BuzzFeed has famously built a very successful brand through a carefully calibrated combination of seriousness and nonsense, so perhaps that can explain why Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps used his debut on the site to combine some intelligent points about the complexity of the energy policy landscape with some laughable estimates about the cost of decarbonising the power network. Then again, senior Conservatives' repeated use of dubious cost projections to argue that delivering decarbonised power by 2030 will cost each household £125 a year has now become so egregious that I suspect there was a different motivation at work.
Shapps allegation that Labour "still cares more about green taxes than people who are struggling to stay warm", rests on "independent research" that suggests meeting a decarbonisation target would cost an extra £7.5bn a year by 2030, adding "around £125 to your household bills". It is a repeat of similar allegations made by prime minister David Cameron, justice secretary Chris Grayling and the @ToryEnergy Twitter account. The problem is that the cost estimate is six times higher than that produced by the government's official advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), and the Conservatives have repeatedly failed to convincingly defend their projection, even when challenged to do so by Tory peer and chair of the CCC Lord Deben.
The Carbon Brief website has done a fine job of explaining how the Conservatives can estimate the cost of the decarbonisation target would reach £125, while the CCC can predict the cost will be £20 per household and argue that a decarbonisation target represents the most cost-effective means of ensuring the UK meets its over-arching emission targets. As with any energy cost projection, it is complicated but in a nutshell the Conservative calculation takes a high-end assumption for the cost of investment in low-carbon energy through the 2020s from a report by consultancy Poyry and simply adds that to energy bills, while ignoring the fact that if we are massively more reliant on renewables and nuclear by 2030 then this would apply downward pressure on wholesale electricity prices. In contrast, the CCC looks at a range of scenarios and concludes the impact of a decarbonisation target on the wholesale price and the effective rollout of energy efficiency measures means the impact on total energy bills will be negligible, even if various "green levies" increase to help mobilise necessary investment.
However, the entirely legitimate questions about the credibility of the £125 figure raised by the CCC and others have not stopped senior Conservatives using it – in fact, they have simply doubled down and started exploiting every opportunity to allege that Labour (and by extension the Lib Dems who also support the target as a party) are plotting a major increase in energy bills. The figure is fast becoming a zombie estimate, blundering on regardless of how many times people with more credible projections try to kill it.
Of course, predicting the precise amount an average household pays for electricity in 17 years' time is a pretty ridiculous exercise when you think about it – there are simply too many variables, ranging from the stability of the Iranian regime to the technical feasibility of new solar cell designs, for estimates to be made with any confidence. But if we are to use cost projections to shape policy and score political points, then there has to be some transparency about how estimates have been calculated and which assumptions they have been based on. Currently, the justification for the £125 projection is opaque in the extreme.
It is time for Shapps, Grayling, Cameron or @ToryEnergy to explain clearly why the £125 prediction is justified – we'll more than happily provide a platform at BusinessGreen for such an explanation if Conservative Central Office deems the topic a bit too policy wonkish for an op ed in The Sun.
Inevitably, in explaining why a decarbonisation target would add so much to energy bills, any defence of the estimate would also have to explain why the CCC's more optimistic projections are wrong. Plus, it would be good to know whether or not a victorious Conservative Party at the next general election would reject the introduction of a decarbonisation target when the topic is up for review again in 2016. And, most importantly, given the Conservative Party is still technically in favour of the UK's Climate Change Act, it would be great to clear up how it proposes to meet legally binding carbon targets during the 2020s in a manner that is more cost effective than the adoption of a decarbonisation target. If ministers really think power decarbonisation by 2030 is too costly, how do they plan to cut emissions instead? Are they planning a revolution in renewable heat? Do they envisage that everyone will ditch their cars in favour of cycling? Or are they privately preparing to breach the UK's carbon budgets and ditch any plans to become a 21st Century clean tech hub?
If the Conservative Party is going to keep using this figure as one of its primary attack lines then surely it has a responsibility to explain clearly why the prediction is credible and detail what it would do instead to ensure decarbonisation is delivered without a target. Not least because energy companies and investors right across the industry, from gas to marine power, remain unable to invest in new infrastructure with any confidence as long as the outlook for policies post-2020 remains so confused. It is perfectly legitimate for the coalition parties to point out that Ed Miliband has done investors – and by extension the UK's energy security – no favours with his "energy price freeze" introducing yet more uncertainty into a sector already dogged by political and policy risk. But in bandying around dubious cost estimates for decarbonisation that raise serious questions about the Conservatives' long-term commitment to low-carbon energy and the Climate Change Act, Shapps' BuzzFeed intervention serves to further damage the investment climate for company's planning to develop anything from wind farms to gas plants.
Shapps owes it to voters to be open and honest about precisely why he thinks a decarbonisation target will push up bills by so much more than official estimates. But he also owes it to the business community to make it clear whether Conservative criticism of a target signals nonsensical opposition to the Climate Change Act and decarbonisation itself, or whether the party has a serious alternative strategy for delivering emissions cuts at a lower cost.
With the Paxman-Brand accusation that modern political leaders are inter-changeable facsimiles of one another who are not even worthy of a cross in a box once every five years still ringing in his ears, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday attempted to convince an audience of business executives and NGO campaigners that on at least one of the great issues of the age there are important and existential divisions between the three main parties. What is more. it is an issue that is of great import to The Sun's one-time "shagger of the year" (that's Brand, not Paxman), who recently argued that the failure of the political elite to properly engage with this looming crisis was one of the reasons he was so disenchanted by the whole Westminster carry-on. That issue, of course, is the environment.
I don't doubt Clegg could point to plenty of other areas where he feels the Liberal Democrats offer a distinctive and superior proposition to the two other main parties, but yesterday's clear goal was to reinforce the Liberal Democrat's claim to being the greenest of the three main parties at a time when the government's commitment to virtually every aspect of the environmental agenda is facing intense and largely justified questioning. Did he succeed? Only in part.
There is no doubt much of Clegg's speech will have been warmly welcomed by green business leaders, investors, and campaigners. At a time when his Conservative coalition partners continue to leak stories signalling their hostility to much of the green agenda on an almost daily basis it was refreshing to hear the Deputy Prime Minister state unequivocally that "my commitment to the green agenda is as strong as it ever was". It was even more refreshing to hear him tell his audience that no government of which he is a part will "turn its back on the environment". The signal to his coalition partners that the Lib Dem's can only be pushed so far when it comes to green policies was both loud and clear. Anyone doubting that green issues could one day break the coalition could yet be forced to revise their expectations.
Clegg also enjoyed some success in reinforcing the political dividing lines with which he hopes to fight the next election. The combination of collective cabinet responsibility and a generally collegiate nature meant Clegg refrained from referring to those Conservative colleagues who oppose more ambitious green policies by name, but his frustration was palpable when he recounted how the cabinet had been briefed by chief scientist Sir Mark Walport on the recent IPCC report - "how much more hard science is needed to convince the climate change deniers they've got it wrong?" he asked, as the image of Owen Paterson loomed in his audience's minds. He gave similarly short shrift to the Conservative argument that we should slow the pace of decarbonisation and lower our green ambition for short term economic gain. "Whenever someone tells you that we can't afford to go green, correct them: we can't afford not to," he advised. "If you are for the environment, you are for cutting bills, growing our economy and creating jobs."
The question of whether the Lib Dem's offer a greener alternative to Labour when both support a decarbonisation target for the power sector and higher levels of clean tech investment is one for another day. But with Clegg slamming Ed Miliband's price freeze policy as a "con" and dismissing the Tory right's short termist and climate sceptic arguments the positioning of the Lib Dem's as the "mainstream political party - a governing party - for whom the environment is a priority" was anything but subtle, and none the less effective for that.
Last but not least, green business leaders would have been encouraged by Clegg's broader reading of the challenges the green economy currently faces and the steps that are needed to deliver genuinely sustainable business models. He lamented the passing of the political consensus on the importance of green action, acknowledged the need for policy stability and clear political signals for investors, understood the importance of highlighting to the public the compelling economic, commercial, and quality of life benefits associated with green investment, and reiterated the fact that the climate and environmental challenges we face require a still more ambitious response if we are to do right by future generations.
He also backed up this analysis by highlighting the often under-reported progress the coalition has made with support for clean energy through the Energy Bill, the establishment of the Green Investment Bank, and the commitment to ambitious EU environmental targets, to name just a few of the successes Clegg wants the Lib Dems to get their fair share of credit for.
And yet, despite this encouraging rhetoric, the speech still managed to leave many of the green business executives and industry trade representatives I spoke to afterwards somewhat underwhelmed. Because for all the astute analysis and the statements of green ambition the speech lacked the policy detail or political attacks that might serve to move the current environmental debate forward.
This is in many ways understandable. There is still 18 months to go until the next election and neither of the coalition parties want to engineer a divorce while Labour is leading in the polls. Clegg has to go to work every day alongside his Conservative cabinet colleagues and is therefore reluctant to launch a fully-fledged attack on the Tory Tea Party tendency, even if it is actively seeking to undermine the very policies he regards as his party's proudest achievement. Equally, he does not want to reveal a negotiating red line on issues such as funding for green levy schemes or the fourth carbon budget review that could end up with him having to either U-turn or break the coalition over environmental policy.
But at the same time, can you credibly argue you are part of "a radical and reforming green government" and stand by silently as some cabinet members wilfully block effective green policies? Can you promise "ambitious" emissions targets and refuse to rule out a potential watering down of the UK's flagship carbon budgets? Can you hymn the importance of green policy stability and the vital role of energy efficiency and carefully leave the door ajar for signing off on a reduction in the budget for energy efficiency schemes?
There are good reasons why Clegg is reluctant to be more critical of Ministers such as Owen Paterson and Eric Pickles who have repeatedly blocked more ambitious green policies, just as there are good reasons why he won't reveal negotiating red lines on the fourth carbon budget and the future of the ECO scheme while those private coalition negotiations are ongoing.
But there are equally good reasons why green businesses and NGOs want to see the Deputy Prime Minister provide more detailed commitments on these issues. The Lib Dem's have secured several important green successes, but they compromised on a decarbonisation target, they compromised on the Green Investment Bank being able to borrow, they compromised on a review of the fourth carbon budget, and there have been countless other smaller compromises on policies that would have boosted the UK's decarbonisation efforts. Yes, compromise is a necessity of coalition, but until Clegg makes an explicit commitment to protect the fourth carbon budget green campaigners will justifiably ask themselves whether further climb downs that damage the green economy are about to be made.
There is nothing for the Lib Dem's to lose by being more assertive and aggressive in their condemnation of the Tory right's attempts to torpedo the green economy. If Clegg and other cabinet ministers can't do it and look their colleagues in the eye across the cabinet table, then Lib Dem backbenchers (and Labour MPs for that matter) should be instructed to make the case against David Cameron's recent flip-flopping on green issues much more vocally. The Conservatives have proved remarkably adept at using backbench outriders to shape the debate against green action, it is time the two other main parties launched a more effective counter-attack. If many Tories can make their hostility towards the Lib Dem-controlled DECC blindingly obvious, then the Lib Dem's should stop pulling their punches about Pickles' anti-renewables planning reforms or Paterson's various science-lite, ideology-heavy crusades. For the Lib Dems, there are no votes to be lost and plenty to be won through a more full-throated condemnation of the Conservative inconsistency and U-turns that have created such a disorientating green investment climate.
Meanwhile, Clegg similarly has much to gain in speaking out more frequently on the huge economic benefits associated with clean technologies and the green agenda. Admittedly, this is easier said than done when the first two questions he faced from the BBC and ITV after a speech on the critical need for action on the environment were about Ian Duncan Smith's blundering Universal Credit reforms (it was a metaphor for the political and media class' short termism acted out right in front of our eyes). But if Clegg is serious when he says that those making the case for the green economy need to get on the front foot, then as a political leader who is committed to the environment he needs to be seen to lead. That means more time and energy invested in promoting green investment, highlighting green policy successes, and calling out green opponents.
The Lib Dem's commitment to the green economy is heart-felt and deep-rooted. Clegg is to be believed when he says any government that contains the Lib Dem's will push for ambitious green policies, not least because his party will always demand it. But sadly, for as long as the political consensus on the urgent need for green action continues to recede he will struggle to deliver sufficiently ambitious policies, just as he will struggle to convince investors to bring forward the low carbon projects that are urgently needed in sufficient scale.
If Clegg really wants to cement the coalition's, and by extension the Lib Dem's, green reputation then the big compromise on the delay to a decarbonisation target cannot be repeated. Coalition life is difficult, but you cannot declare that climate change is one of the great challenges of the age one moment and then fail to back necessary climate change policies that you and your party clearly believe in the next. Clegg may not wish to make his negotiating red lines public as yet, but as a bare minimum he needs to protect the fourth carbon budget, deliver an explicitly improved settlement for "green levy" schemes, and re-think the loophole that would allow coal power to continue to be used deep into the 2020s. He also needs to set out a much more ambitious set of environmental commitments that would prove that any post-2015 coalition containing the Lib Dem's would lead a further acceleration of green progress.
He is unlikely to win over Russell Brand or Jeremy Paxman, but if he can back up his encouraging rhetoric with an equally strong and successful defence of important environmental policies in the coming months then he might yet secure the respect of green business leaders and NGOs. He would also help to deliver some of the policy certainty that he acknowledges is desperately needed, and in so doing help to drive additional investment ahead of an election that increasingly looks like it will represent a defining battle for the future of the green economy.
Fail to deliver on these policies, and for all the progress on the Energy Bill and the Green Investment Bank, for all the fact that it is the Conservatives that are actively seeking to undermine green progress, for all the party's historic commitment to the green economy, the Lib Dem's coalition days will be remembered for a failure to live up to their early green promise.
31 Oct 2013
It is time, I think we can all agree, for some good news. So thanks to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and its report today suggesting the global growth in carbon emissions faced a dramatic slowdown last year. Total emissions grew by 1.1 per cent, or 1.4 per cent when you account for the fact it was a leap year, less than half the 2.9 per cent average seen over the past decade. Maybe, just maybe, a peak in global emissions is still within our reach.
Obviously, these figures need to come with a whole bucket load of salt. It is just one report, emissions are notoriously difficult to track accurately, we've had slowdowns before that have not lasted, emissions are still rising and new records are being set each year, plus global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest level in five million years. We are still on track to breach the 2C temperature goal during the second half of this century and the worst case scenarios for 2100 increasingly paint a picture that only Mad Max would be comfortable with.
But there is still plenty of cause for optimism to be found in these figures, primarily because unlike previous emissions slowdowns there is no immediate socio-economic crisis to provide an explanation. There has been no economic crash, no World War, no oil price shock, and yet the seemingly never-ending upward emissions trend has slowed, even as global GDP ticked upwards. It is easy to see why the Dutch researchers were left with no choice but to conclude that "a shift towards less fossil-fuel-intensive activities, more use of renewable energy and increased energy saving" provides the root cause of the slowdown. If that is indeed the case, they could well be proven right when they suggest "the small increase in emissions of 1.1 per cent in 2012... may be the first sign of a more permanent slowdown in the increase in global CO2 emissions, and ultimately of declining global emissions".
This is no time for complacency. An emissions peak can only be achieved if China continues to accelerate its energy efficiency and clean energy programmes, the US continues its historic shift away from coal and towards gas and renewables, the EU sorts out its emissions trading scheme and stays the course with its commitment to deep emissions reductions. Moreover, progress from these three superpowers will need to be matched by continuing improvements in the cost of clean energy, urgent and co-ordinated action on global deforestation, progress on carbon capture and storage technology, and ever tighter climate and air quality regulations.
But even as the climate sceptics and defenders of the carbon intensive status quo attempt to belittle and block this progress, evidence is mounting that these trends can accelerate. I was speaking to a senior executive at a leading institutional investor this morning and he casually declared that the coal industry was "falling apart" in response to low cost gas, air pollution rules, and "just the faintest edges of climate policy". This is no longer a fringe view, more and more investors are looking at the prospects for coal and the wider "carbon bubble" argument and concluding that cleaner investments are a better long term bet. Analysts are also looking at the policy signals coming out of the Chinese politburo and concluding that they are deadly serious about taking bold action on air pollution and carbon emissions, so much so that some are predicting a clean tech explosion could see emissions peak during the 2020s. Such action from China makes it easier for the EU to follow through with its plan for a strengthening of low carbon ambition through the 2020s, while similarly bolstering US efforts at a state and regional level.
The implications of this trend for businesses are enormous, both in terms of risks and opportunities. Most obviously, the risks faced by carbon intensive companies are only going to become more pronounced - throw a proper carbon price into the mix or a single technological breakthrough in low cost solar and stranded assets could rapidly become a very costly reality. Equally, those providing the clean technologies that will enable a global emissions peak are potentially on the brink of remarkable expansion. All business leaders need to be aware of this macro-trend and its implications.
The climate risks we face remain grave and it is clear that they can only be managed through a genuine step change in the way the global economy is powered. But the evidence that such a step change can be engineered in a way that does not jeopardise living standards is becoming more compelling by the day. That the response to this trend from some quarters is to demand the scrapping of the very technologies and policies that have brought a peak in emissions within sight just at the point when they are starting to work at scale is as bemusing as it is depressingly predictable.
First, a caveat: the defeat of the decarbonisation target amendment is not a crisis for the green economy. Nor is it a calamity, a catastrophe, or a cataclysm for the clean tech sector. Climate Change Minister Greg Barker has a point when he argues the debate on a decarbonisation target is something of a "diversion". The Energy Bill is edging towards Royal Assent and when it is granted it will drive huge investment in clean energy projects for the rest of this decade, backed by over £7bn in support mechanisms, a number of crucial Treasury loan guarantees, and a broad, if at times shaky, political consensus.
But that said, the failure of peers to back a decarbonisation target for 2030 represents a huge missed opportunity that will make the cost of the low carbon transition higher than it would otherwise have been, while ensuring many of the resulting financial and job opportunities will be snapped up by foreign companies and governments.
To understand this debate you need to put yourself in the shoes of an offshore wind turbine manufacturer, nuclear components provider, or sustainable biomass fuel supplier. You know a wave of new clean energy projects are coming between now and 2020 (or in the case of nuclear one new project is coming between now and 2023), but while you suspect further projects may come during the 2020s you are also concerned the Chancellor's much touted dash-for-gas will badly constrict the market for your clean technologies post-2020. Do you invest when a multi-million pound factory will require orders during the 2020s to generate attractive returns?
Some will decide they will take the risk and we are likely to see a number of encouraging announcements from the clean energy supply chain in the coming months and years. But, as many companies have consistently argued, others will hedge their bets and either delay their investment decision until the next government declares whether or not to back a decarbonisation target in 2016 or opt to locate new facilities on the continent instead.
The government has countered, not unreasonably, that these investors already have plenty of certainty. The Climate Change Act means the UK faces legally binding emission reduction targets that mean decarbonisation of the power sector is all but inevitable during the 2020s, while the government is currently pushing for an even more ambitious EU target for 2030. It is a fair point and the likelihood is that the UK will continue to invest in a mix of clean energy technologies throughout the 2020s.
But investors will be forgiven for asking for an explicit commitment to decarbonisation when a single party conference speech can apparently lead to the Prime Minister tearing up a key plank of the UK's green policy framework. It is an open secret that a decarbonisation target is being blocked because the Chancellor wants to leave the door open for more unabated gas investment in the 2020s. Clean technology manufacturers will remain understandably reluctant to invest when they fear a Conservative government would introduce a whole new energy strategy that could leave their factories shuttered within seven years of their being opened.
Why does this matter? Well, as the independent Committee on Climate Change has argued the failure to build a domestic supply chain for wind turbines, solar panels, nuclear reactors, and biomass power stations will push up the cost of decarbonisation and result in a failure to maximise the economic gains that are on offer.
We already know our nuclear reactors will be developed by French and Chinese companies, while our offshore wind farms will be developed by firms from Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Abu Dhabi, to name but a few. But the failure to deliver a decarbonisation target means these flagship projects will also be ordering many of their parts from France, Germany, Denmark, and the US. Moreover, if we don't sort out looming skills shortages, many of the jobs on offer will also go to overseas contractors. There is a sizable and ambitious clean energy supply chain developing in the UK, boasting a host of hugely competitive companies that will no doubt secure orders as a result of the low carbon transition. But the prospects of this supply chain expanding and being able to really take on more established overseas rivals has just been dealt a blow by the government's failure to agree on a decarbonisation target.
Barring a repeal of the Climate Change Act and a ditching of EU climate targets - both of which, for all the bleating of the Tory Tea Party tendency, remain very unlikely - the UK will continue to invest in the decarbonisation of its power sector. But without a decarbonisation target we risk a blow-for-blow repeat of the experience of other infrastructure industries, as contracts, revenue and returns all flow to overseas conglomerates, many of which are state-owned. Imports will increase, carbon emissions will rise, and jobs will be lost overseas, driving up costs in the process.
All of which makes Conservative opposition to a decarbonisation target and misleading claims that the policy will drive up costs extremely hard to understand. Yes, a decarbonisation target would require the continuation of some clean energy subsidies into the 2020s, but the large scale deployment of these technologies post 2020 would help slash wholesale power costs, curbing bills for households and reducing the UK's exposure to volatile global gas prices, while driving clean tech export opportunities. Moreover, this transition is going to have to be made one way or another as the UK responds to escalating climate change threats, we might as well do it in a manner that minimises costs and maximises economic returns.
The failure to deliver a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill is a missed opportunity for UK clean energy manufacturers and developers, which will once again leave our economic competitors rubbing their hands together and marvelling at our failure to deliver a coherent domestic industrial strategy. The absence of a decarbonisation target is not a fully fledged disaster, investment in clean energy will continue, it is just that the biggest beneficiaries will not be British companies, British workers, or British consumers.
Whoever forms the next government should make the adoption of such a target one of their top priorities - the future of the UK's competitiveness in the fast-expanding global clean tech market depends on it.
25 Oct 2013
Earlier this week, the BBC News website gave us a snapshot of the future. Each of the top four articles - the UK government's nuclear deal, npower hiking energy prices, Australian wildfires bearing down on Sydney, and Tesco's admission over 60 per cent of its salad bags end up wasted - were directly and indirectly environmental stories. Squint and you could have mistaken it for the home page of BusinessGreen.
The environmental movement will have to get used to this media spotlight. Far from being confined to the niche that many experts predicted following the financial crash of 2008, green issues have never really slipped from the public, business and political consciousness - and now they are back with a vengeance. This should not come as a surprise, given so many of the meta-narratives for this century have environmental issues at their root. The EDF nuclear deal and the row over rising energy bills are driven by the urgent need for energy security and decarbonisation, not to mention the cost and public acceptance challenges these requirements present. Tesco's brave admission of the shocking levels of food waste it produces reminds us how dysfunctional the entire global agricultural system has become. Australia's wildfires are a terrifying example of the climate impacts scientists have been warning about for years.
Every week there are hundreds more stories like this emanating from the energy-climate-resource nexus that will shape our economy and our politics for decades to come, plus hundreds of optimistic stories detailing the inspiring technologies, business models, and campaigns that are seeking to overcome these challenges.
And yet, the rising levels of awareness that should result from accurate reporting of these immense challenges are being undercut by an increasingly desperate political and media counter attack against the very policies and technologies designed to address escalating economic and environmental risks. As individuals and businesses start to engage with the implications of the energy they use and the food they eat, or, in the case of Australia, face up to the worsening climate risks they face, siren voices become ever louder, arguing that peoples' eyes deceive them, there is nothing to worry about, and nothing that can be done.
The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh offered a neat distillation of this climate sceptic counter attack this week, declaring, as smoke billowed around Sydney, that if climate change meant wearing shirt sleeves in autumn "let's have more". It would have been funny if Kavanagh's insouciant, arrogant, complacent recklessness was not a tacit insult to everyone on the planet who is younger than him.
The point at which environmental concerns and clean tech solutions really start to break into the mainstream was always going to be the point at which the defence mounted by those constituencies that benefit most from the fossil fuel-reliant status quo would reach a peak of intensity. Hence the recent concerted attacks on any and all green policies and the deeply flawed insistence that climate change is categorically not something to worry about for at least the next few decades.
It would be nice to think that respected editors of serious publications would realise on their own that not everyone who kicks against scientific consensus is Galileo, sometimes it's just David Icke. But sadly the last iceberg will be drifting pass the North Pole before certain publications acknowledge that we are engaged in a dangerous experiment with the atmosphere.
These attacks will fail in the long term - the falling cost of clean energy, the global battle for resources, the reality of climate change impacts, all mean the global transition towards a more efficient and cleaner economy will continue. However, as the devastating recent analysis contained in Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee's new book The Burning Question shows, emissions are currently rising exponentially leaving us with very little time to engineer the necessary transition. The defence of the status quo - a defence that is willing to cherry pick data, defy rational arguments, fail to offer an alternative strategy for addressing climate risks, and u-turn on policies at the drop of a polling point - has the ability to slow the necessary economic transition enough to condemn us to decades of rolling environmental crises.
The key question for those green business leaders who are committed to this transition is how to break through the lines of defence erected by those who support the status quo and the immense and escalating environmental risks that go with it. It is a question that will become ever more important in the run up to the domestic debate over the UK's fourth carbon budget and the international debate over the UN's 2015 climate summit.
The reality is that business leaders who accept that climate change and related environmental challenges are a serious and growing threat to their prosperity simply have to get off the sidelines and make the case for action more forcefully.
BusinessGreen's new columnist, E3G chairman Tom Burke, has a nice line about how the business community is split into "climate makers" and "climate takers" - those fossil fuel and agri-business companies who are making the climate through greenhouse gas emissions and those who will have to take the hostile climate that results. Like any binary distinction it is overly simplistic. "Climate makers" will also have to take the climate change they are causing and, somewhat perversely, energy companies are among those who are most aware of the need for climate resilience measures. Meanwhile, "climate takers" use the energy and resources produced by the "climate makers" meaning they are also indirectly responsible for emissions. But the division has value given that for every "climate maker" who stands to benefit financially from the carbon economy there are hundreds of "climate takers" who are staring down the barrel of massive and costly climate disruption.
It is these "climate takers" who to date have been far too quiet in the environmental, economic and policy debates that are raging over our best response to escalating risks. Yes, they have committed to ambitious sustainability strategies, invested billions of dollars in clean technologies, signed up to various communiques making the case for a low carbon economy, lobbied governments on specific environmental policies, and in some cases embarked on the development of genuinely green business models. All of this is hugely admirable and should continue. But set against the scale of the risks they face and the strength of the defence of the status quo these steps are insufficient. Sometimes it feels as if green business leaders have never come across a problem that they don't think a concerted campaign of letter-writing will solve.
What is needed is a more ambitious, co-ordinated and vocal campaign from all the "climate takers" who privately admit that they are deeply concerned about environmental risks. Those companies leading the green transition need to invest far more effort in publicising the huge clean tech commitments they are making. They need to master the media game in the way the "climate makers" have and ensure their arguments are driving the headlines, not getting consigned to the letters pages in response to the latest flawed climate sceptic cover story. They need to call out the commentators and leave the trade associations that are acting against their interests by advocating inaction on climate change. They need to use their political capital and be willing to publicly and privately stand up to politicians who want to jeopardise their long term prospects by undermining climate action.
There is a rump of highly influential companies that are moving in this direction. The insurance industry, institutional investors, almost the entire IT industry, and the retail and food giants are all deeply concerned about climate impacts and are willing to say so. But the volume and intensity of their arguments are struggling to match those presented by the defenders of the status quo, particularly when it comes to the whipping up of a confected media frenzy, as we are seeing with the current row over "green levies". Too often green businesses are left on the back foot, belatedly responding to attacks rather than proactively making the case for a better economy. Too often their concerns over climate risks or green policy changes go unheeded and their achievements in developing and installing clean technologies go unreported, all because they are failing to invest the same level of talent and money in communicating their position as the supporters of the status quo invest in blocking action.
I've often thought that one of the reasons the public fails to respond more to climate change warnings is that we are all victim of the comforting assumption that if something was that serious someone would be doing something about it. They hear scientists, politicians, business leaders, and campaigners warn that climate change is a major threat, and then it all goes quiet again for a few months, and everyone is left to think, "well, it can't be that bad then".
As drivers of progress and generators of prosperity, responsible business leaders need to use every opportunity to shake us all out of our climate apathy and raise the alarm, at the same time as promoting how clean technologies will create a more successful and healthy economy. In the run up to the 2015 climate summit green businesses need to get vocal, get organised, and perhaps even get a little angry. We don't know precisely what will happen as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, but we do know we are recklessly gambling with the future of the global economy. Responsible businesses everywhere need to make the case for action as forcefully as possible, because the alternative is being forced to "take" a climate that poses a grave threat to economic growth and stability. Getting the chief executive to write a blog post about it is no longer enough.
ABOUT JAMES' BLOG
Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray