30 Jun 2015, 06:56
Once again the warning lights are flashing on the dashboard of the green economy. In its diplomatic and courteous fashion, today's Committee on Climate Change (CCC) progress report tells the government what anyone with experience of the green economy has been telling them for about 18 months now: good progress has been made but it is now being jeopardised because too many crucial decisions that should have been made in the last parliament got kicked down the road. On a number of crucial fronts the low carbon sector is close to running on empty. Decisions cannot be deferred any longer if the UK is to meet its legally binding emissions targets and maximise the economic benefits from the green industrial base it has started to build.
As an independent body the CCC's tone is inevitably more balanced than that of a green NGO or renewables industry lobby group. For example, it is quick to note how "the energy intensity of the global economy fell by 2.3 per cent in 2014, more than double the average rate of reduction over the last decade" and highlights how UK emissions have fallen over the past seven years, and dropped a whopping, if weather affected, eight per cent last year. But in asserting how UK emissions reductions are not yet in line with what is required and setting out a series of ambitious policy recommendations, the CCC reaches precisely the same conclusion as many green NGOs. Namely that "action is needed in this Parliament to ensure the pace of emissions reduction accelerates whilst supporting economic growth". Or, to put it more bluntly, things need to get a lot better, fast.
The CCC's five main recommendations are eminently sensible and should be adopted by the government without delay. Setting carbon targets for the post 2020 period and extending the levy control framework through to 2025 gives the clean energy sector the long term policy certainty it desperately needs and partially solves the funding crisis that credible sources insist currently faces the next wave of clean energy developments. An energy efficiency and low carbon heat masterplan is desperately needed. Support for low carbon transport must continue. Climate resilience needs to be much nearer the top of the list of considerations for new infrastructure projects. And land and water management has to improve if the UK's natural capital is not to be permanently eroded.
The government will find it extremely hard not to agree with these recommendations in principle, not least because failure to do so without an extremely compelling justification would put it in breach of the Climate Change Act. The problem, as always, is how to practically move the pace of decarbonisation up a gear and ensure the relatively vague targets and action plans the CCC is calling for translate into action on the ground. There is a reason why so many of the decisions the government now needs to take with regards climate and clean energy policies have been delayed until the last possible moment. Funding and successfully delivering many of these policies remains a challenge.
The government in general, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in particular, now faces an extremely challenging 12 months. So much so that it is hard not to read some tacit criticism of the previous administration in the CCC's assertion that a host of crucial decisions need taking "as soon as possible". Many of the challenges faced by the low carbon economy could and should have been resolved six to 12 months ago.
Take the CCC's recommendation for the power sector: "As soon as possible, set the government's carbon objective for the power sector in the 2020s and extend funding under the Levy Control Framework to match project timelines (e.g. to 2025 with rolling annual updates)". Contained within that simple sentence is the requirement to negotiate a new LCF settlement with the Treasury, push the ridiculously long-running Hinkley Point and CCS competition sagas to a completion, agree a new carbon budget, deliver EU emissions trading scheme reforms, ensure the attack on onshore wind farms doesn't dent confidence in other forms of renewables, and work out where a punch-drunk UK fracking industry fits into this equation. The energy efficiency to-do list is equally daunting and requires ministers to work out what they are doing with both the ECO scheme and the Renewable Heat Incentive as a matter of urgency. Looming over each of these decisions is the crucial question of cost effectiveness? How can the government honour its manifesto commitment to cost effective decarbonisation and ensure these policies are delivered in a way that does not penalise bill payers and industry?
The good news for Amber Rudd and her team is that the answers are available. IPPR's recent report on the government's electricity market reform programme identified a number of areas where the cost of clean energy could be slashed, while Policy Exchange is also working on a number of ideas for tackling the LCF budget crisis. Labour's much-maligned manifesto contained some promising thinking on energy efficiency policy reforms designed to drastically increase the number of home upgrades without adding to green levies. Meanwhile, the Sustainable Energy Association is pushing a bill that aims to bolster the rate of green building improvements and the Energy Bill Revolution continues to show energy efficiency as an infrastructure priority delivers more bang for the buck than many of the projects unquestioningly waved through by the Treasury. On a related note, even some Times columnists think it is time to raise fuel duty.
The answers are there, the question is whether the government is willing to seize them. The signs from the first few months of Cameron's one nation government, it must be said, are not overly encouraging. We are pretty much half way through the crucial first 100 days of the Conservative administration, but rather than hitting the ground running in a bid to address the pressing issues the CCC highlights, the absence of a credible energy and climate section in the Tory manifesto has meant the government has hit the ground strolling - in the wrong direction. There have been some warm words on the importance of climate change and some encouraging appointments of modernisers to key green roles. But this has been more than offset by the fact the government's first two big energy and climate policy interventions have been a senseless and costly halt to onshore wind farm development and a continuation of the public opinion defying fracking love-in.
The hope is having pulled off a shock victory the Conservatives are now looking to rush through the one high profile energy policy they had in the manifesto (even if a fair few Tories accept halting onshore wind development is in complete contradiction to the commitment to cost effective emissions reductions) before developing a more ambitious and coherent climate strategy based on genuine cost effective decarbonisation through the summer and autumn. The government could then crank out a series of positive announcements on the LCF, carbon budget, CCS, electric cars, tidal energy, offshore wind, renewable heat, energy efficiency, and perhaps even Hinkley Point in the run up to the Paris Summit.
That is the hope, because as the CCC today makes clear, failure to deliver significant progress over the next six months would put the health of the UK's green economy, its international credibility, and its legally binding emissions reductions efforts in jeopardy. The warning lights are flashing. Amber Rudd needs to respond - and fast.
18 Jun 2015, 15:04
Here is a question: will Amber Rudd be delighted or disappointed if the onshore wind industry grinds to a complete halt from next year?
Given the new energy and climate change secretary this morning announced an early end to subsidy support for new onshore wind farms through the Renewables Obligation (RO), confirmed plans to give local councils greater say over planning approval for the largest wind farms, and hinted strongly that the onshore wind farms will also be locked out of the contract for difference (CfD) mechanism, this might strike as a facetious question – it is pretty clear the government wants to kill the industry.
But the confusing signals emanating from DECC as it strives to square the instruction to cut emissions as cost effectively as possible with the instruction to halt the development of one of the most cost-effective sources of clean energy, mean it is fair to ask whether or not ministers really want to see an end to new onshore wind projects in the UK.
Rudd may have just delivered a suite of policies purposefully designed to deliver on the Tory manifesto promise to "halt the spread of onshore wind farms", but she also declared this morning that part of the government's "long-term plan to keep the lights on and our homes warm, power the economy with cleaner energy, and keep bills as low as possible for hard-working families" involved a commitment to "help technologies stand on their own two feet, not encourage a reliance on public subsidies".
Consequently, it is fair to assume Rudd wants the withdrawal of subsidies for new onshore wind farms to be seen as an example of ministerial tough love, a well-intentioned attempt to help wind energy developers that have become overly reliant on subsidies "stand on their own two feet". As such, it would be similarly fair to assume that if Rudd has miscalculated and subsidies are being withdrawn before the industry can survive without them, then she will be sorely disappointed if no more wind farms are built after next year.
Then again, maybe we should apply a literal interpretation. Perhaps Rudd is drawing attention to the fact turbines do not have two feet and deserve to fall over.
What now awaits is a course of events that is all too familiar for the UK's renewable energy industry. There will be a surge in project activity as developers rush to meet a subsidy cut deadline, a likely legal challenge to keep the lawyers' fees flowing and the story in the headlines, and a fallout period as project activity slows and we wait to see if the industry has been killed off as the doom-mongers fear or recalibrated to engineer a recovery based on reduced subsidies.
The renewables and energy efficiency industries have not always helped themselves in the past by crying wolf at the start of this cycle, only for cost reductions, corporate resilience and public demand to allow them to bounce back strongly. But this time looks different. When we accuse people of crying wolf, we often forget that at the end of the fable the boy's sheep do get eaten.
There are some straws for the wind industry to cling on to this morning. Up to 5.2GW of new projects could be built through the "grace period" exemptions to the RO deadline, which means any anti-wind farm campaigners who think the government's pledge to end new developments means there will be an immediate halt to projects are going to be left furious. Legal action could open the door for a few more projects, particularly if State Aid rules force ministers to rethink onshore wind farms' ability to access the CfD regime. And most importantly, sub-5MW projects could yet proceed under the existing feed-in tariff scheme.
