt. As Duncan Clark explained in an excellent article for the Guardian last week detailing our continued failure to stop burning fossil fuels, lower than anticipated levels of climate sensitivity could possibly ride to our rescue, but it would be deeply irresponsible to rely on such an unlikely salvation. "If we are lucky, the impact of burning all that oil, coal and gas could turn out to be at the less severe end of the plausible spectrum," he argued. "But that is hardly reassuring: it's akin to saying that it is fine to walk blindfolded into a main road since you can't be sure there are any cars coming."

More valid is the optimistic argument that civilisation will find a way, that mankind is ingenious enough to come up with a solution to the climate crisis. I want to believe this; on balance I do still believe this. History has shown that both rapid industrial revolutions and disruptive economic change is possible. Technological innovations have proven Malthusian projections wrong time and again. As has been argued repeatedly, all the technologies necessary to decarbonise the global economy in a sustainable and just manner already exist, and they are getting cheaper and more effective all the time. Even if we don't decarbonise quickly enough in the first instance, geo-engineering and climate adaptation measures could provide some sort of safety net. And yet, when you assess the odds of delivering this green revolution against the odds of crippling climate and environmental impacts, does it not make you feel nervous? I don't mind admitting, it terrifies me.

So what do we, as green business leaders and environmentalists, do next? How do we throw the inexorable rise in global carbon emissions into reverse? How do we stop the current crisis whereby, like a squeezed balloon, reduced emissions in the US and EU are quickly wiped out by rising emissions in emerging economies? How do we convince the world to leave still valuable fossil fuels in the ground? And how do we manage this transition in a way that does not lead to the bursting of the carbon bubble and the collapse of large parts of the global economy?

New Environmentalism is about nothing if it is not about pragmatism. We need answers to these questions. We need a plan.

Luckily, it is not as if we don't have the answers. As Clark argued, we already know how to decarbonise. "A properly designed global cap and trade scheme is one option," he writes. "Stiff taxes on the production or sale of carbon-based fuels is another. Or we could simply oblige companies taking carbon out of the ground to arrange for a rising share of what they extract to be buried again. Any of these models could bring down global emissions and stimulate an explosion of investment and innovation in clean and efficient energy systems."

Similarly, last week's Carbon Tracker report set out a series of intelligent recommendations for deflating the carbon bubble, ranging from regulators demanding more disclosure from companies on the carbon-related risks they face to individuals divesting their pensions from carbon intensive projects.

Drawing on this and other thinking it is relatively easy to develop a theoretical plan that would deliver global decarbonisation without impinging on living standards - a plan based on a ban on the use of unabated coal power, a massive increase in clean tech R&D, demanding new energy efficiency and green product standards, the global deployment of smart grid technologies, huge investment in climate adaptation, the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies, the introduction of appropriate carbon pricing mechanisms, and a global effort to explore the feasibility of geo-engineering proposals.

The problem is that this kind of comprehensive strategy remains the stuff of environmentalist fantasy. Incremental progress can and has been made on all of these fronts, but when it comes to the kind of ambitious co-ordinated reform that is necessary short termism and vested interest continues to remain the order of the day. The big question is how do green businesses and new environmentalists deliver on this plan? Because, as last week proved, the current approaches obviously aren't working.

For me there are a handful of changes that green businesses and NGOs need to embrace that could be loosely grouped together under the banner "pragmatic urgency".

The first step has to be to ditch the tendency towards ideological and policy purity that continues to afflict much green thinking. The scale of the climate change threat and the failure of current efforts to ensure fossil fuels are left in the ground means that unless a green policy is shown to be explicitly counter-productive (I am thinking about the worst biofuel policies and the most excessive subsidies) then there should be an assumption in favour of action being taken. The arguments greens repeatedly engage in over whether carbon pricing or subsidy is preferable, or whether we should use transparency rules or mandatory standards to drive green product progress are often a huge waste of time - we need everything. Too many environmental debates are akin to arguing in 1940 about whether the allies should build tanks or planes. The latest attempt by that inveterate self-publicist Bjorn Lomborg to start a debate on how governments should ditch clean energy policies in favour of R&D is a case in a point. The fact that broadcasters can take such a blatantly false choice seriously and continue to give Lomborg air time to push his demonstrably flawed arguments provides yet more proof that all it takes to get yourself on TV is a few eye-catching talking points and an unwavering sense of self-confidence.

Secondly, and I make no apologies for making this point yet again, the marketing and positioning of the green economy has to focus relentlessly on the benefits it delivers. That means demonstrating how green technologies are now mature and working, and embedding attractive clean technologies such as low emission vehicles, smart appliances and solar panels in people's homes and offices. As the influential British diplomat John Ashton observed recently, "we have to make the prospect of moving rapidly to a low carbon growth model feel like an opportunity not a risk".

That should be the strategy, but what about the tactics? How do you ensure these attractive technologies and business models cut through into the mainstream?

There has to be a recognition among all those businesses committed to the development of a low carbon economy that it is not going to happen at sufficient pace without a policy framework that challenges the high carbon status quo. That means business leaders need to roll up their sleeves and go out of their way to get that policy. Too many firms are happy to commit to the development of greener business models, write letters about the need for supportive policies, and even invest billions in developing clean technologies. But there is still reluctance amongst business leaders to impress upon their political counterparts that the low carbon transition is an absolute necessity.

There is an urgent requirement for businesses to establish whether they mean what they say when they sign up to admirable communiques calling for urgent action to tackle climate change. If so, that means extricating themselves from any lobby group or trade association pursuing an agenda contrary to such action and actually using some of their political capital to demand real progress. Carbon intensive vested interests are happy to mobilise their supporters in the press and chew the ears off politicians over their short-sighted concerns in both public and private - green businesses need to get better at playing this game and impressing upon political leaders that when they call for carbon pricing or climate change action they are not doing it for PR purposes, they mean it.

Related to this point is the need for much sharper criticism of those same vested interests and the risk-happy ideologues who would rather engineer a full blown environmental crisis than take even modest steps to deliver greener infrastructure. If a business is fully committed to the development of a sustainable economy they should not be so willing to let their less enlightened peers undermine that vision. Green business leaders need to go on the record and make it clear that when groups like BusinessEurope seek to scupper environmental policies they do not act for all businesses - they do not speak for you.

Every business with a stake in the green economy needs to embrace this pragmatic urgency with immediate effect. They need to make a much bigger nuisance of themselves and make it clear that those investing in extracting ever more hydrocarbons from the ground are locked into a business model that is unsustainable in every sense of the word.

They also need to redouble efforts to demonstrate that low carbon technologies and economic models can work effectively ahead of the crucial 2015 UN climate summit in Paris. According to many of those who were directly involved, the last attempt to deliver an international climate change treaty in Copenhagen in 2009 failed because world leaders were not quite yet convinced that decarbonisation and economic prosperity were compatible. We cannot allow that same misconception to destroy the last best hope of international action. To do so would be to condemn the world to many, many more depressing weeks in the years ahead. And, after last week, I for one have had enough of those.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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