The pursuit of green freedom

19 Nov 2014

alpha-trees

It is a challenge that has thwarted provincial DJs for generations: how do you get a quiet crowd to make some noise. I've been thinking about this problem a lot recently. In part because the run up to next year's Paris Summit will see businesses and NGOs focus intently building public support for climate action, in part because as clean technologies move from blueprint to production line green businesses will have to get much better at engaging with the public to promote their wares, and in part because I was recently asked to become a trustee of the new environmental charity Hubbub, which, as the name suggests, is focused on turning up the volume of green engagement initiatives.

My interest in Hubbub relates to the lengthy essay I published back in 2012 defending the so-called "New Environmentalism" and the emergence of a certain strand of pragmatic, pro-business, realistic, and yet optimistic green thinking. Since then, the recognition that the transition to a low carbon economy is both essential and desirable has become ever more widespread, as evidenced by everything from the latest US-China Climate Pact to the rapid expansion of the green bond market. But the environmental movement has struggled to match this progress in the realm of communications, repeatedly struggling to articulate a vision that can harness wider public and business support for economic decarbonisation and green behaviour change. The question New Environmentalism now has to address if it is to build on its recent success is how to present a more compelling vision - one capable of appealing to the extensive constituency that is already quietly supportive of what the global green economy is attempting to achieve. The answer, I suspect, lies in the language of "freedom" and "justice" that has successively driven so many of the cultural, political, technological and economic transitions of the past.

It is these questions that Hubbub is wrestling with. The charity was founded this summer by Trewin Restorick, who previously founded Global Action Plan and over 15 years established it as one of the UK's leading environmental NGOs and green behaviour change specialists. By his own admission, Restorick, while remaining rightly proud of Global Action Plan's many achievements, became a little tired of the staid and incremental nature of many behaviour change initiatives, not to mention the tendency of some businesses to use modest gains on recycling or energy efficiency as a sticking plaster that singularly failed to conceal the unsustainable nature of their core business models.

Consequently, Hubbub was launched this summer with the goal of bringing a more visible, vocal, and radical approach to environmental engagement initiatives. The goal is as simple as it is daunting: to help make green and sustainable lifestyles and technologies attractive, cost effective, and, above all, fun. The charity gave a hint at its approach last month with the launch of a Pumpkin Festival in Oxford to highlight the tonnes of food waste created by Halloween and encourage people to make good use of their lantern once they are done with it. It may sound like the kind of initiative that results in incremental environmental savings, but the plan is to fit the festival into a wider effort to tackle food waste. The campaign will then form part of a network of 'hubs' that will seek to promote sustainability in spheres of activity where people are already highly engaged, such as sport, fashion, and neighbourhoods.

In addition to highlighting how attractive green behaviours are, these hubs and their related campaigns will seek to build on the wisdom of Jonathan Rowson's fascinating recent work for the RSA on A New Agenda on Climate Change, which highlights how simply encouraging people to take action on climate change is largely worthless and potentially counterproductive if you do not offer them a tangible course of action. Hubbub wants to show how tackling food waste saves you money, how moving away from resource-intensive fast fashion needn't be dreary, how environmentalism is not the worthy preserve of eco-nerds and can help make your park more attractive, your local pub cosier, and your neighbourhood school more successful. By giving people tangible and attractive steps they can take it helps tackle the "stealth denial" Rowson identifies and serves to embolden the two thirds of people who typically accept manmade climate change is a serious issue but do little about it.

On the surface this looks like an effective approach that should help cut greenhouse gas emissions and provide a further boost to environmentalism's slow and steady march into the mainstream. And yet, behaviour change initiatives such as those planned by Hubbub are not without their critics. Too middle class and elitist, complain climate sceptics, many of whom are middle class and a fair few of whom are ennobled. Too condescending and inaccessible for poorer communities, grumble critics whose own record on campaigning for social mobility often appears as thin as their climate science credentials. Too ineffectual and incremental, argue some fellow environmentalists, maintaining that behaviour change initiatives will never deliver the drastic structural change that is required to decarbonise the global economy.

Behaviour change v structural change

It is this last point that gives me pause for thought; mainly because I am sympathetic to the argument that behaviour change initiatives make a modest contribution to the low carbon economy at best and constitute little more than greenwash at worst. (On the other two points of criticism, environmentalism is all too often a middle class pursuit and there are some components of climate policy that appear regressive in the short term, but the idea environmentalists are gleefully ignoring these facts is an appalling slur. Hubbub and many other green NGOs and businesses are actively engaged in broadening their appeal and there are numerous examples of environmental projects that seek to involve poorer communities. Similarly, in my experience there is a willingness within the green movement to wrestle with policies that are regressive in the short term, even if their long term goal is to protect some of the world's poorest societies from economically crippling climate impacts. Finally, what exactly is wrong with leaning heavily on the middle class? From the industrial revolution onwards the middle class has played a crucial role in almost every successful technological, economic, and social transformation we have undergone, environmentalism is unlikely to be an exception).

The criticism of behaviour change initiatives efficacy cannot be easily dismissed. There are two big and inter-related fault lines within the environmental movement currently, which are likely to be the subject of intense debate in the run up to next year's Paris Summit. One is between structural change and behaviour change, while the other is between the top down, international treaty, supra-national government approach to decarbonisation and the bottom up, business-led, city-level, regional administration approach to cutting emissions. (Actually there are three big fault lines, in that the divide between New and Old Environmentalism remains, but given my position as an avowed New Environmentalist I'm not about to revisit that particular argument).

If I had to pick a side in these debates (although the point I am working towards is you don't have to pick a side) I would lean towards structural change and bottom up decarbonisation at almost every turn. Brendan May, founder of green consultancy Robertsbridge and former chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, offered a convincing demolition of behaviour change initiatives earlier this summer, arguing the sheer scale of the environmental challenges we face means the embrace of greener behaviours by a globally insignificant slither of the population will not make one iota of difference. The only hope of avoiding a climate crisis, May argues, is through drastic technological and infrastructure change led by the world's corporate and economic superpowers. "The risks of climate change, resource scarcity, pollution, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and social inequality require politicians and business to wake up," he writes. "That's where campaigners should focus their efforts, not in wasting time and resource trying to mobilise a global public that may well follow, but will never lead the charge. To those who say that it is easier for business or government to move if there is a public movement in place to create the political will or commercial incentive, I say good luck, but we can't afford to wait that long."

In May's reading, green behaviour change efforts are, if anything, a distraction from the more serious business of mobilising capital and transforming business models. Similarly, Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance has convincingly argued for some time that the long-running UN climate change negotiations risk detracting from the "bottom up" decarbonisation efforts that will ultimately determine whether or not a low carbon economy is built. In an excellent essay on The Rocky Road to Paris he argued the focus for the United Nations talks had to shift towards the practical, on the ground efforts that will enable deep emissions reductions. "After Copenhagen, it became fashionable to argue for a combined 'top-down and bottom-up' approach to the climate challenge," he wrote. "My concern in 2011 was that 'the more time, energy and credibility is wasted pushing for a binding, top-down deal on emissions, the less we have to devote to the sort of initiatives we know work'... I remain an unashamed and almost unalloyed bottom-upper."

I instinctively support both these arguments. If you asked me which is more likely to prove successful at cutting emissions over the coming decades, convincing people not to travel or inventing a genuinely low carbon aviation fuel or hyper fast train, I'd pick the technological and structural option every time. Ask me to choose between an international agreement that in and of itself does nothing to slash emissions and a living and working low carbon city, I'd take the bottom up technological leap forward knowing if it can be shown to work other cities would emulate its success.

So, why get involved with a charity focused on behaviour change? Because the attempt to paint these debates as an either/or decision is the most blatant of false choices. Climate change and its associated challenges are so big we need both structural change and behaviour change, as well as top down and bottom up decarbonisation efforts. In fact, each side of these two divides is mutually reinforcing of the other. Green behaviour change enables green structural change, and vice versa. Regional level low carbon infrastructure makes international climate policy progress more likely, and vice versa. Last week's US-China climate pact was enabled by both countries' recent progress in accelerating clean tech deployment, which provided political leaders with evidence the new emissions targets they have agreed are achievable. But the agreement in turn provides a significant boost to green investor confidence, enabling further bottom-up action to curb emissions.

Building a green constituency

The reality is no economic, cultural or political transformation has ever been achieved without a solid constituency demanding and enabling that transformation.

The good news is all around the world there is a sizeable and growing group of people that wants to see action on climate change. Polling shows climate scepticism is an almost uniquely Anglo Saxon phenomenon, and even in those countries where the environment has become a deeply politicised issue clear majorities support climate action and clean energy. More broadly, there is almost a universal human desire to live in clean and biodiverse environments that nourish body and soul alike. I am yet to meet the person who likes litter or the individual who is happy about air pollution.

The bad news is this huge constituency is remarkably diffuse and staggeringly weak. Recent US polling confirms while concern about climate change is a majority position, people do not see it as a priority when they come to vote - hence the Kafka-esque sight of a climate sceptic as chair of the Senate Environment Committee. Similar results are evident in other countries, as people asked to prioritise between short and long term concerns err towards the old truism that in the long term we're all dead. People love the environment, they care about it deeply, but they rarely translate that care into action.

Which brings us back to my original question, how do you get a silent majority to make some noise?

A green constituency that translated its quiet concern about climate change into tangible climate action, into clean technologies bought, and political demands made, would enable a drastic acceleration in decarbonisation and low carbon development. It would provide politicians with the cover they need to enact ambitious green policies - it is notable how legislation we take for granted like the smoking ban or driving with a seatbelt only came about once politicians were sure there was an overwhelming constituency either actively in their favour or indifferent either way - and it would provide businesses with the mass market they need for new clean technologies.

Most importantly, it would provide a conducive audience for the massive structural change that is required to decarbonise the global economy, change that in some areas will be so drastic that it simply cannot be achieved without an engaged public that understands the context for the infrastructure transformations we are being asked to make. Structural change is essential to tackling climate change, but you can't decarbonise on the quiet.

How can environmentalists create, or more precisely, enable such a constituency? I am not talking simply about public support for banning unsustainable and environmentally damaging economic activities (although a legally-backed end to the most egregious environmentally unjustifiable practices - food waste to landfill, toxic levels of air pollution, unabated coal power - would be great). Nor am I suggesting environmentalists try to engineer public support for banning anything and everything without a green label, regardless of how some will attempt to interpret these arguments. The question is not simply how do you secure narrow public support for renewables, or electric cars (we already have that), but how do build a constituency that translates its pent up interest in the environment into a comprehension of the need for a green economic transition?

I suspect Hubbub is right in its belief that environmentalism needs to be made more fun. The benefits of cleaner technologies and communities need to be made more explicit and there has to be a willingness to engage people with environmental issues through avenues that already interest them. The recent pumpkin festival is a perfect, if relatively narrow example. If you can engage people who are interested in food and family activities and show them how you can easily bolt saving food onto behaviour they already enjoy, not only are they more likely to take steps to reduce food waste, crucially, they may be more willing to push their council to provide food waste recycling. It is at this point that incremental environmental gains delivered through behaviour change suddenly morphs into policy and structural changes that deliver much greater gains. The snowball starts to roll.

A green Chicago School?

However, to achieve this momentum the communication of environmental messages needs to be made much more concise and compelling. This summer I shared a platform at an event hosted by the Green Economy Coalition on climate change communication with the always inspiring US writer and activist Hunter Lovins. She was brutally dismissive of the environmental movement's inability to communicate an attractive vision to the public, contrasting it with the conscious decision the Chicago School took to appropriate the language of freedom and liberty to build support for a neoliberal economic system that provided millions of people with neither.

Lovins point, one which I agreed with, is that all great movements seeking social and economic change have a unifying narrative, an origin story if you will, an explanation of where they came from and where they are going. We understand (or at least comic book fans understand) how Bruce Wayne became Batman and we have a sense of the mission that defines him. More pertinently, we know what the anti-slavery movement wanted, we know what civil rights campaigners want, we know what feminists want (no matter how much misogynists attempt to argue that feminism's central demand for equal treatment is somehow unclear), we also know what neoliberalism wants and we know the arguments its supporters deploy to get it.

Can we say the same of environmentalism? Do we even know what we want? Sure, we can come up with a long list of goals: an effective response to climate change, an end to ocean acidification, a more efficient economy, a reduction in air pollution, restoration of the natural world, some form of social justice. But what unifies that lot (and a lot more besides)? Where is the narrative that stitches the key goals of the modern environmental movement together, that commands public recognition and provides a basis for public, business, and political support?

Looking at those successful transformations of the past it is worth noting how their core narratives can be distilled down to one or two words. The industrial revolution marched under a banner of progress and no little sense of duty and patriotism. The anti-slavery movement had its simple, one word, unanswerable arguments: liberty and justice. The civil rights movement and feminism have similarly defined themselves through simple calls for justice and equality. Neoliberalism annexed liberty and grafted it on to competition, alongside a whispered ‘I can't believe the proles are buying this'.

But what is the banner environmentalism marches under? What is its story? It is hard to fit ‘We demand an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 for industrialised nations and a 50 per cent cut for emerging economies by the same date' on a banner. "What do we want?" "A decarbonised and circular economy where green growth is measured using a new metric that replaces the dysfunctional GDP measurements that distort our current economic models." "When do we want it?" "By 2030."

Not greener, but better

Speaking on the panel alongside Lovins, I repeated my oft-voiced and rather clunky line about how the narrative the green economy should be pursuing is "not greener, but better". Green business communication efforts should be focused exclusively on the way in which clean technologies, business models and lifestyles represent progress and technological improvement. We should revive the underlying narrative of the first industrial revolution and demonstrate how green businesses can replace inefficient and flawed technologies with alternatives that are quite simply better than the incumbents across almost every metric. In the 21st century, fossil fuel firms will end up like the bankrupted cart makers and whale oil trades of the 19th and early 20th century. It is a solid argument that becomes ever more compelling as clean technologies mature. Who doesn't want to live in a warm and efficient house rather than a cold, costly and draughty one? Who doesn't want cars that end the blight of air pollution?

This narrative is playing a big part in Hubbub's plans and you now see it every day in the advertising and promotion of emerging clean technologies. The Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S are not advertised as being explicitly green, they are promoted as cool, attractive cars with ultra-low running costs. Similarly, the new digital heating controls that are suddenly being advertised anywhere and everywhere by the likes of British Gas, Npower, and Nest are being positioned as cool gadgets, not green gadgets.

And yet, "not greener, but better" is still too complicated. It is not unanswerable. It invites a debate over whether what you are proposing really is greener and better - a debate that is hard to win when you are battling vested interests, misinformation, and the most powerful incumbents in corporate history. No one is going to fight for a slogan that sounds like the strapline for the latest eco-gadget. You can't build a powerful and engaged green constituency around "not greener, but better", you need something more.

Some environmentalists have retreated to the movement's more spiritual fringes and argued it is "love" that can provide this something more. But as I've argued before, "love" is far too vague and poorly defined term to build tangible climate action around. If we make tackling climate change conditional on a global spiritual awakening then we're screwed.

Green freedom

However, there is a recurring theme in the narratives that have nourished successful economic and social transformations. Maybe, once again, it is the concepts of freedom and justice that hold the key. Freedom from polluted air, freedom from toxic water, freedom from climate risks, freedom from volatile fossil fuel prices, freedom from cities without enough green space, freedom from corporate and political power that has no interest in our long term future. What environmentalists are essentially demanding is freedom from pollution that delivers environmental justice to the victims of that pollution and the future generations that will face the climate impacts we are bequeathing them. As Robert Kennedy Jr argues, the biggest subsidy in the world is not the one handed to renewables companies, or even the much greater financial kickbacks gifted to fossil fuel companies, it is the subsidy we hand everyone when we say you can dump pollution into our air and waters for nothing.

An environmental narrative based on freedom and justice has the potential to unite left and right, even if in the current climate that looks about as likely as Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage enjoying a pint together. It might seem like an improbable alliance, but in the US there are some fascinating examples of Tea Party activists and environmentalists joining forces to embrace renewables that enable self-sufficiency and free people, in one important respect, from reliance on both the state and corporations.

An appeal to see environmental progress and clean technology as a mechanism for enabling greater freedom and genuine justice appeals to one of the oldest impulses in human society and would resonate powerfully across the political spectrum. Obviously it is difficult to create a narrative centred on freedom when the oppressor you are setting yourself against is an invisible gas and a hugely complex global economic system. Moreover, I remain somewhat conflicted about the strategy, pioneered by 350.org, of painting fossil fuel companies as the enemy of climate action. But it remains possible to argue that clean technologies and green business models give us freedom from environmental damage and freedom to better enjoy the world that surrounds us. For businesses, a green economy also gives freedom to innovate and freedom from tired and dysfunctional 20th and 19th century infrastructure.

Supporters of the status quo would inevitably mock this narrative and argue that true freedom comes with the cheap energy provided by fossil fuels. But as the climate cost associated with that particular "freedom" becomes ever more apparent and clean technologies demonstrate they can compete on costs with fossil fuels, those arguments look increasingly outdated and isolated.

Could a narrative based on green freedom work? Could it create a more coherent environmentalism that is attractive to the significant constituency that is quietly concerned about the state of the environment and supportive of the technologies that may herald a better and greener economy? I don't know.

But I do know that to deliver real change, both in terms of behaviours and economic structures, you need a constituency that will demand, support, and then enable that change. And if you are going to embolden such a constituency and get it to make some noise you need to give it something to get excited about. It is hard to get that animated about the minutiae of climate change science, not least because so much of it is bloody terrifying. But people do get excited about their local park, about cool technologies, about saving money, and improving their neighbourhood. They do get excited about freedom. The freedom from looming climate catastrophe and a busted growth model that can offer us little but volatility and risk is something the public and the business community might be willing to fight for. Indeed, there are ever more signs that they already are. The freedom to live our lives in beautiful, sustainable environments is something we all desire. New Environmentalism, at its best, can offer that freedom. It is time to make some noise about it.

Happy Birthday BusinessGreen

12 Nov 2014

Cupcake with birthday candles

Tonight, BusinessGreen is hosting its seventh birthday party. Digital publishing is such a fast moving sphere and such an unforgiving environment in which to achieve commercial viability that website birthdays really should be regarded like dog years - seven years puts us comfortably into middle age territory. And yet, it feels like BusinessGreen is still in its teenage years, trying new things (not all of which work), facing challenges and opportunities, and maintaining a passionate (and some might say unrealistic) optimism about the future.

Tonight's party (there are a few spaces left, so if you happen to be in the Covent Garden area come along) is actually about a month late. BusinessGreen was officially launched on October 15th 2007, although you could argue it was truly founded in August 2006 (I forget the exact date) as a small blog on the website of the magazine I was working on at the time, IT Week.

It was around the time that Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth was providing climate change with one of its periodic spells in the political and cultural spotlight. I was writing for an IT trade magazine and had picked up the ‘green beat', largely because I was intrigued by the extent to which the leading IT behemoths, the IBMs, Microsofts, and Googles of this world were talking seriously about environmental issues and investing pretty heavily in developing greener kit. Having realised long before that my future did not lie as a technology reporter (a confession: I struggle to connect a printer to a laptop, comprehending the complexities of mainframes and business applications was always going to be a stretch), I grabbed the opportunity to put together a proposal that was blindingly obvious and, looking back, remarkably ambitious.

The idea was simple: there was growing interest from our readers in the green IT sector and the likelihood was that interest would be replicated in numerous other sectors; I worked for a business to business publisher, so why not launch a business to business publication focused on green issues?

The rationale was the same then as it is now. The mainstream press (with some admirable exceptions) too often ignores or underplays environmental issues, and where it does tackle them it commonly regards businesses as the source of all the world's green woes. In contrast, the business press (again, with some admirable exceptions) too often greets the concept of green business with a dismissive sneer, and a suggestion it is alright for marketing campaigns and reputational management, but is not a core business issue. BusinessGreen has always sought to address the gap between those two extremes, to demonstrate there is a powerful and growing business constituency that understands environmental threats and opportunities and is serious about addressing them. The continued expansion of our audience suggests our analysis was, and remains, correct.

Thankfully, back in 2006 I had an editor in Lem Bingley and a publisher in Robin Booth who recognised there was a gap in the market we could tap into and decided to test whether we could launch a website for the still nascent green economy. One of the advantages of digital publishing is that you can pilot new ideas quickly and at relatively low cost, so we launched a blog to see if there was an audience out there. I remember the day Lem told me the blog had become one of the most read on the IT Week site with 11,000 hits a month (we now frequently get that many hits in a day). Confident there was an audience out there and emboldened by the fact some of our core IT clients were planning green-focused advertising campaign we decided to launch the full BusinessGreen website.

The launch was delayed slightly as IT Week's publisher was in the process of getting acquired by Incisive Media, but in autumn 2007, with the backing of our new owners, BusinessGreen was launched - straight into the teeth of the worst economic recession in over 100 years.

There is no way to spin this, the first half of BusinessGreen's existence was about building the audience and the brand, and surviving. Luckily, the first task was achieved and made the second task that bit easier. Our publishing and sales teams were chopped and changed a few times and there were some decidedly challenging months, but the combination of low overheads, an expanding audience, and a gradual commercial recovery meant we were allowed to persevere.

The three and half years that followed have been far more rewarding. My publisher back in 2010, Tim Webb, made the case that if we were going to really fulfil BusinessGreen's potential we needed to invest. Incisive Media again backed the new strategy and the site was redesigned, the editorial team was trebled with the appointment of Jessica Shankleman and Will Nichols, and a dedicated sales team was appointed to give us a renewed commercial focus (it is now ably headed up by Matthew Oliver).

Since then we've had the resources to try different things and, while the development has not always been smooth, we've been able to grow the brand. The BusinessGreen Leaders Awards (now approaching their fifth year and firmly established as the UK's biggest green awards), BusinessGreen Plus, our Twitter and social media presence, and the various events we have hosted have all served to drastically expand what we can offer readers. This development has been accompanied by new commercial opportunities for clients - online advertising with some of the best click rates in the sector, our Industry Voice blog, lead generation, sponsored events, and so on - that complement rather than compromise our core editorial mission. We have become what we always wanted to be, a commercially viable (if still smaller than I'd like) online media brand serving the green economy. We are not funded through philanthropic grants or cross subsidised by other titles. We are demonstrating that commercial publishing can still work if you can provide high value content to an engaged audience.

That said, digital publishing remains a precarious pursuit and there is a long way still to go to fully realise our ambition of becoming the leading media brand in the fast maturing green economy. Next year we want to expand our events programmes, better help our readers connect with one another, continue to improve our reporting and our BusinessGreen Plus service, and play an even more proactive role in contributing to the debates that shape the green economy.

Most of all though we want to continue to strive to keep the green economy as well informed as possible about the massive clean tech opportunities and dread-inducing environmental risks we face. Like many environmentalists we are lucky enough to love what we do, and kind of hate that we have to do it. It's a cognitive dissonance many of you who work on environmental issues will be all too familiar with.

If there is one difference between the green economy we set out to cover in 2007 and the green economy of 2014 it is in the extent to which this cognitive dissonance has intensified. The warnings associated with environmental risks have become ever more compelling and urgent, and yet, at the same time the causes for optimism provided by clean technologies and the green economy have similarly become ever more convincing. The conventional wisdom dictated it was not supposed to be this way; global economic crisis was meant to push environmental concerns right down the political and business agenda and thwart attempts to decarbonise. But while there have been numerous setbacks the green economy has continued to grow rapidly, driven by a combination of emerging market investment and the established clean tech hubs of the US and Europe.

The policy and technology progress seen over the past seven years indicates that the arguments in favour of a greener and more sustainable economy are continuing to cut through. Those reckless voices arguing against a green economic transition look ever more isolated and desperate, even as they tout the interventions of sacked cabinet ministers and dyspeptic newspaper editors as some kind of turning point in their steady and inevitable retreat to the margins of political and business thinking. The green economy's next phase - when it will be required to deliver on its promise and achieve net global emissions reductions - may be its biggest challenge yet, but it is starting from a position of strength.

As we celebrate BusinessGreen's seventh birthday we hope the site can continue to keep you all up-to-date with this exciting new chapter and the huge challenges and opportunities it presents the global economy.

If the UK has to have a shale gas sovereign wealth fund, it needs to do better than this

11 Nov 2014

Gasometer

It is a case of better late than never, I suppose. Several decades after Norway channelled the country's oil and gas wealth towards a sovereign wealth fund that transformed a relatively impoverished northern European nation into one of the world's richest and most developed countries, the UK has indicated that it might have finally learnt the importance of finding a productive long term use for a lucky windfall. Set against the context of the UK's scandalous decision to burn through its North Sea oil and gas wealth twice over - once to release climate changing gases and a second time by diverting the proceeds into Thatcher's election buying housing booms and tax cuts (for an explanation of how Norwegians became millionaires while the UK continued its post imperial decline, this article from the Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty is essential reading) - this week's announcement Ministers are planning a shale gas sovereign wealth fund is to be welcomed.

And yet, the vague and conflicting messages coming from government about how the proposed wealth fund will be utilised suggests that we are still yet to fully learn the lessons from Norway, nor fully accept the urgent need to decarbonise our economy.

In fairness to Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey, he did hint that the new fund was about "storing the financial benefits of shale production and putting it towards a low-carbon energy future". But details about how shale gas tax receipts would be put towards this low carbon energy future were not forthcoming. Meanwhile, Chancellor George Osborne suggested a fund that was apparently meant to benefit the whole country's low carbon transition could be "invested in the long-term economic health of the north to create jobs and investment there". In the Chancellor's view, the focus on boosting our "low-carbon energy future" appears to have been relegated to the sidelines in favour of a nod and a wink towards new roads and rail lines across the north.

The failure to provide a firmer commitment to ensuring this new sovereign wealth fund will be a green sovereign wealth fund, even as the country that pioneered the long term investment of oil and gas wealth is considering divesting its entire $840bn fund from fossil fuels, means Ministers will now attempt to spend the putative new shale gas fund countless times over on which ever project promises the biggest electoral boost.

We will be left with confusion where there should be absolute clarity. The reality is that if we are to make continued fossil fuel exploration compatible with long term carbon targets we need carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology as a matter of urgency. Why then is the government sketching out plans for a shale gas sovereign wealth fund and not stating explicitly, right from the start, that it will be used to help decarbonise the gas industry, primarily through CCS, but also through energy efficiency measures that would help ensure we burn as little gas as possible to heat our homes. If shale gas cheerleaders really are confident this nascent industry can deliver billions of pounds to the Exchequer they should also welcome this money being used to make CCS in the UK a reality.

Personally, I remain unconvinced that shale gas exploration in the UK can be justified at a time when falling oil prices make the economics increasingly challenging and climate science necessitates leaving a huge chunk of global fossil fuel reserves in the ground. These fears are further amplified by the shale gas industry's woeful communications efforts and the current government's failure to impose a power sector decarbonisation target that would necessitate CCS at gas-fired power stations.

But if we have to have a domestic shale gas industry and if our government is willing to buy the argument that gas can act as a "bridge" to a low carbon economy, then it needs clear long term policies to demonstrate that it is a "bridge" to a sub 2C, not a 4C, world. To that end, we need confirmation the power sector will really be decarbonised by 2030; a shale gas tax regime that recognises the environmental costs associated with fossil fuel exploration, not one built around tax breaks some within the shale gas industry privately admit they don't need; and a commitment to use any shale gas tax windfall (and remember the UK is still yet to extract any shale gas, geology and economics mean this promised boom could yet be a whimper) to develop the infrastructure that would give gas a future in a carbon-constrained world. I suspect that is precisely what Norway would do were it to uncover a shale gas windfall, although its current review of its wealth fund suggests it may go further still and just divest from fossil fuels altogether.

Until the UK government offers a clearer vision of how it plans to spend the promised shale gas billions, environmentalists will be forgiven for fearing a repeat of Thatcher's North Sea fuelled electioneering, in the form of a transparent attempt to bribe communities to support fracking projects with the latest infrastructure boondoggles.

The national interest demands it, let's ban golf courses

05 Nov 2014

Golfing actuaries

A blight is spreading across the UK, eating up valuable agricultural land and scarring the landscape with ugly developments that are pushing production of meat and other traditional British produce overseas. It is a blight that Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss, brave opponent of rural solar farms, must surely recognise and now act urgently to address. I am talking, of course, about golf courses.

Now, I am not against golf courses per se. They are fine on unproductive sand dunes or even on commercial roofs (I'm thinking of those Tokyo-inspired driving ranges with their endless banks of tees). But food and farming is our number one manufacturing industry, the whole food chain represents £100bn in our economy, and it is a real problem if we are using productive agricultural land for golf courses.

And we are. Extensively. I was tempted not to bother to research precisely how big an impact golf courses are having on the UK's green and pleasant land. After all, instinctively I know there are a lot of them and they must therefore have a big impact on the UK's food production. I've seen them. With my own eyes. There are loads of golf courses and they look horrible.

But I'm not that lazy and I am aware that if you are going to call for a moratorium on something that many people cherish you need some evidence. So I did some research (turned to Google) and apparently there are over 2,000 full 18 hole golf courses in England and hundreds of smaller courses. Combined, their approximately 270,000 hectares is equivalent to two per cent of the country's land area. In the midst of what politicians are apt to describe, when it suits them, as a food security and housing crisis that is a lot of massively unproductive land. And no, I do not regard Rupert from accounts getting his handicap down to 23 as a productive use of such a high value asset.

Of course, some people will argue that golf courses are strangely beautiful, that they are a marvel of modern landscaping, adding to the UK's vistas. To which I say, have these people ever seen a wildflower meadow? And if they still think these abominations of fertilizer, pesticide, and thwarted imagination are beautiful, do they want the UK to become an agricultural powerhouse? Would they like their children to have somewhere to live? Enough is enough, these ugly excuses for the countryside need to be halted.

Others will claim that golf boosts our economy, creating much needed jobs and revenues. But these are jobs that could just as easily be created by putting the same land to more productive use. And imagine the productivity boost for the UK's world-leading banking and legal industries if our financiers and lawyers spent less time wrestling with the heartache caused by their inability to master a tricky par four on the back nine. Not to mention, envisage the benefits to the NHS of bringing an end to the drink-related injuries associated with the 19th hole.

Inevitably, a moratorium on new golf courses will not be easy for government to deliver, particularly when they will have to battle the well-connected vested interests that make up the golf blob. But it is time for Ministers to stand up to this all-powerful lobby and instruct planning officials to bring an end to this blight. If local authorities refuse to act and continue to work under the misguided assumption that local planning officers are best placed to make decisions that affect local environments the Communities Secretary should use his powers to personally review any and all golf-related planning applications. The tax system and every other policy lever in the government's arsenal should then be used to roll back the seemingly never-ending march of the golf course.

Now, to paraphrase the peerless Stewart Lee, I do not really think golf courses should be banned. Some of my best friends are golfers. I am using an exaggerated form of the rhetoric and implied values of Liz Truss, Eric Pickles and some of their Conservative colleagues to satirise the rhetoric and implied values of Liz Truss, Eric Pickles and some of their Conservative colleagues that are deployed when they discuss solar farms and other forms of renewable energy. And yes, it is a shame to have to break character to explain that.

However, while I absolutely do not wish to see new golf courses banned and existing golf courses returned to agricultural production or sold to housing developers, I will make this point. There are over 2,000 18 hole golf courses in England alone, some may be located on recovered quarries or disused airfields, but many are on previously productive agricultural land or on the edge of towns where housing stock is in short supply. I would wager each and every one of these golf courses is larger than the UK's biggest solar farms.

Meanwhile, Truss and co are getting agitated because there are around 250 solar farms in the UK and we may end up with 1,000 by the end of the decade. Many of these new solar farms will be specifically targeted at genuinely ugly, disused and unproductive land. Many others will be co-located so that livestock grazing or support for local wildlife habitats can continue alongside the solar panels that generate the clean and increasingly cost-competitive power the UK desperately needs. These solar farms will not be targeted at beautiful rural landscapes so that executives on a Golf Day jolly get a nice view from the seventh tee. Moreover, if solar developers do seek to impose projects on an unsuitable landscape local planning officers can and do block them.

I don't think golf courses should be banned, but when it comes to food production and landscape impacts perhaps there is a case for ministers dealing with the non-issue that is excessive golf development before addressing the separate non-issue that is solar farms' impact on our food security.

Ann Widdecombe, Godwin's Law, and why the Climate Change Rebels were wrong

29 Oct 2014

ann-widdecombe

The race for the most confusing climate sceptic article of 2014 is a crowded field, but as the nights draw in a new front-runner has emerged with former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe's latest effort in the Daily Express. It really does have everything: allusions to Nazis, dismissal of scientific inquiry, misinterpretation of policies.

Challenging the myths perpetuated by climate sceptics is an onerous task and given the extent to which these arguments are marginalised in boardrooms and government departments around the world it is rarely worth the effort. However, in recent weeks it has been clear a concerted campaign is under way to try and make the repeal of the Climate Change Act an issue at the next election, putting billions of pounds of much-needed investment and the UK's international credibility at risk, not to mention hopes of building a greener, cleaner, healthier and more prosperous economy.

Widdecombe's article is, to date, the nadir of this campaign in so much as it crams virtually every climate sceptic canard going into 330 words and ties them all together with a storm of contentious opinion presented as fact, or "holy writ" as the former Conservative MP might put it.

There are quasi-legitimate arguments against the Climate Change Act. You could credibly argue targets are not the best way of driving decarbonisation, you could even just about argue that we would be better off crossing our fingers and hoping for the best when it comes to climate risk, although you need a pretty reckless assessment of said risks to do so.

Widdecombe does none of these things. So, in the grand tradition of journalistic rows, what follows is a Fisking of the myths, omissions, and spin that defines the ex-Strictly contestant's attack on the Climate Change Act.

"Six years ago Parliament passed the Climate Change Act with a mere five MPs, all Conservatives, voting against it."

Widdecombe starts on firm ground. The Climate Change Act did indeed pass with an overwhelming majority. This means that either almost every Member of Parliament has been hoodwinked and voted against the UK's interests, as Widdecombe and her allies suggest, or our parliamentarians considered the evidence and thought this was a good bill.

"This week I returned to the House of Commons to join the other four for an anniversary dinner. Andrew Tyrie, Peter Lilley, Christopher Chope and Philip Davies are still there fighting the nonsense but I have simply joined the ranks of the long-suffering British public who view the increasing 'lights will go out' stories with grim foreboding."

And you thought it was the "Green Blob" that enjoyed cosy Westminster dinners to reflect on their successes. As to the reasons for the British public's "long suffering", I'd hazard that if you asked them they would list numerous iniquities before they settled on climate change policy. They may well be fearful the lights will go out, but this is most likely because newspapers like the Daily Express keep telling them we face blackouts, even when the people who actually operate the grid tell us we don't.

"Support for the then Labour Government's bill was all part of Cameron's campaign to 'modernise' the Tory Party. It was the same campaign which saw him driving huskies and putting a ridiculous wind turbine on his roof so he was pretty displeased with the five of us but we were right. Oh, so right."

In fairness, Cameron's rooftop wind turbine was "ridiculous" and no doubt he was furious with the Climate Change Rebels, just as he is now furious with those MPs who have given up on even the vaguest pretence of party loyalty in favour of ideologically obsessive campaigns to destabilise their own government. Widdecombe is perfectly entitled to suggest she was "right" about the Climate Change Act, but if she is going to do so it may be worth offering some tangible evidence.

"The wretched Bill committed us, at huge expense, to reduce the UK's carbon emissions by a staggering 80 per cent."

It is true that the Act commits to greenhouse gas emissions of 80 per cent, but Widdecombe is guilty of an important omission. The goal is to cut emissions 80 per cent against 1990 levels by 2050. We have nearly half a century to reach the target and we have already achieved around a quarter of the goal. It is daunting, but it is not as daunting as Widdecombe implies. It is also contestable that the commitment comes "at huge expense". Clean energy costs are falling fast, while the Stern Review and numerous other studies have shown it is more cost effective to tackle climate change risks now than cling to business-as-usual. Finally, the Act provides freedom for governments to respond to economic pressures and ensure decarbonisation is delivered in a way that does not load excessive expense on the economy.

"Yet that was supposed to be part of a global agreement and, as was easily foreseeable, there has been no such agreement but we have soldiered on despite accounting for about two per cent of all the world's emissions."

There have, in fact, been global agreements in which nations have pledged to keep post-industrial temperature increases to 2C and work is continuing on a legally-binding treaty to be signed by 2020. Moreover, over 60 nations now have some form of binding climate change legislation and several economies - Denmark, Mexico, California - have Climate Change Acts similar to the UK. And the EU has just agreed to binding emissions targets through to 2030 that are pretty much in line with the emissions reduction trajectory required by the Climate Change Act.

Yes, the UK does account for two per cent of global emissions, but two per cent is still a hefty chunk for such a small country (it is about the same as the emissions from the entire global aviation industry) and our carbon footprint is higher still when you consider our historical responsibilities and the structure of our import-dependent economy. It is also worth considering we once accounted for a fraction of global trade before the industrial revolution made us a superpower. Being a small part of a big problem is not an excuse for not trying to tackle it. In fact, small nations can trigger economic transformations that the entire world emulates.

"We have shunned the obvious answer of nuclear power in favour of vast, ugly, inefficient, bird-mashing wind farms which benefit none but those who take the subsidies from them."

There is so much wrong with this it is hard to know where to start. The idea the UK has "shunned" nuclear power is just bizarre when the government is planning to approve a heavily subsidised new nuclear power plant for the first time in a generation. In reality, the Climate Change Act and the need to decarbonise our power supplies is one of the main reason why all three main parties are backing plans for a new fleet of reactors. Nuclear development may have taken longer than its advocates hoped, but it has not been "shunned" in any sense of the word - just look at the number of meetings between Ministers and EDF. And wind has not been favoured over nuclear; the past two governments have made it painfully clear they want both.

Wind turbines certainly are "vast", as Widdecome alleges, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder; traffic and cats "mash" more birds than turbines ever will; turbines' efficiency ratings match up pretty well with other energy sources; and if wind energy generators benefit through subsidies, the people who have to breathe less fossil fuel-related air pollution benefit too, as does the country as a whole from enhanced energy security and increased inward investment.

"The phrase 'political correctness gone mad' could have been invented for this stupidity alone."

Personally, I have no idea what "political correctness" even means anymore. But if you take it as a desire to avoid language, policies, and behaviours that needlessly cause offence, especially to those seen to be at a disadvantage, then I cannot even begin to understand what it has to do with the Climate Change Act.

"Meanwhile the science of climate change is robustly disputed where once it was regarded as having all the authority of Holy Writ."

Science has never been regarded as "having all the authority of Holy Writ". Science and religion are very different things, not least because one admits its fallibility and adjusts to the evidence before it. "Robustly disputed" is a relative term, but to date these robust disputes have proven so effective that every single national science academy in the world has continued to warn that climate change presents a serious threat.

"So much was this the case that Nigel Lawson, whose book An Appeal To Reason is still the best refutation of the doom mongers, found it difficult to get published."

Yes, perhaps, but he did get it published in the end, and has spent much of the past five years taking to the pages of newspapers and the airwaves of the BBC to promote its arguments.

"In 1930s Germany they burned books that challenged state orthodoxy: here we just try to bury them."

I hereby invoke Godwin's Law.

"I am proud to have been one of those five MPs and I wonder how many others would join us if the vote were happening now."

Widdecombe finishes as she began, on firm ground, which comes as surprise given the intervening paragraphs. The question of how many Conservative MPs would join the five rebels if the Climate Change Act were voted on again is one of the current great unknowns of British politics. The hope is that when push comes to shove the vast majority of MPs would consider the scientific warnings and economic opportunities that underpin the legislation, recognise that decarbonisation is both essential and desirable, and acknowledge that an over-arching Climate Change Act helps deliver a greener and better economy (precisely as they did when the vast majority of MPs voted for the recent Energy Act and its over-riding focus on delivering clean power).

But, as Widdecombe implies, the Tea Party-fication of parts of the British Conservative Party means the campaign to vilify the Climate Change Act is not done yet. There are a number of Tory MPs who are now working hard to undermine the legislation and the UK's wider green economic programme at every turn. Although, in fairness, the many businesses that support decarbonisation can take comfort from the fact that if the best arguments they can muster boil down to comparing the "green blob" with Nazis the Climate Change Act is not in any danger just yet.

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