However, these minor concessions to a sector that employs thousands of people and delivers power at a lower cost than virtually any other source of clean energy will be of scant comfort to the industry as it prepares to be forced out of existence.
The reality is that if Rudd really wants the industry to stand on its own two feet and prosper without subsidies, she has made this move a few years too early. There is a roadmap for the industry to deliver unsubsidised cost-competitive power in the UK by 2020, but for the next few years at least projects simply will not get built without some form of support. The industry is heading for the deep freeze, which regardless of Rudd's attempt at conciliatory words this morning is what the Tory manifesto always intended.
The talk of cutting the industry free from the dead hand of state support looks ever more like a distraction from the true reason why onshore wind farms are being singled out for special treatment: a rump of Conservative voters in rural seats do not like the look of wind turbines and the government values their opinion over the majority of people who want the lowest cost clean power available. The net result of this decision is we will get significantly less clean power for the money we all pay through the green levies on our bills. For a government nominally committed to cutting emissions at the lowest cost, this is a palpably ridiculous decision.
In all the thousands of words emanating from the Conservative Party about wind energy in recent years, one question has never been adequately answered. What exactly is wrong with the current system, which auctions subsidies to ensure they remain as low as possible and is governed by a remarkably robust planning system that almost invariably blocks inappropriately located projects?
However, the real tragedy of the government's decision is neither the confusing concealment of the true reason for the war on wind, nor the contradictions inherent in blocking the development of a popular sector while clearing the way for much less popular fracking projects.
The real tragedy is the timing. These changes come at the point when public interest in climate action has been piqued by the Pope and the Paris Summit, when the government has hit upon a politically credible plan for low-cost decarbonisation and, most crucially, when the new CfD auctioning system promises to sharply push down the cost of onshore wind energy and all other forms of renewables.
After years of complex negotiations, the UK has a framework that with some minor tweaks could push clean energy over the line and into the realms of cost competitiveness. A technology neutral subsidy auction system that incorporates energy saving as well as generation – coupled with ring-fenced support for those less mature technologies with the potential to deliver cost competitiveness – would slash the overall cost of decarbonisation. Concerns over visual impact and an over-abundance of certain technologies could be handled, as they are currently, by a democratic planning system. Throw in some of the reforms suggested this week by think tank IPPR and the recipe is there for the accelerated deployment of clean technologies and a sharp reduction in emissions at a much lower cost than the current price tag.
A truly pragmatic, one nation, centre right government would commit fully to low-cost decarbonisation and let all emissions cutting technologies compete on a level playing field. If exceptions needed to be granted and special circumstances applied to certain technologies, then ministers should offer a transparent explanation as to why.
Instead, in its first major energy policy intervention, the government has all but killed off a prospering industry, set a precedent whereby every opponent of any energy-related project will feel massively emboldened, pushed up the cost of decarbonisation while promising to do the opposite, undermined its welcome recent commitments to prioritise climate action on the world stage, and dealt a major blow to infrastructure investor confidence. And all because a relatively small minority of voters thinks wind turbines are ugly.
11 Jun 2015, 11:48
One of the more remarkable aspects of the global divestment campaign is the manner in which it has enjoyed significant success while being so commonly misunderstood and frequently misrepresented.
For two reasons - one well-intentioned, the other categorically not - fossil fuel divestment has been widely characterised as an ethical, moral and absolutist crusade against an irresponsible polluting enemy. In fact, it is a much more nuanced trend rooted in the dispassionate world of investment returns and corporate risk management, but sadly that was never going to generate headlines.
The first explanation for the misapprehensions that dog the divestment movement is provided by the very campaigners who successfully pushed the concept up the political and boardroom agenda. A complex argument centred on variable stranded asset risks and the likelihood of what Al Gore refers to as "multiple pathways to stranding" playing out is not the easiest sell to the wider public, so campaign group 350.org and the Guardian condensed the argument down to a simple mantra: 'keep it in the ground'.
This approach has proven effective, fuelling public interest and successfully cranking up pressure on public-facing organisations while convincing the more progressive pension funds and billionaire investors to divest from fossil fuel assets. It has also deliberately drawn parallels with morally motivated divestment campaigns, such as those against South African apartheid, further bolstering the impression that the primary reasons to divest are ethical.
However, the focus on ditching any and all fossil fuel assets has, in some respects, played into the hands of the fossil fuel companies and their apologists, who have been able to misrepresent divestment as a hypocritical attempt to bring fossil fuel production to an immediate halt and deny developing economies access to much-needed power.
Which brings us to the second reason divestment remains poorly understood: fossil fuel industry misinformation. As I've argued before, the fossil fuel industry response to the argument that its valuations are based on assets that we cannot burn if we are to stand a reasonable chance of meeting internationally agreed climate change targets boils down to 'we are going to burn it anyway'.
But while the more arrogantly reckless end of the industry (Exxon, we're looking at you) is happily trotting out this nihilistic argument, the rest of the industry has sought a more credible line in response to warnings of stranded assets. The unanswerable logic of the carbon bubble has forced it to plump for a deliberately confusing mixture of greater transparency in its climate-related reporting, vague dismissals of the divestment argument as a 'red herring' and repeated attempts to mischaracterise stranded asset warnings as a call for a sharp halt to all fossil fuel production, while presenting fossil fuel development as the only way to meet emerging economy power demands.
The reality is that these wilfully confusing arguments conceal a fascinating and nuanced reality - one that should have every fossil fuel company on the planet deeply worried.
Fossil fuel divestment and the carbon bubble is not a binary campaign requiring investors to make a simple hold/offload decision. Rather it is a prism through which investors make numerous investment choices, ditching the highest-risk assets based on a more comprehensive understanding of financial risk than investors have typically displayed in the past.
Some investors will undoubtedly see fossil fuel divestment as an ethical choice akin to apartheid and will want to exclude all carbon-intensive assets from their operations. But many will assess carbon-related risks on a case-by-case basis and divest some firms while retaining others. Hence, the decisions by the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Church of England and Oxford University to divest coal-rich companies from their portfolios looks to be a more significant trend with a greater chance of becoming a mainstream investment practice than full-blown divestment of all fossil fuel assets. This is not just an environmentally responsible decision, it is a financially responsible decision given demand for coal in the world's largest markets is stalling, valuations of coal companies have performed woefully and any tightening of climate policies will hit coal first and hardest. A lot of coal assets still look overvalued - it is a good time to get out.
This tiered approach to divestment demonstrates how those (including London Mayor Boris Johnson) suggesting that full-blown fossil fuel divestment will push the energy industry and the global economy off a cliff edge are so wide of the mark. But any oil and gas companies tempted to breathe a sigh of relief should not be celebrating just yet. The primary focus of financially motivated divestment will be coal, but it will spread very quickly to any capital and carbon-intensive projects that would see returns compromised if tighter regulations or alternative clean technologies prove successful. More risk-averse investors are already looking to divest assets linked to tar sands, Arctic drilling and other costly exploration projects. The list of companies that face credible divestment risks will only lengthen over time.
Divestment is not a simplistic all-or-nothing punt, it is a complex decision-making matrix. But over time the end result will be the same: any investors with an interest in long-term returns will gradually ditch carbon-intensive assets and shift towards more sustainable investments that evidence increasingly suggests offer safer and more attractive returns.
It is against this backdrop that the fossil fuel industry's two great strategic missteps become obvious. First, as has been well-documented by Carbon Tracker, too many oil majors are continuing to invest in carbon and capital-intensive assets that are loaded with risk and could struggle to deliver promised returns if regulations tighten, oil prices remain low or clean technologies continue to prosper. But, second, they have also singularly failed to diversify their business model and guard against the risk presented by clean energy alternatives eating their lunch.
Yesterday's BP Statistical Review confirmed growth in consumption of coal, oil and even gas were all below the 10-year average last year, while growth in global demand for energy was also well below the long-term average and evidence continued to mount that the link between energy demand, emissions and economic growth is being decoupled. Historically speaking, shale gas and the oil price crash will prove a blip; the big long-term trends in the energy sector are the surge in renewables capacity (admittedly from a low base) and the drastic improvements in energy efficiency. These trends are increasingly obvious, and yet still the oil majors (with arguably one or two exceptions) soft-pedal with their efforts to exploit this revolution and deliver their own large-scale clean energy offerings.
As former Shell exec James Smith, now of the Carbon Trust, has repeatedly argued, the failure of the oil and gas industry to step up investment in carbon capture, hydrogen and other clean technologies represents the most appalling short-sightedness.
Divestment may all too often be misunderstood, but it is easy to understand why the fossil fuel industry does not represent a good long-term investment. It is loaded with risk and is guilty of ignoring a technology transition that is staring it in the face. Widespread, full-blown divestment is a good few years away yet, but it is coming and the only way for the fossil fuel industry to avoid it is to divest itself through the development of credible sustainable business models.
Some within the oil and gas industry ignore this reality; others acknowledge it, but appear to hope that the transformation won't come for another 40 or 50 years. As BP's Bob Dudley observed yesterday: "Our task as an industry is to meet today's challenges while continuing to invest to meet tomorrow's demand, safely and sustainably." Amen, to that. Now all that is required is for the industry to recognise that over-reliance on unabated fossil fuels is neither safe nor sustainable, nor a good long-term investment proposition.
02 Jun 2015, 13:44
Could the Apollo Programme and its vision for low cost clean energy challenge the Northern Powerhouse for Chancellor George Osborne's affections?
It is an important question, given the project's ability to meet its goal of bringing down renewable energy costs to below that of coal power depends to a large extent on the ability to secure the $15bn a year needed to make its R&D programme a reality. It may also yet result in a surprising answer.
Osborne is often characterised as a pollutocrat bogeyman by green campaigners, but while it is true he is anything but an instinctive environmentalist his approach to climate change issues is more complex than his 'frack, baby, frack' reputation suggests. For an insight into how the Apollo Programme might yet appeal to the Chancellor, we need look no further than the initiative he seemingly cannot appear in public without mentioning: the Northern Powerhouse.
Osborne's obsession with the Northern Powerhouse provides three important insights into the Chancellor's character and priorities. Firstly, he has a genuine interest in and passion for science and engineering. He may look slightly uncomfortable in his ubiquitous high-vis jackets, but those close to him have often noted his interest in technologies such as graphene is deeply held. Secondly, and we already knew this, he is a political operator to his cuticles. The plan to direct devolved powers and investment towards the UK's northern cities is a transparent effort to extend Conservative electoral success in northern rural seats into suburban and urban Labour marginals, through the promise of good jobs and improved infrastructure.
Thirdly, he knows the value of a catchy soundbite and ad nauseum message discipline. The Northern Powerhouse (like the government's long term economic plan) remains a frustratingly amorphous and ever-evolving mixture of infrastructure investment and political reform. But in hammering home his commitment to this vague concept Osborne underlines his interest in the world beyond London and allows himself to take credit for pretty much any positive economic development north of Birmingham.
You do not have to be one of the eminent peers of the realm behind the Apollo Programme to see how it could tick precisely the same boxes for Number 11.
The project's primary goal is better funding and co-ordination for genuinely fascinating work on solar cells, wind turbine designs, smart grids, and energy storage. Anyone who has the vaguest interest in science and engineering cannot fail to be excited by the prospect of organic solar cells or bladeless wind turbines. There is even likely to be a role for Osborne's beloved graphene.
Politically, we've already seen some modest indications the Prime Minister could seek to revive his green agenda during this parliament and increased spending on R&D offers a route to doing so that is likely to be far less controversial with Conservative backbenchers than the still vexed topic of clean energy subsidies and wind farms (in fact, those who say we should delay action to curb emissions until clean energy costs are lower would struggle to find a credible argument against a R&D project where the stated goal is reducing the costs of clean energy).
Moreover, poll after poll has shown strong public support for clean technologies and at least one of the Labour frontrunners, Liz Kendall, has hinted action on climate change should be a key component of the opposition's pitch. There is an opportunity for Osborne to once again park his tanks on Labour's lawn while underlining one of the more centrist aspects of the government's agenda. As Ben Goldsmith argued this week in The Spectator there is currently a perfect opportunity for the Conservative Party to rebuild its green credentials - it just has to make the decision to seize it.
Finally, the Apollo Programme has a nice ring to it. The reference to the space race, the revival of Sixties technological optimism, the highlighting of the current underfunding of clean tech R&D - as Lord Layard observed yesterday, "it's almost inconceivable that we're only spending two per cent of R&D on the world's biggest technological problem, but that's how it is" - all combine to make this a relatively easy sell to a public that is already overwhelmingly in favour of clean energy.
There are plenty of other benefits that would arise from the Apollo Programme. As the team of peers behind the proposal have made clear, it requires a relatively small investment - just 0.02 per cent of global GDP - and there is compelling evidence to suggest it would quickly pay for itself through lower future energy and health costs.
In addition, much of the necessary R&D is already underway through various public and private sector programmes, what is required are more co-ordination and funding. As with the Northern Powerhouse, why not bring together the various existing policies, and catapult centres, and investments under an inspiring new banner?
Bolstering R&D spending is also an avowedly pro-business agenda. As Professor Mariana Mazzucato argues in her influential recent book The Entrepreneurial State it is state funding and programmes that have been at the root of the bulk of the technological breakthroughs in recent years that have later been exploited by the private sector. She also argues the state is getting a pretty raw deal from this arrangement, taking on the risk of R&D and watching companies reap the rewards and then seek to minimise their tax bills. But whether the government wants to try and take on that complex challenge or not it is pretty clear properly funded clean tech R&D can and will leverage private sector investment and jobs.
Finally, the chances of success (against the narrow goal of producing renewable power at a lower cost than coal, not the overarching goal of avoiding dangerous climate change) are extremely high. Solar costs have plummeted and wind energy costs are on a similar downward trajectory. In many parts of the world, renewables already undercut the cost of grid power. If you are going to back a horse, why not pick the one that is coming up fast on the rails?
The challenge, as always, is where does the money come from? And it is here that the one big risk attached to the Apollo Programme emerges. As a climate hawk, I'd argue the fact two per cent of global R&D spending goes on clean energy is a disgrace. We can find the cash the Apollo Project needs simply by prioritising existing R&D spending properly and recognising that tackling the most important long term challenge humanity faces is, for the next few decades at least, more important than many other areas of R&D.
There is also the potential to re-direct some of the money currently used to subsidise clean energy deployment towards R&D as renewables costs fall. This is sensible, but it also has to be handled extremely carefully. Cutting subsidies too deep or too early while doing little to tackle the huge subsidies still handed to fossil fuels may only serve to damage the fast-maturing industries that will be required to deliver low cost renewables at scale. Research and development is critical, but so is deployment. If Osborne and his fellow finance ministers opt to back the Apollo Programme they must not do so at the expense of real world deployment of clean technologies. This is not an either or scenario.
Ultimately, what is required is investment of a fraction of global R&D spend in a programme that offers multiple benefits environmentally, technologically, economically, and politically. We can only hope the Chancellor recognises the Apollo Programme's many strengths and that one day soon it becomes as ubiquitous in government speeches as his Northern Powerhouse.
22 May 2015, 00:05
Calum John Murray was born just after 5am on 19 March 2015, arriving with considerably more drama than either his mother or I had envisaged. Suffice to say, one of the sounds you least want to overhear in the seconds after your son is born are the words "do we need to take him to crash?" The sound you most want to hear, the happiest sound of our lives, came a few minutes later: a baby crying.
I've argued in the past the default position for writing about the environment – indeed the default condition for anyone who regards themselves as an environmentalist – is a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance. A dialectical tension between the optimism inherent in the natural world and our successful efforts to protect it, and the pessimism fuelled by the awareness environmental degradation is outpacing our efforts to create a sustainable economy. I never realised until those first five minutes how these contrasting extremes are redolent of parenthood. The all-consuming joy that comes with holding your child in your arms is coupled with the fear people rarely speak of, and must strive to stop becoming all-consuming: the fear that this little life is so fragile. For many environmentalists these tensions are interconnected, the hopes and fears for their own offspring inevitably shaped by hopes and fears for the entire next generation.
This all sounds a bit downbeat, but it shouldn't. Calum is without doubt the most perfect little person who ever existed, and anyone who wishes to argue the point is obviously wrong. It is part of human nature that the hopes tend to win out over the doubts. Call it optimism bias, call it the human spirit, the joy beats the fear much more often than not.
However, the challenge facing all of us – the realisation of the currently rather battered-looking promise the next generation will have it better than the last – is dependent on us resolving this conflict between environmental, economic, and societal optimism and pessimism in favour of the creation of a better, cleaner, and sustainable world. Can we honestly say at this point we are delivering against this challenge? That we are doing everything we can to protect and empower our children and their generation?
I promised myself I wouldn't write this piece. The inevitable "look, I've become a dad" article is situated near the very zenith of journalistic self-absorption, up there with the inevitable "here's what I learned about dating", and "let me tell you about my diet/exercise regime".
Buzzfeed's Tom Chivers has written some wonderful articles on becoming a new father and several years ago George Monbiot wrote a characteristically heartfelt open letter to his new daughter. But the list of "new dad" articles that don't immediately succumb to audience-alienating navel gazing is not long (perhaps because one of the concerns of new parents I have noticed in the past few weeks is actually gazing at their child's navel).
On top of that, I've always been allergic to "the children are our future" school of environmental communication, on the grounds it detracts from the hugely compelling short and medium-term reasons for embracing clean technologies and behaviours. Reasons such as energy cost savings or health improvements, which don't require people to make the leap of envisaging the ultimately unknowable experience of people in 2080.
However, they say write about what you know, and right now, amid the nappies and the broken nights, this is what I know.
Calum is born to one of the most important generations in human history. This is not hyperbole. It is his and his peers' destiny to join the first homo sapiens, the first hunter-gatherer tribes, the first agricultural communities, and the first industrialists as one of the few defining cohorts in the entire sweep of human history. His generation will either successfully deliver a global wave of green industrial transformation or be forced to battle the horrifying implications of what it means to live in a world facing climate breakdown.
As Al Gore's investment partner David Blood observed this week, "the transition to a low-carbon economy will be the most significant change in economic history". He is not wrong. Nothing like this has been attempted in the past and almost everything depends on the outcome of the transition.
Currently, we remain wilfully blind to the looming deadlines we face. We are closer in history to the point at which the UK's power industry should be almost fully decarbonised than we are to Tony Blair's first election victory. By the time Calum leaves school, electric cars should be the norm, homes should be largely powered and heated using clean energy, and global deforestation should have halted. Similarly, we are closer to the point at which greenhouse gas emissions should be cut by 80 per cent and global emissions should be halved, than we are to the first election victories of Thatcher and Reagan. By the time Calum is my age, he should be living in a near fully decarbonised society.
Consider this: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones have been touring for longer than we have to deliver a near zero-emission global economy. On that basis, Justin Bieber and Olly Murs could one day be touring in a decarbonised world, which would be kind of bittersweet.
However, if on one side of this equation we have a handful of decades to deliver one of the most exciting and rewarding transformations in the history of civilisation, on the other side we have the daunting realisation that failure to do so means my son and his coevals will discover first-hand if scientific warnings of what it will be like to live in a 4°C world are accurate.
If Calum is lucky enough to match the lifespan of his great-grandparents, he will see the 22nd century. Having been held in the arms of a great-grandmother who knew and loved people who experienced the 19th century, he could well know and love people who will see the 23rd century. All being well, he will see first-hand whether humanity prospers or struggles in the Anthropocene.
If I share one thing in common with climate sceptics, it is a deeply held hope the current climate models are badly wrong, that the climate is not as sensitive as we think to sharp increases in greenhouse gas emissions and we will ultimately see only modest warming this century. The problem is, the evidence self-styled 'lukewarmers' cite to support their position is frequently less than compelling and too often ignores basic principles of responsible risk management – namely, that if the stakes are this high, you err on the side of caution. As the peerless US climate blogger Dave Roberts argued in a controversial but essential article, the best available evidence suggests "barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit".
Efforts to tackle this looming crisis, to deliver the transition to a new zero-emission world that is so critical to our medium-term security, are hamstrung by a collective omerta that ensures the national conversation rarely, if ever, touches on the true scale of the risk and opportunity our society faces. Writing as someone who has spent much of the past 10 years trying to break this omerta, the selective blindness of so many political and business leaders to the challenges my son's generation faces is a pretty damning indictment of my professional failure.
Why are we failing to engage fully with the most exciting and terrifying issue of our epoch? Our tendency to assume the world as it is now is the world as it will continue to be – status quo bias, as Roberts calls it – must provide a big part of the answer.
I attended a meeting recently where plans from a leading brand to deliver cutting-edge clean technologies to an entire city borough were being discussed. One of the people around the table wondered whether it would be possible, given it would mean installing new technology in every single building, totalling tens of thousands of individual homes. "That," I said, perhaps a little too sharply, "is precisely what it means". We need to change almost everything and at a pace that has never been achieved before. The fact so many people, including many who regard themselves as environmentalists or green professionals, fail to comprehend the true scale of what is happening is one of the biggest challenges the green movement faces.
This selective blindness, this failure to follow climate change warnings and clean tech development curves to their logical conclusion, is everywhere. On our second evening at home after leaving hospital my wife and I spent a couple of hours watching our son stare into space, as the first leaders' TV debate of the election campaign played in the background. Towards the end of that seemingly interminable broadcast my attention was piqued by a question from one of the younger members of the audience on intergenerational justice. I can't remember the precise wording, but they enquired as to how our prospective leaders would restore the promise they would enjoy happier and more prosperous lives than their parents. For me, the responses were perhaps the most depressing component of a singularly miserable campaign and all the evidence you need of the strange death of political oratory in this country.
Each of the candidates mumbled something about house building or tuition fees or the deficit, while only the Greens' Natalie Bennett saw fit to give climate change and the green economy a passing mention. Where was the recognition of what is happening to our climate and economy and what needs to happen next? Where was the optimism politicians are supposed to trade in, the sense that a better and sustainable society is possible?
What we needed to hear, what my son, gently drifting off to sleep, needed to hear was this: "It may not be fashionable to say so, but in many respects your generation is blessed. You have access to the world's libraries in the palm of your hands, you will live longer and safer lives than any of your forebears, you will have freedom to pursue your dreams and loves that was too often denied your ancestors, the 'white heat' of technology will transform your lives in ways we cannot yet imagine. But it is also true your parents and their parents have failed you. We have lived beyond our means, both in narrow financial and wider environmental terms. The opportunities that are yours are tempered, and could be smashed, by the enormous environmental crisis we have bequeathed you. It is now up to us, as your parents and guardians, to work with you to overcome those challenges, to embrace the new technologies and businesses that will build a new economy – a zero-emission economy driven by clean energy and green transport and a digital revolution which together can ensure your generation's prospects are far, far more promising than they look right now."
Can we deliver that society? And more importantly, can we deliver it fast enough?
Perhaps not. As Roberts argues, to stand a reasonable chance of limiting temperature increases to 2°C we need a transformation so rapid and all-encompassing it borders on the miraculous. But, as he also argues, economic and technological development is not linear. Miracles, or at least near-miracles, happen. Moreover, if we can't keep temperature increases below 2°C, 3°C is much better than 4°C. The fight goes on.
Yet, if we are to succeed in this fight, one thing is clear: we need to recognise the truly historic nature of what we are trying to achieve and the scale of the transformation that is even now being quietly, and often successfully, pursued. It was more than five years ago investment in new clean energy capacity started to outstrip investment in new fossil fuel power. It was last year, if the IEA preliminary data is to be believed, that global emissions growth detached from economic growth. There are signs that the revolution that will define the economy my son grows up in is well under way. But the under-reporting that dogs this transformation and the counter-productive clinging to outdated and unsustainable models that slows it down need to be smashed. As humans we create the future we imagine, but we have to have the nerve to imagine it first. Only by doing so can we stand any chance of avoiding the "awful shit" many scientists fear this century holds in store.
Can we do it? When my wife and I went into hospital it was still winter; by the time we left with our newborn son, there was blossom on the trees and young squirrels and birds had appeared in the garden. In the weeks after Calum was born a billionaire entrepreneur in California unveiled a battery that could make zero-carbon off-grid homes a reality and world leaders declared once again they will deliver unprecedented international co-operation to tackle climate change. Meanwhile, my son has already taken to looking out the window at the bright green trees in the park opposite and carefully considering the light as the sun rises and sets. The joy beats the fear much more often than not.
ABOUT JAMES' BLOG
Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray