Paterson's rant at the Climate Change Act will fail to win business (or public) support

16 Oct 2014


I was planning to blog this morning on Owen Paterson's Global Warming Policy Foundation lecture, but having read the transcript the whole thing is so wearingly predictable that there is not much to be said that hasn't already been said.

Paterson's key points have already been calmly debunked by the Committee on Climate Change and given a mid-level Fisking by Carbon Brief. Meanwhile, I remain convinced the sacked Environment Secretary is the Kevin Pietersen of climate politics, utterly convinced that he is right and blind to any and all evidence to the contrary.

Anyone wishing to marvel at the speech's cherry-picked economic projections, contradictory promotion of four emissions-reduction technologies and lamentation of policies that "pick winners", unfounded predictions that the lights are about to go out, and bizarre suggestion the Climate Change Act is somehow blocking investment in new nuclear technology, fracking, smart grids, and, weirdest of all, energy efficiency, can simply read the transcript in full for themselves. If you come up with an explanation for Paterson's contention that suspending the Climate Change Act would mean that energy efficiency suddenly "becomes a realistic and viable option", please let me know. Is it not "realistic and viable" regardless of climate policy? In fact, if you were to accept Paterson's largely unfounded argument that scrapping the Climate Change Act would lead to lower energy prices wouldn't energy efficiency investments actually then become less viable?

Overall though there is nothing new to report here. It is a tired collection of climate sceptic tropes, complaints about the "green blob", and circuitous arguments that essentially boil down to "we don't accept the value in climate projections and energy costs predictions, but if we did our projections and predictions are better than those presented by the world's leading governments and scientific academies".

That said there is one important point raised by Paterson's speech that bears repeating again and again, particularly as he this morning reiterates his call for the suspension of the Climate Change Act on Radio 4 and trends on Twitter (with his name misspelt). Namely, that Paterson speaks only for a small cabal of climate sceptics on the right of British politics and a handful of increasingly marginalized fossil fuel executives who want to wish away climate risks and regulations.

Part of Paterson's strategy is to present himself as the voice of the common sense, silent majority; the 12 million rural voters he reportedly told the Prime Minister would be outraged by his sacking; the businesses who are apparently suffering so much from climate legislation that they may, one day, leave the UK; even the developing economies whose own governments are so misguided they wish to deploy clean energy instead of coal.

The reality is very different.

As countless polls have shown around 60 per cent of the public support wind energy and over 80 per cent favour solar power - significantly, rural communities also tend to show majority support for renewables. Some people hate renewable energy, many more are broadly supportive of it. Meanwhile, the plummeting cost of clean technologies and the emergence of energy storage systems (which are far more advanced than Paterson's neighbourhood nuclear reactors) mean the economic and technical arguments against clean energy look ever more outdated.

In Westminster, only nine MPs voted against the Energy Bill that aims to deliver the decarbonisation required under the Climate Change Act Paterson has decided, post-sacking, to oppose. Yes, some Conservative MPs wish to use attacks on climate action up as a rallying call for "Tea Party Tories" and UKIP voters, but the vast majority of British politicos, including the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Foreign Secretary, and yes, the Chancellor, are on record as supporting climate action and the Climate Change Act's central goals.

The UKIP insurgency does mean the repeal of the Climate Change Act is being seriously discussed for the first time since it was passed, but the political and public barriers to it actually being scrapped are immense, no matter how many headlines in right wing newspapers Paterson can engineer.

Alongside the strong public and political support for clean energy and climate action, perhaps the biggest barrier faced by Paterson's ideological campaign is the fact that it commands so little support amongst the business and economics community.

The CBI supported the Climate Change Act and still does. Meanwhile, many of the UK's leading blue chips would be furious at the policy instability and risk that would result if Paterson's course of action were followed. There are now around a million people employed in green industries, many of which would see their jobs put at risk by the reckless and high risk strategy espoused by Paterson. When push comes to shove, how many Conservative MPs would like to see those job losses hit their constituencies?

Paterson's argument is that businesses would benefit from the lower energy bills he says would result from repealing the Climate Change Act and focusing on fracking and uninvented nuclear reactors. No doubt, some heavy industries may gain in the short term, but it is still a rare business indeed that publicly campaigns for a watering down of climate action.

The plates are shifting and they are shifting in favour of the hundreds of multinationals and institutional investors who last month gathered in New York to call on world leaders to deliver bolder climate policies. As the Rockefellers (of all people) prepare to divest their fossil fuel holdings, the auto industry throws billions at the development of green cars, and the insurance industry demands climate adaptation investment, a large and growing chunk of the business community is calling for more, not less, climate action. They have been convinced by the growing band of economists who argue that viable clean technologies mean the benefits associated with tackling climate risks, not to mention air pollution, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss (all ignored by Paterson), now far outweigh the costs.

The reality is that outside of a handful of fossil fuel incumbents and ideologically motivated hedge funds, the reaction of most modern British boardrooms to Paterson's speech will be one of bemusement (if it is considered at all). At Unilever, BT, Google, Nestle, Virgin, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Kingfisher, Apple, and many others that bemusement is likely to be mixed with a fair bit of anger and frustration. The last thing they want to see is a government that seeks to damage their long term low carbon investments and undermine the UK's position as a clean tech hub.

As Paterson delivered his speech last night and green commentators (myself included) hit out at its flaws and inconsistencies, Alastair Harper of the Green Alliance think tank noted that there was an "odd twitter focus on a sacked minister at a fringe event while Ed Davey and Caroline Flint argue their decarb options in heart of the city".

He is right, this is where the world's response to climate change is really being debated. In the corridors of power, in boardrooms, in scientific conferences and engineering labs, and, increasingly, among a public that favours clean technology and sustainable environmental stewardship over 20th century pollutocrats, and cross your fingers and hope for the best inaction.

Paterson's plans for a climate sceptic inspired energy strategy based on unproven, uncosted technologies and policy confusion represent a wish list from the margins of the British right. There is nothing in his speech to suggest that is likely to change.

Owen Paterson: The Kevin Pietersen of climate politics

13 Oct 2014


Prepare yourself for a week of stories about one brave hero standing up to the bullies, about the appalling injustice that is the inability of privileged white men with friends in the media to get a fair hearing, and about how much better the world would be if we stopped listening to so-called experts and simply accepted the wisdom of those geniuses who bring their natural leadership skills to bear in otherwise dull and bloodless fields.

No, it is not the second week of articles about Kevin Pietersen's autobiography, it is the first week of articles about Owen Paterson's emergence as the latest standard bearer of UK climate scepticism.

The likeness may not be immediately obvious in anything but their names. But as the former England cricket captain continues to hawk his book and the former environment secretary prepares to deliver his lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation this Wednesday, the parallels between the two men become ever more apparent.

Both are renowned for drawing on seemingly inexhaustible wells of self-confidence. Both are perfectly comfortable standing up to authority – Pietersen battling with successive England coaches; Paterson reportedly indulging in a "blunt exchange" with the prime minister. Both have their supporters – Paterson allegedly believes he commands the support of 12 million rural voters who were "smashed in the teeth" by his sacking; Pietersen has Piers Morgan.

More importantly, both believe they were bullied – Pietersen by a clique of bowlers, Paterson by the "green blob" (inconveniently for their critics, both appear to have some justification for their grievances: some of the threats Paterson reportedly received from animal rights activists over his badger cull were utterly unacceptable; and there is some evidence the England dressing room was a pretty fractious place). Similarly, both Paterson and Pietersen appear to firmly believe the world would be a much better place if their advice were followed instead of that offered by the vast majority of climate scientists, engineers, economists, and Ashes-winning cricket coaches. And both were perfectly content to put up with the many iniquities they faced while they were offered a platform for their talents, only going public with fundamental disagreements with their former team mates once they were unceremoniously dismissed.

Of course, while these similarities may offer a diverting start to a blog post, they can be extended only so far. For one thing, Kevin Pietersen is a genuine A-grade, world-beating exponent of his chose profession; Paterson was a low-profile cabinet minister who is condemned to the public indifference faced by all politicians operating at his level – the reality is, only a fraction of the 12 million people who he reckons were so upset by his sacking could pick him out of the proverbial line-up. However, the most crucial difference is that Pietersen's complaints centre on the best way to coach a cricket team, while Paterson's complaints centre on the best way to tackle an existential threat to humanity.

We cannot yet know what Paterson will say in his lecture later this week, but the Sunday Telegraph's comprehensive front-page preview raises several points that green business executives would be wise to challenge.

Paterson's attack on green orthodoxy looks likely to centre on fears that the lights will soon go out – his lecture is reportedly entitled "Keeping the lights on". "Blind adhesion to the 2050 targets will not reduce emissions and will fail to keep the lights on," he will say of the Climate Change Act's over-arching emissions target. "The current energy policy is a slave to flawed climate action... In the short and medium term, costs to consumers will rise dramatically, but there can only be one ultimate consequence of this policy: the lights will go out at some time in the future."

It cannot be said often enough that National Grid – the company that actually operates the grid and is tasked with ensuring the lights will stay on – does not believe this is the case. The government and the grid operator are united in confidently predicting the lights will stay on. Yes, capacity margins are expected to tighten over the next few years, but the grid operators have numerous levers they can pull to ensure supply matches demand and a huge pipeline of new projects is moving forward to address long-term energy security concerns. Meanwhile, continuing improvements in energy efficiency mean UK domestic energy consumption has been quietly ticking downwards, further easing pressure on supplies.

The debate over the cost of keeping the lights on while decarbonising has more mileage in it, but again Paterson's assertion that bills will "rise dramatically" appears remarkably evidence-lite when set against the government and the Committee on Climate Change's assertions that falling clean energy costs and efficiency improvements will keep rising bills in check.

Paterson's planned assertion that the UK should suspend the Climate Change Act until other nations adopt similar targets is on equally shaky ground. The UK may be rare in having a Climate Change Act that requires emissions be cut 80 per cent by 2050, but the idea that it is alone in attempting to decarbonise at this rate is just plain wrong. Virtually all nations have signed up to a goal of limiting temperature rises to 2°C, which according to scientific advisers equates to an 80 per cent reduction in emissions from industrialised nations and a 50 per cent cut in emissions globally by mid-century. Countries and regions as diverse as Mexico and California have comprehensive Climate Change Acts and more than 60 nations, including all the world's major economies, have ambitious climate legislation in place.

There are no grounds for suspending the Climate Change Act on competitiveness grounds, a fact further underlined by the continued absence of any compelling evidence that businesses are leaving the UK to avoid its climate legislation. Moreover, while the Climate Change Act cannot actually be suspended, the five-year carbon budgets it sets can be changed if scientific or economic analysis shows such a change is in the UK's economic and security interest. Some ministers who are known to be lukewarm towards climate action have looked everywhere for such evidence – and they have not been able to find it.  

Paterson's mooted alternative proposal for decarbonising through "four possible common-sense policies: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors and demand management" is worthy of more consideration. In fact, were it not for his apparent suggestion that investment in these relatively low-carbon technologies should be exclusive of other clean technologies, many green businesses would endorse these methods. The problem is that Paterson appears to be arguing that investment in renewable technologies that are seeing costs plummet should be ended in favour of more investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and largely unproven nuclear reactors.

According to the Telegraph, he will also argue that the only thing stopping this course of action is the UK's 2050 emissions target. But this is categorically not the case. You could argue the EU's renewable energy targets  have made investment in nuclear and fracking less attractive, but the targets set by the Climate Change Act are deliberately non-technology specific. If as-yet-uninvented modular nuclear reactors and as-yet-untapped UK shale gas can meet the UK's carbon targets in an affordable manner, as Paterson predicts, there is nothing in the Climate Change Act to stop them. It will be interesting to see if this misleading line makes its way into Paterson's speech.

However, for all the technical arguments about decarbonisation costs, risk profiles, and international competitiveness, the greatest concern for the UK's green business community is Paterson's wider argument that the country's economy would benefit from the scrapping of the legislation underpinning so much of the government's green economic policy. The worrying reality is that this argument, coupled with his suggestion that green firms are the "subsidy-hungry allies" of "the bullies in the environmental movement", is gaining traction on the right of British politics.

Scrapping the Climate Change Act would have a negligible impact on energy bills, lead to more deadly air pollution, put billions of pounds of clean energy investment and tens of thousands of jobs at risk, leave the UK more exposed to volatile fossil fuel imports, undermine one of the biggest export opportunities for British firms, and result in the country playing catch-up in the global clean tech revolution. In addition, there is little evidence to suggest it would make the UK's carbon-intensive industries more competitive, and ironically it may even make it harder to deliver Paterson's own vision of decarbonisation through shale gas, new nuclear reactors, combined heat and power, and smart grid technologies, as some of the policies supporting these nascent industries would be jeopardised by the removal of the Climate Change Act. Ed Davey is right to call Paterson's proposal "stupid".

But with UKIP on the march, none of this counter-argument appears to be cutting through with Paterson's audience of frustrated right-wing politicos and opinion formers. Paterson's lecture will make for fascinating viewing, but judging by the Sunday Telegraph preview his attacks on the green community and the Climate Change Act appear to remain rooted in his belief that climate impacts will not be that bad and if they do worsen, we can deal with them at a later date. As every credible science academy in the world and huge numbers of business leaders have made plain, this approach is the height of recklessness and can only be justified by ignoring the huge opportunities that competitive clean technologies offer. But again, Paterson's invite-only audience seems utterly deaf to these scientific and economic warnings.

Paterson's attempt to use the Climate Change Act and the green community as a scapegoat for economic woes has secured itself a hearing on the right wing of British politics and unless centre-ground Tories and progressive business leaders challenge it head on, it will become ever more entrenched. Because the one last thing Owen Paterson has in common with Kevin Pietersen is that we can expect to hear a lot more from both of them.

Did Cameron forget the 'green bit'?

01 Oct 2014


There was a huge amount for political analysts to comment on in David Cameron's barn-storming conference speech: the promise of tax cuts and the mystery of how they will be paid for; the vague vow to tackle free movement of people within the EU; the passionate and tearful defence of his commitment to the NHS; the laser-guided attacks on Ed Miliband's character and credibility. But there was next to nothing on the issue Cameron last week described as "one of the most serious threats facing our world": climate change.

There was one throw-away line, when he declared towards the end of the speech that the UK was "leading, not following, on climate change". But a week on from his commitment to drive more climate action and a year on from the political row over energy bills there was nothing on flooding, nothing on fracking, nothing on renewables, and nothing on nuclear.

Still, we like a challenge at BusinessGreen, and it is just about possible to analyse a rhetorical absence, so here goes.

The first thing to say is that conference speeches do matter. They may be ignored by most people, they may rarely, if ever, swing elections, and they may have little to do with the day-to-day business of governing. But they are the closest thing we have in the UK to a State of the Union address and as such they give the main political leaders a chance to set out their priorities and vision in a way they are rarely afforded.

Within that context there are two ways to interpret Cameron's glossing over of climate, environmental and energy issues, neither of which are great for the green economy, but one of which is much better than the other.

The first is the knee-jerk condemnation that the green NGOs are this afternoon indulging in. "How can the Prime Minister highlight climate risks one week and ignore them the next," they cry. "How can he ditch green building standards as soon as he thinks it may buy him a few votes," they lament. "How can we take seriously a man who wilfully ignores an issue that once defined his political character," they ask. The charge being laid at Cameron's door is one of political hypocrisy and no little cowardice - the green groups' outrage is understandable, if predictable. They feel they have been betrayed by a Prime Minister who promised a new kind of environmental action, and they have plenty of evidence to feed their grievances.

Alongside these NGO attacks come serious questions from green business leaders about those issues Cameron did see fit to address. What will be cut to pay for tax cuts that look distinctly uncosted? How will you keep increasing flood defences and support emerging clean technologies while cutting taxes, cutting the deficit and ring-fencing the NHS? How are offshore wind and nuclear developers expected to cope if the required skills aren't available in the UK and free movement of workers in the EU is restricted?

All of these questions are justified and it is concerning that the Prime Minister does not currently appear to have an answer to any of them. More damaging still for the green economy is the sense of priorities that Cameron has allowed to develop. If you say that you want to prioritise climate action, you actually have to prioritise climate action, not signal that it is way down the list of things you want to do with a second term.

The more nuanced and generous way of interpreting the speech is that Cameron still cares - some would say cares deeply - about climate change and the green economy, but he has an election to win and a party to keep in line so now is not the time to admit it remains a priority.

The fingerprints of Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby were all over Cameron's speech, providing an oratorical embodiment of his reported instruction to "get the barnacles off the boat" - itself a reference to the West Wing episode where President Bartlett's election guru implores him to stick exclusively to vote-winning issues. Consequently, the focus was on tax cuts and leadership credibility, not energy efficiency and climate risks.

Cameron signalled with his speech on climate change last week and his brief mention of it today that the environment is still part of his political identity. It is just that he knows it is not a vote winner for the Conservatives and could end up being a vote loser, so he hopes the issue goes away until after polling day. In this respect, he will be delighted that his backbenchers managed to not make a massive fuss about climate science and wind turbines this week, just as he will have been delighted that Labour attacks on his failing energy efficiency policies and contradictory championing of both oil and gas exploration and climate action are yet to cut through. He will also hope that green business leaders will be won over by the promise of low corporate tax rates and the Tories' ‘long term economic plan', while accepting his whispered assurances that a Conservative government would focus on continued decarbonisation.

There is some good news to be had for green businesses in this interpretation of the speech. The climate sceptic awkward squad were notably quiet in Birmingham, suggesting Cameron may yet be able to pull off his softly-softly approach to green growth. Equally, the all of the above energy and transport strategy George Osborne is pursuing does leave some room for renewables, nuclear power, and rail, even if it also allows for fracking and runways. It is a bit depressing when not getting publicly attacked represents a victory for the green economy, but that is the current state of right wing politics on the environment.

However, while Cameron's approach is politically understandable, it presents a serious challenge for the green economy and, as with his promised tax cuts, it requires a huge amount of trust to be invested in a Prime Minister who has offered more 180 degree turns than an episode of Strictly Come Dancing.

As I argued earlier this week, the main problem created by Cameron's climate silence is that it has resulted in a confused policy where the Conservative's climate strategy should sit. Unless some serious thinking is underway behind the scenes the Conservative Party is currently on track to go into an election with a mix of contradictory energy and environment policies that fall well short of the bar set by Cameron when he says the UK will "lead" on climate action. As the Guardian's Damian Carrington argued today, there was scant evidence in Birmingham that this thinking is taking place.

Yes, green businesses may benefit from the policy stability that comes with the suggestion that the Conservatives would largely continue with the low carbon policies that are already in place - electricity market reform, the Green Deal, support for electric car, etc. But a number of these policies are in serious trouble already and the unrelenting nature of the climate change challenge means that resting on laurels is not an option. Even if power sector decarbonisation policies work, and that is a big if, what of green transport strategy, green industrial strategy, green technology strategy?

The other big problem is that presented by the party Cameron will one day - potentially one day soon - leave behind. The decision to quit fighting the climate reckless elements of his party and the failure to build a coherent Conservative climate strategy has only served to embolden those who would happily tear up the Climate Change Act and join the coal industry in celebrating. The net result is that those jostling to replace Cameron either have very little to say on climate change or appear actively hostile to climate action. Regardless of what happens at the next election, there is now a huge amount of political and policy risk that green investors have to factor into their decisions.

Over the next six months David Cameron will make much of his leadership skills, and there is no doubt that today's speech was a shining example of his political clout. But genuinely strong leaders find a way to prioritise the issues they care most about, they find a way to deliver hard truths, and most of all, they have a compelling and coherent strategy that people are willing to follow. On climate change, the green economy, and the wider environment, Cameron's leadership is starting to look distinctly lacking.

Cameron did not forget the green bit of his speech; for political reasons it was never going to appear - and that silence speaks volumes.

Who speaks for the Conservative Party on climate change?

29 Sep 2014

David Cameron speaks at the United Nations Climate Summit September 2014

Speaking at the UN in New York last week, David Cameron unequivocally described climate change as "one of the most serious threats facing our world", pledged the UK would play a central role in leading the global response, and sketched out a centre right vision for decarbonisation based on free trade and clean technology. Despite all the criticism the Prime Minister has faced from green groups, this short speech was of a piece with all of Cameron's previous public pronouncements on climate change, which ever since he first hugged that husky have always sought to highlight the urgent need to cut greenhouse emissions and build a low carbon economy.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week, George Osborne unequivocally declared that the UK's future prosperity depended on its ability to urgently deliver both high and low carbon infrastructure. Climate change, the issue his boss believes poses one of the biggest threats to the UK's long term economic security, did not receive so much as a cursory mention.

Unlike Cameron, the Chancellor's stance on climate change and the green economy is not of a piece with his previous pronouncements. Prior to the 2010 election he gave a series of speeches in which he repeatedly declared that if he became Chancellor, "the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe". But since then every conference speech and budget Osborne has given has either relegated climate change and environmental issues to the sidelines or sought to triangulate an existential challenge into a bout of political dog whistling, promising some support for renewables while also hymning the potential of fossil fuels and sniping at green regulations. Today's speech somehow managed to do both.

Osborne may have mentioned the need to build new nuclear plants and renewables capacity, but look at the order he opted for in his section on the new infrastructure the UK needs. There is a reason why runways and shale gas came before nuclear and renewables, just as there is a reason that climate change and carbon targets were ignored. His infrastructure priorities could not be clearer.

The question for green businesses and investors as they prepare for an agonisingly close general election and the inevitable policy shake-up it brings is who speaks for the Conservative Party on environmental issues?

A Prime Minister who has asserted that he wants to prioritise climate action? Or a Chancellor who would frack under a runway if he could? A new Environment Secretary in Liz Truss who this morning was evidently proud of the fact the UK is "leading international efforts to tackle climate change"? Or an old Environment Secretary in Owen Paterson who this weekend was telling a fringe meeting of his battles with the "Green Blob" and arguing that with climate change "the measures we are taking to counter projected dangers may actually be causing more damage now than those dangers"?

The deep split within the Conservative Party on climate change and the green economy has been an open secret for years, but as a looming election approaches the confusion and inconsistency these divisions create are becoming ever more serious.

The contradictions are too numerous to mention, but here are just a few. The Conservative leadership says it wants to focus on delivering decarbonisation at least cost, but has watered down energy efficiency programmes that promise one of the most cost effective routes to cutting carbon emissions. The party is concerned about high energy bills, but wants to halt the development of relatively low cost onshore wind farms and instead focus on more costly offshore projects. Osborne has reportedly opposed calls for a decarbonisation target for the power sector, but the leadership is still yet to explain how carbon targets it currently remains committed to under the Climate Change Act will be met by 2030 if the power sector is not decarbonised. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles remains nominally committed to localism, except when local planners support new onshore wind farms or oppose fracking projects, in which case he moves to change planning rules or reverse local decisions. Flood defence spending gets cut by the Treasury, until it rains, when it gets increased just enough to meet the politically convenient but scientifically irrelevant point at which Ministers can claim it has been increased against the last parliament. And David Cameron wants to prioritise action on climate change one day and then tear up rules on building energy efficiency the next.

These tensions and contradictions would amount to nothing more than yet another bout of CCHQ in-fighting, were it not for the fact that the policy confusion it is creating presents a serious challenge to the UK's fast-growing green economy. The current Conservative Party position on climate change and the green economy appears to amount to support for the Climate Change Act and over-arching attempts to cut emissions, coupled with hostility towards many of the policies designed to help the UK meet those targets and vocal cheerleading for more fossil fuel exploration. It promises support for favoured clean tech sectors, such as electric cars, graphene, and nuclear, and public condemnation of less favoured sectors, such as wind, solar, and energy efficiency. It asserts that climate change is a serious threat to the UK, but deliberately fuels the impression that the next leader of the party, whoever that may be, would happily torch Cameron's entire green agenda. Above all this disarray sits Cameron himself, asserting that climate action is essential but refusing to provide a coherent vision on how to deliver the scale of action that he acknowledges is necessary.

In short, it is an almighty mess. And the most frustrating thing of all is that it does not have to be this way. It is perfectly possible to offer a compelling centre-right vision for tackling climate change. Indeed, Osborne almost managed it himself, even as he wilfully ignored climate change itself. In making the case for new infrastructure and disruptive technology the Chancellor could have been making the case for decarbonisation, if only he'd ditched the sections on runways and fracking and more explicitly demonstrated how his "pro-business" agenda would aid the green businesses of the future. Throw in some ambitious new policies on resource and energy efficiency as well as clean tech R&D and you've got the basis of a credible centre right pitch for a greener, more competitive, and more livable economy.

Having last week publicly declared the need to prioritise climate action, Cameron has a moral and political obligation to this week explain how and why he will lead the UK's response to this global challenge. The only reason for not providing more detail on how he plans to build on this government's green achievements (and there have been some) was evident in the silence that greeted Liz Truss' two mentions of climate change in an otherwise crowd-pleasing speech to the Tory faithful. But a political leader with the courage of his convictions would face down the UKIP-flirting elements of his party on this most important of issues and would finally deliver the coherent green vision that the Conservative offer to the country currently lacks.

As Matthew D'Ancona observed at the height of this year's floods (and I make no apologies for quoting this line yet again), "if the PM truly believes that anthropogenic global warming is responsible for potentially catastrophic changes in the weather - then it ought, logically, to be his priority, more important even than economic recovery. One cannot be 'pragmatic' or 'in favour of sensible compromise' about a threat to the survival of the human race".

Currently, the offer to the green business community at the next election amounts to the Green Party and the Lib Dems neck and neck on six per cent of the vote in the latest polls; an increasingly credible green vision and package of policies from Labour that is being seriously undermined by wider questions about the party's economic and business credibility that even Ed Miliband's biggest fan would be hard-pressed to argue he addressed last week; and a contradictory mix of Conservative environmental policies that are further confused by a combination of warm words on climate action and naked hostility to the so-called "green blob".

If Cameron is serious about remaining as Prime Minister for a second term then he must use his final conference speech before the election to explain once and for all how a Conservative government would respond to "one of the most serious threats facing our world". Such a declaration may be met with stony silence by some of the Tory faithful, but many business leaders and entrepreneurs across the UK would be cheering him on.

Four reasons why the UN Climate Summit was a success

24 Sep 2014

Peoples climate march New York 22 September 2014

What a week. So far we've seen over 300,000 people march through the streets of New York demanding climate action, and straining for a glimpse of Leonardo DiCaprio's new beard. Barack Obama and John Kerry have declared climate change is as big a threat as terrorism, and hardly anyone has protested at their sense of priorities. David Cameron has asserted climate change is one of the biggest threats the world faces, and confirmed he wants the EU to cut emissions by at least 40 per cent. China's Zhang Gaoli has pledged that the superpower will cut emissions "as soon as possible", and for the first time promised funding to help poorer nations cope with climate impacts. Francois Hollande has promised $1bn of climate funding and pledged to make development central to any Paris climate treaty. And governments and businesses have signed a new commitment to end deforestation by 2030. Meanwhile, back in Manchester, Labour leader Ed Miliband declared there was "no more important issue" than climate change, and unveiled ambitious new energy efficiency proposals.

And that is just the politicians. Business leaders have got in on the act too, the Rockefellers leading the way with their eye-catching commitment to divest from fossil fuels. Institutional investors boasting trillions of dollars in assets have demanded more ambitious action on climate change, as the World Bank has pulled together a raft of businesses and governments that want to see more carbon pricing. Unilever and a host of other consumer goods firms have made fresh forestry commitments. Barclays has promised to invest £1bn in green bonds, as Masdar has announced more than £500m investment in the UK offshore wind sector. And Google has cut ties with a right wing lobby group because it is sick of its "lies" about climate change.

All that, and it is only Wednesday.

Cynics may argue that we've seen this all before. Political and business leaders jet in for a day or two of mutual back-slapping and carbon intensive steak dinners, pledge to take bold steps to tackle climate change, and then jet out as fast as they can to return to business-as-usual. "Just remember Copenhagen," veteran campaigners counsel with a weary sigh. These observers have a valid point and it was entirely appropriate the UN summit closed with Nelson Mandela's widow Graça Machel warning the assembled world leaders that their celebrations were premature. "There's a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today," she said. Amen to that.

And yet, there are four important reasons why the speeches and commitments made in the last few days mark a significant step in the right direction for global efforts to tackle climate change.

Firstly, yesterday proved the consensus in favour of global decarbonisation and the prioritisation of climate action has never been stronger. When Obama says climate change is the biggest long term threat the world faces, when Cameron declares that we 'must' have a global climate deal, when Miliband claims there is 'no more important' issue for him, they are deliberately setting a bar against which they know they will be measured. They are highlighting action that has already been taken and signaling the direction of travel is towards more climate action, not less.

There are a few anomalies in the form of the US Republican Party, the governments of Australia and Canada, a handful of Middle Eastern dictatorships, and a hardy rump of Anglo Saxon neoliberal ideologues, but the dominant political response to climate change now is a recognition of the scale of the problem and a commitment to act. Smart businesses and investors understand this, which is why they are downgrading coal firms, divesting from carbon intensive projects, and directing R&D dollars at clean tech.

One thing that has been particularly notable the past few days is the extent to which the climate dismissing commentariat has been roundly rejected as a side show, an irrelevance. The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) likes to position itself as one of the UK's most successful and influential lobby groups. Well, over the past five years, during a period when the one mainstream political party with MPs that have some degree of sympathy for its analysis has been in power, more ambitious emissions targets have been set, clean energy investment has reached record levels, an Energy Act has passed tilting the market in favour of decarbonisation, even heavy industry groups are supporting climate regulations, and the Prime Minister has declared he regards climate action as one of his top priorities. If this is success for the GWPF, imagine what failure would look like - we'd probably be living in a green utopia by now.

The UN summit provided a useful reminder that the movement in favour of action on climate change is gathering momentum fast, and there is little detractors can do about it. That is why growing numbers of the world's most successful business leaders are trying to exploit the opportunities offered by this transition, rather than attempt to stop it in its tracks.

The second encouraging development this week is the gradual realisation that the various pledges to tackle climate change are not empty rhetoric. Green campaigners are entirely justified when they say climate policy action rarely matches the oratorical commitments made by world leaders - policies rarely go far enough. But it is unfair to suggest climate policies aren't being introduced.

Obama may have disappointed his base, but he has overseen a significant reduction in US emissions, mobilised clean tech investment, and introduced new rules governing emissions from vehicles and power plants. It may not be good enough, but it is not nothing. The EU has delivered even more progress with its renewable energy deployment and its carbon market, and perhaps most significantly China has established itself as the world's largest clean tech market in double-quick time. All around the world there is an expanding portfolio of successful climate change policies that suggest global emission reductions can be delivered without harming development prospects.

Which leads to the third and most important point: for the first time the political leaders promising climate action have the cover they need. Globally, public opinion is firmly in favour of climate action, as long as it can be delivered without compromising living standards. Meanwhile, economists and business leaders are increasingly convinced emissions can indeed be reduced without undermining economic growth. The landmark New Climate Economy report is the culmination of five years of thinking that has demonstrated time and again that green growth is possible. Political and business leaders are starting to recognise the credibility of this argument, aided by the compelling evidence that clean energy costs are starting to undercut fossil fuel costs.

Unlike at Copenhagen, the real world evidence that a genuinely green economy can be delivered is emerging, giving politicians far more confidence they won't get crucified by their electorates for signing up to a green economic transition.

The fourth lesson from the past few days is, sadly, the least encouraging. There has to be a recognition that none of the policies and pledges being put forward goes far enough. Global emissions keep rising and climate risks keep escalating. If, like me, you intend to spend a few more decades on this wonderful planet, the latest emissions data released this weekend is truly terrifying. We are running out of time and the consequences could be grave.

Meanwhile, the domestic challenges that stop political and business leaders delivering on their international climate commitments remain present and correct. It was depressing in the extreme to see someone in Number 10 briefing that Cameron's speech would talk up shale gas, when the actual speech gave fracking the most cursory of mentions. Given the gravity of Cameron's speech, the transparent (and successful) attempt to engineer a UKIP appeasing headline in the Telegraph was a shoddy piece of political triangulation. It was similarly depressing to consider how Obama will never be able to get Congress to support his climate ambition or wonder how many of the blue chip firms calling for bolder climate action are themselves continuing to defend utterly unsustainable business models. The hypocrisy evident in Cameron calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies while dishing out oil and gas tax breaks, or in Obama calling for more action from developing nations when US per capita emissions remain off the charts, or in Shell hymning the need to emissions cuts while exploring in the Arctic, is both shocking and in no way surprising.

Additionally, there is a little noticed reason why people are suddenly optimistic that a global climate deal can be reached next year: the most powerful nations have, in effect, given up on delivering a sufficiently ambitious treaty. The plan for nations to come forward with their emissions reduction pledges and climate action plans in order to provide a basis for a new treaty may help end the deadlocks that have marred previous negotiations, but it is not a recipe for an agreement to keep temperature rises below 2C. Like an Ed Miliband conference speech, the eventual treaty will not be commensurate to the scale of the challenge and will inevitably disappoint plenty of people who would love to be able to cheer it to the rooftops.

And yet, there is another, more encouraging, way to look at this continued failure to deliver deep cuts in emissions. Assuming you are not so cynical as to believe the words of political and business leaders can never be believed (if you are, I can't help you), the over-arching commitment to climate action is there, meaning that if the initial policies and pledges fall short the pressure is on to ratchet them up as the green economy gains momentum and the climate risks become more evident. This might not be the ideal approach - it leads to huge climate risks and higher economic costs compared to earlier action - but it further underlines how the direction of travel is in favour of more climate policy, not less; more clean technology, not less; and more green investment, not less.

This week's UN summit may not have delivered the global climate commitments many green businesses want, and Paris may similarly fail to deliver a truly credible treaty. Similarly, corporate sustainability strategies may continue to typically fall short of the scale of transformation that is required in a genuinely low carbon economy. But if there is one message to come from New York this week it is that when it comes to climate action, you ain't seen nothing yet.

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