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It has been a good few weeks for the UK's green economy. The green bond and green IPO market is warming up nicely, investment in solar farms is booming, renewable energy output is soaring and the EU is poised to introduce major new green corporate reporting rules that will only benefit progressive businesses. Yes, there are concerns over the future of offshore wind, biomass and nuclear projects and, yes, EY's report showing the UK slipped down the league table for attracting clean energy investors is worrying, even if we remain in the top five locations for investment. But speaking to green business execs since the turn of the year, it is evident that the combination of an improving economy and an improving policy environment means there is more confidence in the sector than at any point in the last five years.
Moreover, as today's report from the Globe group of legislators proves, the UK is not alone. More than 60 countries made progress with climate change legislation last year and there are now nearly 500 "climate laws" on statute books around the world. With President Obama promising more ambitious action on climate change, the EU committing to cutting emissions at least 40 per cent by 2030 and China's government increasingly concerned about the smog crisis gripping the country, more favourable clean tech policies are on the way in the world's biggest markets. The green economy is about to have "a moment". It is "a moment" that is likely to last decades.
Best of all for British firms, the UK's political class is finally talking about climate change again with the three main parties competing to present the most compelling approach for tackling the problem. It is depressing that it has taken major floods and the wettest winter on record to convince the party leaders to talk about an issue they all agree represents a serious and escalating threat to British prosperity and security, but those committed to building a more sustainable clean economy will take succour wherever they can find it.
The past few weeks has seen Labour's Ed Miliband finally give voice to his long-standing commitment to tackling climate change, while also asserting that it is Labour, with its plans for a decarbonisation target, promised increase in flood defence spending and pledge to tackle the UK's continued reliance on coal power, that would deliver tangible action on climate change if elected. We have also seen Nick Clegg highlight the Lib Dem's achievements as both a driver of the coalition's climate change policies and a check on climate scepticism in Conservative ranks. And we have seen David Cameron again assert that "man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces".
Perhaps most important of all, Cameron has not been the sole Conservative voice issuing this warning and making the case for action to cut emissions. In the past few days, George Osborne, Eric Pickles, David Willetts and Michael Gove – all of whom have in the past been regarded as ambivalent at best on the need for climate action – have made the case for more effective action. Gove's revelation that he is a "shy green" who believes it is "unarguable that we should seek first to lessen the impact that man might have on the climate, and secondly invest appropriately in measures to mitigate and protect individuals and societies from the impact of climate change" feels particularly significant, given his position as a rising star on the right of the party.
This public re-emergence of a political consensus on the need for ambitious action to tackle climate change is hugely welcome in that it both provides businesses with greater certainty over the future direction of travel and introduces some much-needed competitive tension between the political parties as they seek to deliver the policies that are urgently needed to enable a step change in the rate of decarbonisation. But the big question for green businesses and investors is, how will this renewed political interest translate into policy action?
It is increasingly evident two positive developments for the green economy – one near term and one medium term – are now all but guaranteed.
Firstly, in the short term the controversial review of the fourth carbon budget promises to be a non-event. There is no way that the David Cameron who believes "man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces" can credibly sign off on a watering down of the UK's carbon targets for the 2020s, and there is no way the George Osborne who will almost certainly have to find more money for flood defence spending in his next budget can make him.
The new collection of essays from the Conservative Environment Network may question the effectiveness of centralised carbon targets, but it would be politically toxic for the prime minister to row back on his commitment to a Climate Change Act he proudly voted for, particularly following his recent comments on the importance of tackling climate change.
Moreover, even if he wanted to relax the fourth carbon budget, it is hard to see how he could. The beauty of the Climate Change Act is that it is flexible, but not that flexible. To change the budget for the period between 2023 and 2027 the government would have to justify the decision to water it down, win a vote in parliament and withstand an almost inevitable judicial review. There is no way these barriers can be overcome. The Lib Dems could not vote for it, green-minded Tories could not vote for it, and the independent Committee on Climate Change would argue against it. It is not an exaggeration to say that even pursuing a weakening of the budget could both bring down the coalition and make Cameron's comments on climate change look like the worst kind of political hypocrisy. The fourth carbon budget is as close to being locked down as it ever will be and businesses can start planning for the UK halving emissions against 1990 levels by 2027.
Second, the medium-term impact is that ambitious climate change policies will play a more central role than expected in the manifestos for next year's election.
We know with a high degree of confidence that Labour will commit to a decarbonisation target in the power sector, tighter restrictions on coal emissions, more spending on flood defences, a new approach to energy efficiency, continued support for nuclear, renewables and CCS, and tentative support for shale gas. We also know that the Lib Dems will put forward a package of measures designed to build on the progress the coalition has made through the Energy Act, Green Investment Bank and other measures, even if the precise details remain sketchy at this stage.
However, a big question mark still hangs over how Cameron will resolve the huge tension between his commitment to tackling climate change and the continued hostility from many within his party towards such action. The recent 2020 Group report on resource efficiency and the Conservative Environment Network essays on Responsibility and Resilience offer plenty of good ideas for how this might be done. But even among those Tories who want urgent action on climate change, there are significant divisions between those who want smart, targeted policies to drive investment and tackle waste and those who want over-arching free market mechanisms and regard anything that smacks of state intervention as anathema. Equally, there are similar divisions between those who want urgent action to cut emissions now and those, some of whom remain sceptical about the potential scale of climate impacts, who want to focus on climate adaptation and deal with rising emissions at a later date.
Whenever you see this kind of ideological and political tension, the most likely outcome remains a triangulation strategy and it is easy to envisage a Conservative manifesto that supports emissions reduction at the same time as slamming wind farms, that promotes "cheap" savings from energy efficiency while promising to cut "green levies" on energy bills, and that promises detailed policies to improve resource efficiency but talks only vaguely about climate change. You could see triangulation already underway this week as Cameron hymned the oil and gas industry one day and warned about the impacts of climate change the next. Such an approach is definitely preferable to the sidelining of climate issues that has held sway at the top of the Conservative Party in recent years, but it is also pretty obvious that you can't triangulate your way to a genuinely low-carbon economy.
However, that one concern aside, the past few weeks have left the green economy in an encouraging position. Investment and confidence is undoubtedly starting to build again as the economy strengthens and clean technologies mature. Long-standing predictions that the second half of this decade will be characterised by an explosion in the deployment of low carbon technologies and business models look increasingly prescient. Meanwhile, the combination of floods and economic opportunity – the old drivers of fear and greed – has finally forced our political leaders to push climate change and the green economy back up the agenda. The competition between the parties to deliver a successful new phase in the UK's decarbonisation strategy will benefit us all. Like I say, it has definitely been a good few weeks for the UK's green economy.
Welcome to the global fight to tackle the catastrophic risk that is man-made climate change, it is great to have you on board.
The entire green business and NGO community will have been delighted to hear you assert this week that you believe "climate change is happening [and] that it's caused by human beings".
This is a hugely welcome intervention, not least because your previous reluctance to speak publicly on this issue had fuelled speculation your friend and adviser Lord Lawson had convinced you climate change isn't a serious threat. Your colleagues on the green wing of the Conservative Party - those who once convinced you to assert that "if I become Chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe" - always maintained you were fully committed to delivering action on climate change. But you'll no doubt be aware your insistence the UK should not lead efforts to cut emissions and your team's willingness to brief the press about your hostility to green policies has fuelled speculation you do not regard climate change as a major issue. It is good to know this is categorically not the case, even if it has taken catastrophic floods for you and your colleagues to start talking about climate change again.
It is also good to know that you want to see action taken to "do what we can to prevent" climate change. This is a hugely welcome development, although I will admit to a twinge of concern at your throw away suggestion that "if we can't prevent" climate change we need to mitigate against it through adaptation measures. Improving climate resilience is essential and your decision to approve cuts to flood defence spending will no doubt go down as one of the coalition's biggest errors, but succumbing to the belief that we "can't prevent" climate change and should focus on adaptation is a one-way ticket to the kind of 4C world that it will be virtually impossible to adapt to. Having clearly committed yourself to action on climate change now is not the time for even a scintilla of defeatism.
Most of all though, it is great to hear that you have a vision for how the UK should decarbonise - it is a vision the entire green economy and almost every green NGO can get on board with. When you say "let's try and do this in as cheap a possible way as we can", you will find almost every environmentalist in the country will be nodding along in agreement.
I have to inform you that you are mistakenly under the impression that people somehow disagree with this over-arching strategy. We can perhaps quibble over the use of the word "cheap", as delivering something as important as the re-engineering of our economy on the cheap risks a shoddy transition that does not harness the technological and business innovation that will maximise economic, environmental, and health benefits. But if you substitute in the term "cost-effective" then the entire green economy is on your side with this vision.
Businesses and NGOs alike understand that a green transition will only be achieved if the cost of clean technologies continue to fall and the short term costs associated with green infrastructure investment are kept as low as possible. Again, we can argue that the polluting technologies that have driven climate change are themselves too cheap and should be made to meet the full cost of their impacts - that we should price the externalities associated with fossil fuels, as your Treasury economists would put it. But regardless of the outcome of this debate there is an acceptance that the cost-effectiveness of the low carbon transition needs to be maximised at every turn.
Consequently, there is the potential here for the restoration of the kind of political consensus on climate action that has been sorely lacking for much of this parliament. A consensus whereby the leaders of all main parties compete to find the best way to drive a cost-effective low carbon transition that will tackle climate change risks, deliver economic growth, and improve the UK's competitiveness. Having visited China and no doubt heard about its world leading clean tech sector you will be all too aware of the urgency with which the UK must seize this economic opportunity.
Unfortunately, your comments yesterday revealed one small potential flaw in your climate change strategy. If you want to deliver a cost-effective low carbon transition you need to pursue policies that deliver a cost-effective low carbon transition - and sadly, to date, the evidence that you are willing to do this is decidedly patchy.
You chose to highlight two areas where you think decarbonisation can be delivered in a "cheap" manner - fracking and nuclear power - and accuse critics of these two approaches of being "ideological" in their opposition. Specifically, you stated: "Let's not be too theological about which technology we use - let's get the right mix. For example, there are people in the green movement who oppose civil nuclear power for I would think rather ideological reasons but it's clearly a low-carbon source of energy generation. Equally shale gas has done incredible things to reduce US carbon emissions and there are parts of the environmental movement who don't like that, again for rather ideological reasons. I would say let's see more fracking and shale gas in Europe, in the UK and in China."
Now you are right that some environmentalists can be a little "ideological" in their efforts to ensure the planet remains habitable for civilisation, and in some instances this ideological rigidity can prove unhelpful. But it is wrong to dismiss all opposition to fracking and nuclear as "ideological" when much of the criticism aimed at these two technologies is driven by your central concern: cost effectiveness.
There is, as you will be well aware, an argument that says shale gas can act as a low cost "bridge" fuel as we transition to a low carbon economy, I have some sympathy for this argument. But there is also an argument that if we invest too much in a new generation of gas infrastructure it could become a stranded asset as many climate scientists believe we need to secure steeper cuts in emissions over the next two decades than can be delivered by a heavily gas reliant economy. Shale gas can probably play some role in a low carbon economy, but engineering a shale gas boom could end up proving extremely costly from both a financial and climate perspective.
Equally, there are long-standing arguments that claim next generation nuclear technologies can deliver deep cuts in emissions at a low cost - again, I have some sympathy with these arguments. But there are also concerns that when you consider all the costs associated with nuclear it is anything but "cheap". In fact, simply judging nuclear using the strike price support levels you have approved shows that it is more expensive than onshore wind power, is almost certainly going to be more expensive than solar power by the early 2020s, and is definitely more expensive than energy efficiency measures.
Which brings me to another crucial issue. There are plenty of cheap and cost effective technologies and policies that will drive a low carbon transition, but the fact is your record on supporting these technologies and policies is decidedly mixed.
Take energy efficiency. Every available analysis shows energy efficiency measures are not only the most cost effective way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, they also help to tackle fuel poverty and lower energy costs. And yet your government's changes to the ECO energy efficiency scheme effectively cut spending on such measures, while you have failed to provide the similar Green Deal scheme with the financial backing it needs if it is to have a national impact.
Or take flood defences. The past few weeks have made abundantly clear that investments in flood defences are cost-effective in the long run, but your government cut the budgets for such schemes and is still imposing significant job cuts on the agency tasked with tackling flood risk.
Or take wind and solar farms. Onshore wind farms are the lowest cost form of renewable energy and solar PV projects offer the fastest falling cost reduction curve, but your government has undermined welcome support for these technologies with barely concealed hostility from Ministers and a planning regime that is not fit for purpose.
Or take the promise of a decarbonisation target for the power sector. You have blocked its early adoption in order to aid continued investment in fossil fuels, despite the independent Committee on Climate Change concluding it is a cost effective policy that will help keep the UK on track to meet its carbon targets.
Or take carbon pricing and environmental taxes. Many of your favourite think tanks and economists will tell you that the most cost effective way to deliver action on climate change is to put a consistent and rising price on carbon emissions and let the market determine the least cost means of decarbonising. It is clear you understand this principle and have taken some positive steps to price carbon, but then you allow your officials to raise the prospect of cuts to the carbon floor price and deliver virtually no progress on the coalition's promised shift from income to environmental taxes.
Unfortunately this list could go on and on, but I am sure you get the idea.
You may be right to argue that nuclear power and fracking can help deliver "cheap" reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and responsible green businesses will happily engage with you in this debate. But there is a much wider array of technologies and policies that can also deliver cost effective emission reductions. Some of these, like energy efficiency, are obvious. Others, such as research and development funding for innovative renewable technologies, subsidies for clean energy, grants for electric vehicles, or tougher emissions standards on coal plants, might not appear to be cheap at first glance, but they are absolutely cost effective when set against the scale of climate change risks and the fact these policies are all designed to bring down the cost of emerging clean technologies.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer there is a huge opportunity for you to use the next Budget "do what we can to prevent" the climate change you acknowledge is man-made. Despite plenty of setbacks, your government has already made significant progress in driving investment in clean technologies and ensuring the UK continues to play a leading role in the global green economy. Now is the time to build on this progress with a new wave of cost-effective green policies. Policies that prioritise energy efficiency and low cost renewables, support research and development that will bring down the cost of next generation clean tech, increase the use of environmental taxes, regulations and incentives to encourage green investment (if you haven't read it yet, the recent report on resource efficiency published by your colleagues in the 2020 Group has some good ideas on how to do this), and enhance climate resilience.
The harsh reality of politics is that if you don't embrace these policies your rivals will, as they realise voters who are reeling from floods and are hugely supportive of the green economy will reward politicians who offering a compelling plan for tackling climate change.
The onus is on you to engage fully with all these technologies and policies as you pursue the most cost effective means of delivering the decarbonisation we urgently need. Because if ideological opposition to fracking and nuclear is not helpful, nor is ideological opposition to renewables and clean technologies. If you want to join the fight against climate change, this is the place to start.
14 Feb 2014
Over the past few years many of the policymakers, engineers and consultants who spend their time working out how best to respond to climate change have made a small but important shift in the way they talk about the disruption threatened by climate impacts. As a result, climate adaptation is out and climate resilience is in.
Anyone wondering why this minor change has been made need only look at the news (or if they are unlucky out the window). The scale of the climate impacts that are predicted for the coming decades are so severe that 'adaptation' that maintains our current economic and social norms may not be possible. There comes a point at which you cannot 'adapt' to rising sea levels or crop-killing droughts in any meaningful sense of the word. Improving our 'resilience' in the face of these anticipated floods and droughts may be the best we can hope for.
Talk of 'adaptation', so the reasoning goes, effectively downplays the scale of the risk and implies everything will be fine with just a bit more focus on clever engineering. That is why 'adaptation' had to go, to be replaced by the more accurate 'climate resilience'.
It is one of the features of the media coverage surrounding the current floods that for all the breathless reports, bird's eye views, and hyperbolic comparisons to disasters such as the recent Philippines hurricane, there has still been a failure to get across that this is not the new normal, this is a precursor to the new normal.
To take just one example, you've probably read all the reports suggesting England suffered the wettest January in 247 years. This is technically correct; it has been the wettest January since 1767, but Met Office records only go back to the winter of 1766/67. Newspaper sub-editors hate superfluous words, but the reports should read that it has been the wettest January in at least 247 years – we have no way of knowing if the January of 1765 was even more apocalyptic than last month or if the record that has just been set stretches back for millennia. The extreme weather really could be that extreme.
Except, unfortunately, it is not that extreme anymore. As Lord Stern highlighted again this morning, four of the five wettest years recorded in the UK have occurred since 2000, while the seven warmest years on record have also occurred in the same period. We also know that average global temperatures have climbed by around 0.7C since the 1950s and sea temperatures have also increased. And most of all, we know that basic physics dictates that warmer sea and air temperatures introduce more volatility and power into weather systems.
Some environmentalist have suggested that the recent storms and floods battering the UK, not to mention the droughts afflicting Australia and California or the typhoons impacting south east Asia, are little more than trailer for the real event of a 3C or 4C warmer world. But they are wrong. If climate scientists are right (and there is no reason to doubt them), this is not the trailer, this is the five-second TV ad for the trailer that comes before the movie. The trailer gets released in the 2030s and the main feature debuts some time after 2050 – it promises to be the biggest disaster movie ever shown and sadly won't qualify for the special effects Oscar.
If the recent floods have taught us anything, it is that we cannot adapt in any meaningful sense to the scale and intensity of the climate impacts that are predicted for the coming decades. We can and should make our homes, infrastructure, and business models more resilient, just as we can and should become even more stoical in the face of threats that are sadly nothing compared to those faced by other parts of the world.
But if this kind of extreme weather becomes as frequent as many scientists suspect, then true adaptation becomes all but impossible, not least because insurance costs become unmanageable, economic disruption becomes the new normal, and, most worrying of all, food security becomes seriously threatened. Some economists partly attribute the slow global economic recovery to resource and environmental constraints that have contributed to high commodity prices. Throw escalating climate impacts into that mix and we really do have a problem.
The only question that matters to business leaders and policymakers is what to do about this reality. The fact is there are only two options.
The first is to hope for the best. To listen to the discredited angry old man myths trotted out by Lord Lawson and his climate-sceptic acolytes and pray that the scientists are wrong. Under this scenario you simply have to cherrypick your data to hide long-term climate trends, ignore the risks inherent in the basic physics that shows how hotter systems are more intense and volatile and respond to every extreme weather event by arguing that it, on its own, proves nothing – much like a one-eyed football manager preparing for the drop by arguing that each individual defeat does not mean their team is about to get relegated.
The second option is to do something. That means undertaking a climate risk assessment for your operations, supply chains and markets in order to inform all future investment decisions. Developing a climate resilience strategy, again for your operations, supply chains and markets, that minimises risks and improves disaster recovery. Working out which geographies and sectors offer opportunities and which will become unviable and you need to retreat from. And most of all it means using every sinew of corporate muscle and every ounce of political capital to drive the transition towards the kind of low-carbon economy that delivers market-wide climate resilience and a reasonable chance of avoiding truly catastrophic levels of climate change.
As political commentator Matthew D'Ancona observed in an excellent column about David Cameron's response to the floods this week, this is not an issue for compromise. "Growth is not much use to you if your new-build semi, purchased with help from the Government's Help to Buy scheme, is under water," he observed. "Yesterday, Cameron evaded questions about Cabinet unity on climate change, insisting only that his own views have not altered. But if that is the case – 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."
You could replace the reference to Cameron with the name of any number of business leaders who profess to be deeply concerned about climate change and then fail to make the maximum use of their influence to drive low-carbon investment. There are thousands of green businesses that have made hugely impressive progress in the journey towards a sustainable economy – they are one of the few sources of hope in an otherwise bleak climate outlook. But it is clear that they need to go further and faster.
There is something a little crass about seizing on a disaster as 'a teachable moment', but the old saying about never letting a serious crisis go to waste is requoted so often for a reason. When the flood waters eventually recede life will return to normal and the focus will once again be drawn away from the long-term investments and changes we need to make to build real climate resilience and reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change. Business leaders across the UK would be well advised now to get a board meeting in the diary to address two simple questions: what can we do to improve our climate resilience and how can we go further and faster with our decarbonisation efforts?
We need to do everything in our power to stop that movie about a 4C world being broadcast and, while it definitely helps in its own way, simply changing the terminology around how to cope with it is not going to cut it. It is time for green business leaders and politicians to seize the moment.
I am beginning to feel sorry for Lord Chris Smith, and not just because the chairman of the Environment Agency is rather busy at the moment.
Earlier this week, Smith penned an eminently sensible column for the Daily Telegraph defending the Environment Agency's efforts to protect the UK from the latest wave of extreme weather and arguing that the country's approach to flood protection may have to change in the future. For his trouble he has now received a public rebuke from both the prime minister and the communities secretary.
What could Smith have possibly written to justify such criticism at a time when you would expect the government to be lining up to support the agency tasked with dealing with the immediate problem of rising flood waters? After all, Smith resisted the temptation to complain about the way in which his agency is facing job cuts, including to some of the teams that work on flood management. He also opted not to provoke climate sceptic Telegraph readers or environment secretaries by pointing out that flood risks will increase as climate impacts take hold. Instead, he made the rather uncontroversial point that "difficult choices" would have to be made in the future about which areas to protect from flooding. "There's no bottomless purse," he wrote, sounding not unlike a coalition minister seeking to justify unpopular spending cuts. "We need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect."
How could such a bland truism possibly merit public criticism from the upper echelons of the government? Hasn't mankind been choosing which areas to protect from floods ever since it worked out how to build the first levee? Well, Smith's mistake – if you can call it that – was his decision to illustrate the point with a rhetorical flourish.
"Rules from successive governments give the highest priority to lives and homes; and I think most people would agree that this is the right approach," he wrote. "But this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?" That, apparently, was enough to trigger a public dressing down from the prime minister.
Now anyone with even a passing understanding of how a newspaper column works would immediately recognise what Smith was trying to say and why he was using hyperbole to make his point. I'd wager not a single Telegraph reader put down their paper on Monday morning and exclaimed "my word, a chap here is recommending we abandon all farmland to flooding".
Unfortunately, David Cameron does not appear to understand the conventions of the newspaper column and as such the prime minister aimed thinly veiled criticism at Smith on Wednesday, telling the Commons that "there shouldn't be a false choice between protecting the town and protecting people in the countryside". Eric Pickles – standing in for Owen Paterson in the Commons yesterday after the environment secretary required emergency surgery on his eye – made the criticism more explicit, stating unequivocally: "We will work to defend both town and country. For the record, I do not agree with the comments of Lord Smith who implied there is a choice between the two."
Of course, wilfully misunderstanding someone to make a cheap political point and divert attention from underlying issues does not really constitute news any more. But this latest footnote in the long-running saga that is the government's cavalier approach to flood risk is still worth highlighting, as it goes to the heart of all that is wrong with both the coalition's flood policy and its wider climate adaptation strategy.
Smith may not have mentioned climate change in his column (and in my view he should have done), but his uncontroversial assertion that we will face increasingly tough choices on flood defence spending simply echoes the warnings climate scientists have been making for years. Smith's warning was just a gentler version of Professor Colin Thorne's prediction last month that rising sea levels and climate change meant the Somerset Levels could not be defended between now and the end of the century. If climate projections are accurate, parts of the UK will succumb to the waves, just as other parts of the world will succumb to crippling droughts and increasingly deadly storms. We are kidding ourselves to pretend otherwise.
It is understandable that a prime minister keen to win marginal seats at an imminent election does not want to tell parts of the country that they cannot expect to receive indefinite protection from the rising tides. Understandable, but also misleading and more than a little cowardly.
The fact is that if climate scientists are even half right in their predictions (and remember, unlike some of his climate sceptic colleagues, David Cameron has repeatedly said he is confident they are much more than half right), extreme weather and climate resilience will become two of the defining issues of our age – the depressing flipside to the more positive defining issue that is the emergence of a low-carbon and sustainable economy. Responsible political leaders should be engaging with this tough reality, not ducking away from it.
We know with a high degree of confidence that sea levels will increase over the course of this century, flood risks will rise, as will drought risks – long-term investment and infrastructure decisions will need to be made with these projections firmly in mind. "Difficult choices" will indeed have to be made. To consider just one relevant example, the coastal rail line near Dawlish will eventually become unviable if rising sea levels continue and storms intensify.
Businesses understand that they are increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather risks and are making investments to their infrastructure and supply chains to improve their resilience. But when the prime minister willfully misinterprets a legitimate warning about the UK's future climate resilience and the communities secretary sets out flood protection plans without once mentioning the words "climate change", it is fair to ask whether the government is taking its responsibilities seriously?
Yesterday's new funding announcements were welcome, even if the plans for new flood defence schemes appear to have ignored the south west. But the charge sheet against the government's flood strategy is now worryingly long. Ministers may be spinning furiously to show that flood spending has increased fractionally when this parliament is set against the last parliament, but Labour is right when it says that spending this year will still be below the level recorded in the final year of the last government. Spending was cut by the coalition at a time when numerous independent experts advised that it should be increasing. The promise of increased funding during the second half of the decade is hugely welcome, as is the new funding to repair damaged defences, but it is a long way short of what plenty of scientific advisors reckon is needed if we are to protect every household and business from excessive flood risks.
Add in the failure to account for climate change in the FloodRe insurance scheme, the cuts to the Environment Agency flood management teams, the move to axe regular progress reports on the Pitt Review of flood management, the decision to remove councils' duty to prepare for climate change impacts, and the scaling back of Defra's climate adaptation team, and it is no surprise the coalition's insistence it is doing all it can to help flood afflicted communities rings more than a little hollow.
The fact is the government put a man who does not think climate change is a serious threat to the UK in charge of climate adaptation, cut the budgets of the departments and agencies tasked with leading the UK's response to climate risks, and is now insisting it is doing its upmost to protect the country from precisely the kind of weather climate scientists have warned will become increasingly prevalent. I doubt flooded businesses and communities will appreciate the irony – not to mention the local economies of those parts of the country now facing massive disruption.
Flooding will always happen from time to time. But the public response to climate impacts is a bit like a football fan's response to an unfortunate defeat – if you see everyone trying their damndest to succeed then you are more likely to forgive them if things don't quite work out, but if some players are clearly not trying or have not prepared properly then you are likely to be much less impressed. The stance of Paterson towards climate warnings and the decision of the coalition to cut flood defence budgets has burnt through much of the sympathy the public may have for ministers wrestling with extremely challenging events.
Politicians who profess to take climate change seriously, including the leaders of the three main parties, have a responsibility to do precisely that. Specifically with regards to flooding, that means finding a way, even within a tough fiscal climate, to provide flood protection funding that increases as flood risk increases. Just as it means undertaking a complete overhaul of upland catchment management to hold more water back in the hills and accepting that some areas cannot and should not be protected indefinitely from escalating flood risks. More generally it means properly integrating climate risk into infrastructure decisions and being brave enough to dispense with platitudes and admit to voters that these risks will continue to increase. It also means engaging properly with legitimate warnings about future climate risks and ensuring that those ministers tasked with leading climate adaptation efforts understand that it is work of national importance.
This government probably deserves a bit more credit than it gets for its (still at times imperfect) efforts to build a low-carbon economy, but the criticism it is facing over its approach to climate resilience is fully merited – in fact, I'm surprised the government and the media haven't been even more vocal in their condemnation. Unfortunately for all of us, there is nothing "false" about the difficult choices the government will have to make to bolster the UK's climate resilience. The prime minister's argument that the government has been doing all it can to tackle escalating flood risks is about as watertight as Dawlish's sea wall.
ABOUT JAMES' BLOG
Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray