02 Feb 2015, 12:23
Most political crazes follow a familiar firework-like trajectory. They soar skywards, sparking headlines and excitement, before peaking as the unforgiving gravity of our first-past-the-post electoral system takes effect. However, with fewer than 100 days to go to the election questions are now seriously being asked as to whether the Green Party can break this historical template. Can the Green surge defy political gravity? How can it increase its chances of doing so? And what happens for the wider green economy if it does?
Last week may have seen the first wave of negative headlines since the Green surge started, as Natalie Bennett received an old-fashioned shellacking at the hands of Andrew Neil and several of the party's more radical policies struggled to survive first contact with a sceptical press. But it ended with the party announcing that it has switched its spring conference in Liverpool to a larger venue to accommodate the now 50,000-plus membership base. That news came as the party launched a crowd-funding push to raise the £72,500 required to put forward a candidate in every constituency in the country this May. Given the level of recent support it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this historic first for the party will be achieved.
However, last week's contradictory fortunes highlighted how the election campaign is going to be a lot tougher from here on in. The broadcasters may have gifted the insurgent environmentalist party a platform and a cause they could have only dreamt about six months ago, but in establishing themselves as a genuine electoral threat in a host of crucial swing seats the Greens have invited the kind of scrutiny and political hatchet jobs they have previously been avoided. Quite frankly, if the Green leadership isn't spending every waking moment thinking long and hard about how to address this scrutiny and build on its recent surge it deserves to see momentum fizzle out.
There are two important questions the party needs to address: how can it deliver a strong electoral showing and how can it use its influence to advance the issues it cares about?
This begs the question as to what constitutes a strong electoral showing. There is an understandable tendency within the party to try and manage expectations. To note that beating the Lib Dems vote share would be a great achievement, to acknowledge that first past the post means retaining Caroline Lucas' seat and being competitive in a couple more seats represents solid progress. This is a mistake. Given the party has moved from being a rounding error to having a tenth of the vote in the space of a few months the target should be to build on, not consolidate, recent momentum.
If I was a Green Party member, and I'm not, I'd want to see a strategy for securing 15 per cent of the vote and a credible set of tactics for winning at least three seats and being competitive in plenty more.
It is this ambitious target which brings us back to last week's series of car crash interviews and headlines. It is no secret that as soon as an insurgent left-wing party moves from being a marginal concern to a genuine threat to the political status quo it is going to face tough questions, and rightly so. But did the Greens have to make it quite so easy for their right-wing critics?
A citizen's income is not quite as daft an idea as it sounds, even if there are legitimate concerns about how it is funded and whether it actually ends up being regressive. But if you are going to have such a radical policy you need to do a much better job at explaining and defending it than the Greens did last week. There are ways to position yourself as a party that opposes the concept of "thought police" without making it easy for opponents to characterise you as an apologist for ISIS. Equally, urgent reform of drugs and prostitution laws are eminently justifiable liberal policies, but savvy politicians know there are ways to make this case without scaring off centrist voters - there are reasons why governments love a royal commission or public inquiry.
Finally, and in many ways most importantly, attacking corporate tax evasion is entirely fair enough, doing so using language that appears to attack all businesses is self-defeating, particularly when it is a combination of private and public sector that has developed the technologies we so urgently need to tackle climate change. A chunk of the Greens' appeal is that they challenge corporatism at a time when trust in many businesses is through the floor, but there is a difference between being anti-business as usual and anti-business full stop. It is a distinction the Greens often struggle to make.
The party is letting itself be painted as anti-growth, advocating steady state economics without credibly explaining how clean energy, circular economy models, and new economic metrics can make aspiration, growth, and continued improvement in quality of life compatible with environmental sustainability. Many within the Green Party know this to be the case, they need to get much better at explaining it when under hostile questioning.
A fascinating recent study demonstrated in a blind survey more people favour the Greens' policies than any other party. I suspect the reason this support does not translate into more electoral success is a combination of the first past the post straight jacket and the manner in which policies that would have once been regarded as firmly of the centre-left are undermined by hair shirt rhetoric and some of the party's wilder policy touchstones.
It is possible for the party to remain true to its left-wing and environmentalist tendencies by foregrounding radical policies on rail nationalisation, much more ambitious climate action, and an end to austerity measures without muddying the picture with universal incomes and peace and love inspired defence reforms. It will be fascinating to see if the party's eventual manifesto makes a more centrist pitch for electability or whether it is happy to let gravity take effect on its recent bounce. It will be equally fascinating to see if the leadership is willing to fast-track some of the new talent that has joined the party and strengthen its roster of spokespeople as quickly as possible. It is encouraging that there have already been indications from some of the party's senior figures that the manifesto could make some of its more radical ideas aspirations rather than firm policy commitments.
Some veteran Green campaigners may hate it, as the admirable Baroness Jones acknowledged in an interview last month, but the significance of a more measured, realistic and, dare I say it, pro-business approach is that it will not only aid the party's electoral chances, it will also increase its influence over those main parties that will inevitably form the next government.
The fascination for business leaders with the Greens is not so much the number of seats they win (first past the post means even in its wildest dreams the Greens will remain a minor player post-May), but the extent to which the party can emulate UKIP in shaping the political rhetoric and policies of the main parties.
UKIP's Nigel Farage has got increasingly adept at deflecting questions about the party's wilder policies and spinning his response back to his core issues of Europe and immigration. The Greens have no desire to aspire to Farage's reductive view of the world, but they could usefully work out how to condense their message so that it is more centred on ending austerity and protecting the environment. Currently, by focusing on some of its more radical policies and speaking less about its core environmental concerns, the Greens are at risk of diluting the influence they can bring to bear on Labour, the Lib Dems, and even the Conservatives.
After the last set of US Presidential debates failed to mention climate change, CNN's Candy Crowley explained the omission: "Climate change, I had that question. All you climate change people. We just, you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing."
One of the big advantages of having the Greens in the TV debates is that it should ensure this short-sighted failure to tackle one of the biggest issues of the age is avoided. The Greens presence should mean all of the party leaders are forced to talk about climate change, not to mention fuel poverty, fracking, biodiversity loss, air pollution, and the inherent inefficiency of our economic models. But this will only happen if the Greens seize the opportunity to speak about these issues, relate them to people's lives, and vigorously attack the flaws in the environmental record of the main parties. Unfortunately, I'm yet to be convinced this will happen.
Bennett's primary goal should be highlighting Cameron's inconsistency on fracking and climate change or pushing Miliband even harder to promise more funding to tackle fuel poverty and drive clean tech investment. If she can achieve these eminently attainable goals she would have done the entire environmental movement a huge favour, regardless of what then happens in May. But Bennett won't be able to credibly challenge the mainstream parties if the Greens have to spend the debates and the wider campaign defending policies that they should have recognised long ago make more sense in a academic seminar room than on the doorstep.
The Greens' recent momentum could yet prove hugely significant for British politics and the UK's green economy, but only if the party seizes the opportunity it has been presented with, ditches some of its unworkable policies, and modifies its message to broaden its appeal. The opportunity is there to put rocket boosters under the Green surge, but is the party bold enough to seize it?
26 Jan 2015, 12:46
Finally, about three years too late, the debate on fracking is moving onto the territory it should have always been played out upon: climate change.
There are myriad reasons to oppose fracking in the UK, varying enormously in their legitimacy, but the one source of opposition that trumps all others is the very real threat that a successful fracking industry is incompatible with long term efforts to tackle climate change. As Environmental Audit Committee Chair Joan Walley argues today, "ultimately fracking cannot be compatible with our long-term commitments to cut climate changing emissions unless full-scale carbon capture and storage technology is rolled out rapidly, which currently looks unlikely". Bravo.
As I've argued before the problem with fracking in the current UK context is that if it were to prove as successful as David Cameron and George Osborne hope it would quickly prove incompatible with our climate change goals. Walley uses the "oil tanker" metaphor, arguing that adding ever more fossil fuel infrastructure makes it ever harder to turn the trajectory of UK's energy sector towards decarbonisation. I prefer the Chekov's Gun metaphor: if you build a fracking industry it is going to get used. Either way, in a carbon constrained world you can't construct a new fossil fuel industry without a credible plan for quickly deconstructing it.
There is, of course, a way to square this circle in the form of the 'get out of jail free' card that carbon capture and storage (CCS) offers the fossil fuel industry. If we had a large scale CCS industry up and running (or even the promise of one) you could legitimately continue to pursue large scale fracking activity, assuming of course you could overcome the still legitimate concerns over methane emissions, flaring, air pollution, water pollution, earth tremors, noise, traffic congestion, house price impacts, and any of the other concerns I have forgotten.
But we don't have a large scale CCS industry up and running, we don't even have the vague pretence that we are likely to have a large scale CCS industry up and running at any point in the near future. After almost 10 years of two steps forward, one and three quarter steps back, the UK and Europe are now lagging badly behind other nations in their pursuit of CCS. If there is one environmental failure that this government deserves condemnation for, one failure that undermines the good work it has done on other forms of clean technology and torpedoes the Prime Ministers' flawed decarbonisation strategy for the 2020s it has been the inability to mobilise the CCS industry.
Without proof that CCS can work in the UK, building a fracking industry is the height of environmental and economic irresponsibility. George Osborne and co are effectively encouraging investment and political heartache to develop a sector that would almost certainly have to be shut down within 15 years to meet legally binding climate targets. Those who argue the contrary are still clearly yet to reconclie themselves with what decarbonisation means for industrialised economies.
In addition, the government is seeking to tap into relatively costly oil and gas resources at a point when we know the world's more costly reserves need to be kept in the ground. Meanwhile, the Ministerial obsession with fracking only distracts political and financial capital from the energy efficiency and renewables projects that could make a real and immediate contribution to the economy and efforts to curb emissions.
It is at this point that supporters for the fracking industry - many of whom remain bought and paid for industry lobbyists or have spent a lot of time lunching with said lobbyists - start trotting out their tired arguments in favour of ever more fossil fuels. 'Shale gas can cut emissions by replacing coal', they say; 'what about the gas we use for heating and cooking', they ask; 'the IPCC and the IEA say we can pursue fracking while combatting climate change', they argue; 'if we don't drill for oil and gas, others will', they protest.
These are reasonable arguments, but they still fail to address the central concern: that fracking in its current form is not compatible with tackling climate change. Shale gas can replace coal, but if that were the true goal why won't the government close loopholes that allow coal power to continue well into the 2020s? The IEA and IPCC may nod to shale gas' potential role as a 'bridging fuel', but they also say over and again that we need CCS at scale, which we still do not have. Gas does have a role to play in heating and cooking, but the government's long term decarbonisation plans make plain we need to decarbonise heating as well through the 2030s - again, why build an industry we won't be able to use?
Finally, the argument that 'if we don't supply it, others will' has a name, it is called the drug dealers' defence.
Meanwhile, the government's arguments for fracking - led by Chancellor George Osborne's arrogant attempt to order his colleagues to support the technology - has descended into the parroting of the line the UK has "one of the most robust regulatory regimes for shale gas". No it doesn't. The most robust regulatory regimes for shale gas in the world are those that ensure the controversial practice poses no environment threat by banning it outright.
If the government really wanted to deliver a robust regulatory regime for fracking it would support Labour's 13 amendments to the Infrastructure Bill, each of which seem to be entirely reasonable, as well as the separate amendment requiring the Committee on Climate Change to keep a close eye on the industry's development. After all, the fracking industry has indicated that many developers are already following the best practices proposed by Labour and insists it can play a role in a low carbon economy. If that is the case, why is the government not backing the amendments? Why aren't the shale gas industry's vocal lobbyists demanding that these amendments pass as a means of building public support? Where is the shale gas industry's support for a power sector decarbonisation target for 2030? The only explanation is that the government wants to give the industry the freedom not to follow these environmental best practices and adhere to these climate change safeguards.
The reality is that as MPs are given their first opportunity to vote on the UK's nascent fracking industry the government's support for the sector is descending into chaos. Arguments in favour of cutting energy bills, tackling climate change, and limiting local environmental impacts have all been found wanting, and public opposition looks stronger than ever.
The real tragedy for Ministers, fracking companies, and, yes, those who care about decarbonisation, is that it didn't have to be this way. A fracking strategy developed in tandem with a successful CCS programme and backed by tighter legislation requiring the closure of coal power plants and genuinely world-leading environmental standards could have played a credible role in the UK's low carbon economy. A fracking industry that eschewed cheerleading headlines in favour of modest pilot projects could have built public support without sparking a political fire-fight.
Instead a heady combination of arrogance, incompetence, and a desperate desire to revive the 1980s cash cow that was the oil and gas industry has backed the fracking industry and the government into a corner they will struggle to get out of.
21 Jan 2015, 14:58
Can a comedy night be said to have been successful if you leave feeling rather downbeat? Judging by last night's RSA event on Seven Serious Jokes About Climate Change, I'd have to say yes.
The event to mark the launch of the latest report from the RSA and COIN on The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change, brought together seven comedians to reflect on each of the dimensions identified by report authors Dr Jonathan Rowson and Dr Adam Corner - just with added jokes and occasional swearing.
The central premise of the report is that climate change is a multidimensional challenge that is affecting almost every aspect of our society and yet we continue to address it through a narrow lens that rarely widens beyond 'The Science' and poorly defined calls for 'Action'. Consequently, what is needed to break the political, cultural and societal impasse that is allowing climate change risks to escalate is a multi-faceted approach that 'reframes' our understanding of climate change through seven inter-related dimensions: science, law, economy, technology, democracy, culture, and behaviour. Put like that, you can see why Rowson and Corner wanted to get the jokesmiths in to bring some levity to their critique.
Each of the comedians was tasked with delivering a five to 10 minute show on one of the dimensions and how climate change can be better understood by seeing it as a democratic challenge or a technological challenge or a cultural challenge and so on. The results were unsurprisingly varied and it is fair to say some acts were more successful than others, but the combined impact was thought-provoking, profound, challenging, and, most importantly for a comedy night, funny.
The brilliant punchline from the Pappy's comedy troupe delivered after they had eaten through their allotted 10 minutes delivering their standard non-climate related set of (brilliant) sketches deserved its ovation, as did Marcus Brigstocke's face as he admitted that he found insulating your home and shopping less to be extremely sexy. It is worth catching the set online to get the full effect.
However, if the jokes were good it was the manner in which they were harnessed to make some deadly serious points that gave the evening its power. Brigstocke's exceptional Dr Seuss inspired poem on the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit highlighted the absurdity of our leaders' inaction more effectively than any petition, just as Steven Punt's sceptic-baiting monologue on "so-called science" hammered home the anti-intellectualism that defines that particular clique.
But it was the two most challenging performances that served to highlight the paucity of our collective response to climate change.
Rob Auton's shift from one liners to a genuinely moving poem on the world we stand to lose hammered home the risks inherent in trusting technology to save us. In taking the self-satirising analysis of those who believe technology will always protect us from environmental crises to its logical extreme and imagining "anti-hurricane missiles" and "ice cap rebuilding apps", Auton perfectly articulated the uncertainty those of us who believe in the promise of clean technologies wrestle with every day. It made for an uncomfortable yet inspiring listen.
Holly Burn's eccentric sketch (you need to see it) was equally thought-provoking, seizing on the theme of culture's response to climate change to imagine a former lover who as a writer had seen environmental damage being wrought and chosen not to explore it as a topic. "Why didn't you tell us what we were doing to the world?" she asked her imaginary beau, while simultaneously challenging an audience that had been completely wrong-footed.
You can see why I was left feeling somewhat downcast by these performances, despite there also being plenty of laughs. In many ways, I found several of the sketches more serious and hard-hitting than Professor Chris Rapley's wilfully serious and hard-hitting 2071 lecture on the latest climate science.
Having been asked to find comedic potential in climate change pretty much all of the performers had been forced to settle on gallows humour, some of it pretty dark. There was little on the identification of the tangible and clearly defined actions that Rowson and Corner argue will be needed to genuinely start to tackle climate change. At times it felt more like one long, and yet funny, sigh at the daunting reality we face.
Moreover, the effectiveness of the comedians' analysis of our collective failure on climate change only served to highlight the inadequacy of what has gone before. As the excellent compere Pippa Evans observed at the start of the evening, the question for those who are concerned about climate change is how do you make it "as interesting as Kim Kardashian's bottom"? Reading this morning's analysis by George Monbiot on the criminal extent to which environmental issues have been sidelined by mainstream media only underlines the enormity of that particular challenge.
However, it is a challenge that has to be taken on and the RSA's new report and the communication skills demonstrated by the seven comedians last night provide some important pointers as to how it might be overcome.
Rowson and Corner's seven dimensions hypothesis offers a useful reminder to business leaders and policymakers that climate change cannot be confined to a clearly defined silo. Companies that are serious about tackling climate change need to wrestle with the issue through their operations, investment, risk management, marketing, customers, supply chains, and even culture, not just through a sustainability department. Politicians cannot credibly declare that they care about tackling climate change while simultaneously maximising fossil fuel production. You need to attack climate risks from multiple angles.
Meanwhile, mining the comedy that comes with environmental catastrophe - and there is definitely comedy there - reminds advertiser, marketing departments, and campaigners that there are more effective ways to build support for green technologies and initiatives than the traditional approaches deployed by public awareness-raising exercises. I hope it is a lesson Al Gore, Pharrell Williams, and the latest Live Earth shindig are willing to embrace.
Most of all though, it is Burn's plaintive inquiry - "why didn't you tell us" - that resonates. If you accept that climate change is happening and serious, the question for every individual, every business, and every politician is what are you going to do about it and how are you going to build support for the actions you want to take. If you accept that climate change is one of the most serious issues we all face, you need to prioritise building this support and taking these actions as a matter of urgency. How many of us - in business, politics, or civil society - can honestly say we have done that?
Last night, Marcus Brigstocke challenged the audience, if you think climate change is serious and you are confident in that fact, how far are you willing to go? It was as part of a joke, but as Winston Churchill famously observed, "a joke is a very serious thing".
14 Jan 2015, 11:56
And so, it continues. Oil fell below $45 (£30) a barrel yesterday morning, futures falling another 4.1 per cent on the back of fast-inflating US stockpiles, and indications from the United Arab Emirates that it has no intention of curbing production just yet. The oil price graph now resembles nothing so much as a cliff face or a Lib Dem leader's approval ratings. The analysts who singularly failed to predict this slump are now rushing to predict how long it will last and how low the price can go – we should be forgiven for questioning what qualifies them to keep making confident predictions.
You will no doubt have read much of the analysis detailing how the slump has been caused by US fracking or competition from clean tech or Machiavellian OPEC manoeuvrings (delete as appropriate). You will also have read about how the slump will either prove shortlived as supplies are trimmed and demand recovers, or an epoch-defining event as OPEC's influence dwindles, shale plays redefine the energy landscape, and clean tech leads to a permanent drop in fossil fuel demand. And you will have read how the oil price collapse is great news for green businesses as investors ditch unproductive fossil fuel assets and flock to cleaner alternatives, or terrible news for green businesses as cheap oil obliterates the financial rationale for low-carbon technologies.
The breadth of the spectrum of analysis on almost every aspect of the oil price slump – not to mention the manner in which many people's understanding of this phenomenon appears to be informed as much by their ideological world views as the changing nature of the market – again underlines the extent to which no one can really say with any confidence what will happen next. Once again we are forced to reach for the old Hollywood adage, nobody knows anything.
However, amid the recent avalanche of analysis, a handful of important points are in danger of being missed.
The first is that the green business community is in danger of hyping up the benefits that will come from a sustained period of low oil prices and underestimating the significant harm that could be wreaked on clean-tech firms.
There has been a tendency among green business commentators in recent weeks to highlight how oil and gas firms will suffer more from the oil price crash than their clean-tech competitors. This is undoubtedly the case. Much depends on the longevity of this period of low oil prices, but it is clear that if it continues for any length of time, the oil majors face a period of retrenchment, job cuts, and axed projects. The outlook for clean-tech firms that are supported by decarbonisation policies and are benefiting from falling cost curves is far more encouraging. But that does not mean clean tech firms can expect to be fully insulated from the challenges that come with having to compete with fossil fuels that are now nominally cheaper.
If the low oil price is sustained – admittedly, a big if – the short to medium-term implications for clean tech will prove significant and largely negative. The cost of clean energy will become more expensive relative to gas (or simply less competitive in those lucky regions where clean energy already undercuts fossil fuels). Meanwhile, electric car and energy-efficiency investments will all be left looking less financially attractive compared with recent years.
The policy implications of this new reality would be widely felt. Taking the UK as just one example, the promise to set wholesale prices for clean-energy generators through the new contract for difference regime becomes a lot more expensive if gas wholesale prices fall. If the government persists with its cap on the amount of funding available to support clean energy, which it will, fewer projects than previously thought will be able to be built with the budget. Controversial projects such as new nuclear, carbon capture and storage, and offshore wind developments will become even more contentious. Meanwhile, politically Labour is tying itself in knots this week explaining how its energy "price freeze" was always in reality a "price cap".
Some green campaigners have boldly and reasonably argued that the fall in the oil price offers an opportunity to introduce a more effective carbon price that businesses and consumers will be more likely to accept. You can't fault the logic, just as you can never fault the logic of proper carbon pricing. But can you envisage a mainstream politician today who has the nerve to take the cost of living get-out-of-jail-free card they have just been handed by the global oil market and then erode its impact with higher carbon taxes? Have you met George Osborne or Ed Balls?
Yes, a low oil price that continues into the medium term harms the oil industry more than the emerging clean-tech sector, but that does not preclude green businesses facing a period of weakened investment cases and policy uncertainty. This precariousness will be further fuelled by the manner in which virtually every mainstream political player in every oil-producing country in the world appears to remain wedded to prioritising short-term action to prop up the faltering oil sector over long-term efforts to engineer an end to the oil sector. Chancellor George Osborne provides Exhibit A.
The second key point is slightly more encouraging for green businesses and centres on the way in which clean energy offers a much more stable alternative to the demonstrably volatile oil price. The oil price will spike again at some point, we just don't know when. Consequently, just as the oil majors are attempting to argue that high-capital projects will still be needed in the future, it is clear that clean-energy developers can present precisely the same argument.
Plenty of businesses are happy to pay a current premium for the clean energy they use because they recognise the value of having long-term price stability. Even in a period of low fossil fuel prices this argument can resonate, particularly when you consider how oil price volatility can be contrasted with the falling price of renewable, and particularly solar, power. The past few months might have demonstrated that the goal of grid parity for clean energy is a moving target, but that does not mean clean tech firms can't reach it.
However, while the 'stability versus volatility' argument can work, it is abundantly clear that it is less compelling than the 'renewables are cheaper' argument, which has just taken a shellacking at the hands of oil price collapse. As ever, there is an unanswerable long-term argument for investing in renewables and there are reasons to remain confident they will prove nominally cheaper than oil, coal and gas eventually. But in the short term plenty of businesses will be focused on trying to work out how they can exploit low oil prices. Green firms need to recognise that reality and work out a marketing approach that can still appeal to customers who have just seen one of the financial triggers for switching to clean technologies disarmed.
The narrow financial challenges that low-carbon firms now face leads to the third problem presented by the oil price slump: the need for an even more sophisticated articulation of the merits of the green economy.
If the oil price remains in the doldrums, supporters of the green economy will have to expand upon some of the narrow economic arguments that have dominated green business discourse in recent years, and start talking more explicitly about climate change.
For several years a high oil price enabled the simplistic argument that cleaner technologies made more financial and economic sense than fossil fuel incumbents. A low oil price still requires an economic argument, but it is a more sophisticated one that draws heavily on the need to recognise the economic costs that come with the climate impacts, air pollution, and price volatility that result from fossil fuels, as well as the myriad benefits that come with genuinely clean technologies.
Clean energy is still cheaper than oil when you consider the full costs of fossil fuels. The biggest subsidy in the world remains the one handed to the fossil fuel industry that allows it to offload the bulk of its environmental costs onto society as a whole. In the absence of a meaningful carbon price and in the presence of a low oil price, green business supporters need to find a way to make this case. In short, they need to identify an approach for talking about climate change risks and the transformation they necessitate, regardless of what is happening to the oil price this month.
Here is the daunting reality that we all too rarely wrestle with. Oil, coal, and gas could be as free as the (often dirty) air we breathe and we would still have to stop using it. In fact, if global decarbonisation efforts are successful, the long-term trend for the oil price is towards $1 a barrel as alternative technologies result in an eventual collapse in demand. The oil price can plummet to historically low levels, but it will not make one iota of difference to climate science and the warnings that come with it. We need to find a way to leave these assets in the ground. Ultimately, the only way to do that is to deliver alternative technologies that are demonstrably better than fossil fuels.
The global effort to tackle climate change centres on the development of technologies that will allow future generations to ignore coal the way we now largely ignore the flint and bronze that first enabled the development of human civilisation. In this context, the vagaries of the oil price should be seen as a sideshow.
09 Jan 2015, 00:21
I will try to ensure this blog post does not read like one long whinge, but in the interests of full disclosure I'll warn you now that I am unlikely to succeed.
Like tens of thousands of other commuters my first week back at work has been severely disrupted by the public transport chaos centring on London Bridge station. For those of you living outside the capital, the past week has seen one of London's busiest station descend into shambolic and dangerous levels of over-crowding and confusion as long planned work to upgrade the platform and concourse entered a new phase. Trains were cancelled at a moment's notice, appalling planning saw information boards stuck in a corner of the concourse leading to genuinely dangerous levels of overcrowding, severe delays have become endemic as operators somehow failed to anticipate what would happen when the number of tracks in and out of the station was halved. The changes had been months in the planning and yet the chaos has now been going on for three days with little confidence that there is a simple solution available.
For me, a commute that typically took just under two hours each day has been extended to the point where it has been pushing three hours for a return journey of under nine miles. With some reports suggesting the disruption could extend into 2018 my wife and I are currently resigning ourselves to the sad fact that when our soon to be born first child appears I may struggle to make it home for their bed time. Self-pity is not a great look, and I am fully aware I am lucky to have a job to commute to and a flat to commute from. But I can't help but find the looming reality of these precious lost hours both upsetting and infuriating. Those fellow commuters facing disruption to journeys that are already longer than mine will have it much worse.
As I write Mayor Boris Johnson is reported to be meeting with Network Rail to demand an explanation as to why this chaos was not avoided and attempt to work out what can be done to tackle the problem. Perhaps he'll tackle the mounting fear that public transport riots could actually become a thing by proposing a £60m cable car for each and every delayed commuter.
Why am I venting about all of this on a blog dedicated to environmental and business issues, beyond the obvious desire for a cathartic rant? Well, the scandalous mismanagement of the London Bridge upgrade is an infrastructure issue in the same way that climate resilience and the low carbon economy is an infrastructure issue. In fact, as part of the UK's wide-ranging national rail upgrade programme the project is part of efforts to shift to a lower carbon transport model.
The problem for the UK, not to mention many other countries, is that the chaotic scenes at London Bridge are anything but an isolated incident. From energy to transport, infrastructure is creaking across numerous industrialised nations, further fuelling understandable hostility towards the fares, bills and taxes needed to pay for increasingly essential upgrades. The net result is everyone is left facing a miserable set of choices: Rail network, over-crowded and over-priced? Try getting in a car and adding to toxic air pollution and congestion. Or why not get on a bike and risk traffic accidents and breathing that toxic air? Fed up with commuting altogether? You could try working from home, but that assumes you can actually get a mobile phone signal and live in an area with half way decent broadband. Our collective infrastructure needs an overhaul, and yet no one, myself included, wants to pay for it, nor endure the disruption that comes with new projects.
However, if we are to deliver the long promised financial and lifestyle benefits that should come with a more sustainable economy our inter-related infrastructures urgently need transforming. Meanwhile, climate change looms like a multi-headed hydra threatening to make complex infrastructure challenges ever more daunting. The combination of the need to make essential infrastructure resilient to climate impacts (and bear in mind that some of the disruption to London commuters this week was a result of ice on rail tracks) and the need to deliver new low carbon sources of energy and forms of transport means the pace of infrastructure deployment is going to have to accelerate drastically over the next two decades. And yet almost every attempt to deliver much needed upgrades risks disruption that further erodes public support and confidence in these essential services, at the same time as dealing yet another blow to already worryingly low levels of economic productivity.
There is ample evidence to show modern, clean, sustainable, efficient, and life-affirming metropolises are both possible and desirable. Over the next few decades it should be possible to build green cities where people travel manageable distances from comfortable green homes to ultra-efficient and inspiring workplaces using zero emission transport - all of the necessary technologies already exist. But such a vision is only possible if we get a lot better at the kind of long term, integrated planning and astute project management that has been sorely lacking in the capital (and plenty of other cities) in recent years.
As the London Bridge chaos proves, much greater value needs to be placed on the basic project management, public engagement, and contingency planning skills that help minimise disruption from infrastructure construction and maximise satisfaction with the end result. Sometimes that may mean taking longer to deliver projects, other times it may mean dishing out compensation or offering stakeholders investment opportunities. It definitely means having the foresight and common sense to modify rail timetables whenever you close a load of platforms and lines.
It may also require customers and affected businesses being more directly involved in the planning and project management process. None of this is easy, but it may prove essential if massive disruption is to be avoided. To this end, Green Alliance's recent call for a new approach to infrastructure planning that invites the public to take much greater ownership of the projects they rely on represents an important development that demands political and business support.
Truly green and sustainable cities are not about vanity cable cars, sky gardens, and forest bridges, nice as they may be. They are about clean and low carbon transport and energy networks, connecting green buildings and spaces, and delivered in a way that supports and engages businesses and communities. With the right management and investment green cities can become a reality, and what is more they can be delivered without pushing current infrastructure to the brink of collapse - but only if we heed the lessons learned as angry commuters are this week once again forced on to delayed and overcrowded trains.
ABOUT JAMES' BLOG
Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray