14 Apr 2015, 16:52
It is one of the golden rules of green business and campaigning - try to ensure the low carbon economy does not become a partisan party political issue. But boy is the Conservative Party making it hard not to break this particular lobbying rubric at the moment.
Today's Tory manifesto offers little for one of the most important and fast expanding parts of the economy, aims open hostility at one of the country's most popular forms of clean energy, and provides only staggeringly vague and at times contradictory policy signals on how the UK will undergo the massive economic transition it has signed up to. And all this from a party led by a man who has repeatedly declared climate change to be one of the most serious challenges we face.
The logic behind protecting the political consensus on the need for climate action is obvious. Climate change is not a 'right' or 'left' issue, it is too important to be confined to one political tradition and besides many of the most effective responses to climate risks incorporate thinking from both sides of the political divide. Allowing climate action to become synonymous with the left is a recipe for policy instability and a stop-start approach to decarbonisation as governments inevitably rise and fall.
Consequently, one of the most important breakthroughs the UK's green community has made in recent years was the commitment Green Alliance wrestled from each of the three main party leaders to prioritise action on climate change in the next parliament regardless of who forms the next government.
But if this political consensus is to deliver anything in terms of tangible progress for the green economy the UK's leading political parties have an obligation to not just honour the letter of their climate commitment, they also have to provide some evidence they have a coherent plan capable of delivering the large scale transformation of our energy, industrial, and transport sectors that is required.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats just about clear this bar. Their energy and climate strategies contain plenty of elements that green businesses will disagree with and there is little doubt climate hawks would like to see a more ambition on a range of issues. But their commitments to decarbonise the power sector and beef up energy efficiency measures, coupled with party-wide support for the Climate Change Act and a greener industrial strategy demonstrate to voters they are serious about decarbonisation and hold out the promise of investor certainty for green businesses.
In contrast, the Conservative Party manifesto and the reluctance of any of the party's leading figures to talk publicly about climate change and clean energy during the election campaign offers no such reassurance. The sections on energy, climate change, and the environment are so lacking in detail and ambition that you get the impression the authors spent so long fixated on their "long term economic, security, hardworking families, NHS, welfare, Miliband is a ruthless bastard/pathetic weirdo plan" that they simply cobbled together something on doing "even more" on air pollution and "keeping bills as low as possible" and hoped voters wouldn't ask too many questions. They might well get away with it.
Manifestos are notorious for vague promises, all parties do it. But the Tories confusing combination of hymning low cost green energy at the same time as blocking onshore wind farms, and offering promises on energy efficiency, air pollution, flood protection, and clean tech funding that are backed by near zero detail demonstrates something close to contempt for those voters who care about these issues.
In fairness, the manifesto is not entirely lacking in encouraging signals for green businesses and campaigners. The re-statement of the Conservative's commitment to the Climate Change Act and continued decarbonisation is not to sniffed at given some Tory MPs would love to scrap the UK's emissions targets. Similarly, the manifesto is right to highlight how the Conservatives, in partnership with the Lib Dems, have delivered some notable green achievements in the form of the Green Investment Bank, a significant increase in renewable energy capacity, and the formation of a world-leading offshore wind industry. The promise of more funding for electric cars and rail, the introduction of a new marine conservation Blue Belt, and the prospect of a new biodiversity strategy are all to be welcomed.
But even in highlighting its supposed green achievements the Conservatives inadvertently demonstrate how this apparently competent government has failed to deliver on many of its green promises. A deal might have been signed for Hinkley Point, but there is still no decision on whether it will be built. Up to £1bn may have been committed to carbon capture, but after a full five year parliament none of it has been assigned. The final decision on the Swansea Bay Tidal project that the manifesto touts as evidence of Tory success will be left to the next government. The Conservatives may have overseen the "birth" of a new industry in the form of UK shale gas, but this nascent sector has been so mismanaged that we are still a long way from both delivering commercial operations and convincing people that the industry really is compatible with a low carbon Britain.
The manifesto's relatively small number of forward-looking policies invites similar scepticism. Take the commitment on flood defence spending. "We will now go further, building 1,400 new flood defence schemes, to protect 300,000 homes," the manifesto states. But while it details how £3bn was spent in the last parliament on flood defences there is no clear figure for future spending.
Similarly, the manifesto promises to "support low-cost measures on energy efficiency, with the goal of insulating a million more homes over the next five years, supporting our commitment to tackle fuel poverty". But there is no information on how this goal would be met and as the Energy Bill Revolution campaign group pointed out this afternoon one million homes is a massive reduction on the five million homes thought to have received some form of energy efficiency upgrade in the past parliament. We are left to assume a Conservative government would simply continue with current energy efficiency policies - policies that have been roundly slammed by businesses and fuel poverty groups.
Numerous legitimate questions go unanswered, glossed over by a manifesto that fails to provide the clarity green business leaders had been hoping for. Do the Conservatives still support granting the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers? How much funding will be made available to "promising new renewable technologies and research", and who decides what constitutes "promising"? Does the commitment to "not support additional distorting and expensive power sector targets" rule out the decarbonisation target for the power sector that the Committee on Climate Change has recommended? Has the party got anything at all to say about waste, resource efficiency and recycling? I'm hoping to hear back from CCHQ on these various questions, as the manifesto offers no answers.
Similar questions could no doubt be fired at Labour and the Lib Dems, but the lack of clarity from a party running on a platform built on competence, credibility, business opportunity, and security is remarkable.
And then there is the pledge to halt the expansion of onshore wind farms. The one policy that is backed by a degree of detail and simultaneously the one that appears to have been the least thought through. If a party wants to effectively bring an end to onshore wind farms due to their visual impact in a bid to appeal to a particular constituency, that is their business. But in attempting to rationalise an end to subsidies for new wind farms by claiming they "often fail to win public support... and are unable by themselves to provide the firm capacity that a stable energy system requires" the Conservatives have first made themselves look ridiculous and then compounded this ridiculousness by repeatedly insisting their energy strategy is governed by a pursuit of the most cost-effective clean energy.
As numerous commentators have rushed to point out, onshore wind farms command two-third public support, provide no more or less of a challenge to grid operators than offshore wind farms or solar arrays, and deliver clean energy at a cost that is lower than virtually every other option. As a trade association for the wind industry, RenewableUK may have a vested interest, but it is right to describe the Tory policy on wind farms as "breathtakingly illogical and therefore idiotic".
There remain climate hawks in the Conservative ranks, impressive centre right thinkers who know it is essential the party presents a credible decarbonisation strategy. There are sources who insist the Prime Minister is numbered among them. But none of these people is adequately represented in this narrow, uninspiring, and confusing manifesto.
It is to be hoped a Conservative government would follow the logic inherent in its commitment to the Climate Change Act and deliver a much more ambitious green strategy than that offered in this thin prospectus. Because what we have currently is a manifesto that at its best offers a continuation of clean energy and efficiency policies that have proven to be moderately effective but have failed to deliver the large scale transformations that are required. And at its worst provides vague, ill thought out policies that threaten the health of industries the Conservatives once promised to champion.
The Tory manifesto is the result of a party leadership too scared of its own backbenchers and UKIP climate scepticism to offer the kind of green economic vision the UK desperately needs and too disrespectful to voters to provide them with a clear explanation of how a Conservative government would address these most important of issues. The UK's cross-party political consensus on the need for climate action remains, but it is looking more frayed than ever. Expect more and more green businesses and campaigners to stick their heads above the parapet and demand better from a Conservative Party that is risking its credibility on energy and environmental issues with this contradictory, cautious and incoherent set of policies.
10 Apr 2015, 13:11
Air pollution is not caused by the weather. The weather is a factor contributing to high concentrations of air pollution in a given area when it fails to dissipate manmade emissions. It can also, on rare occasions, impact air quality by whipping up particles from naturally occurring deserts or volcanic eruptions. But no blocking anti-cyclone ever pumped NOX into a child's lungs. No gentle zephyr blanketed a city in toxic smog so dense you can't see the horizon.
This much should be obvious, and yet it feels like we all need a reminder that the scandalously high levels of air pollution afflicting southern England this week are primarily the result of the policy and technology choices made by the UK and its neighbours.
Speak to people about the eye-scratching, throat-irritating air in central London today and it won't be long until someone mentions Saharan dust or French factories. And who can blame them. The government this week declared the pollution incident was "due to locally generated particulate matter combining with pollution blown in from the near continent - and a contribution from Saharan dust". Media outlets parroted the line, highlighting the role of gentle southerly breezes and the exotically imported Saharan sands.
And why shouldn't they, this broad attribution of blame is, after all, technically correct. The depressingly frequent air pollution spikes afflicting the UK are invariably the result of a combination of factors that sometimes include European pollution and that North African sand. But what is never made clear in the reporting of these events is the precise contribution made by imported air pollution and the balance between naturally occurring increases in concentrations particulate matter and toxic manmade emissions. Consequently, the causes of the very real health crisis that we are all simultaneously contributing and exposed to are muddied and many people are left with the completely erroneous impression dangerous air is either some kind of unavoidable phenomenon we must endure or a short lived crisis to be blamed on Johnny Foreigner.
One thing needs to be made doubly clear on days like today, when personally I'd advise my son and my grandmother not to come anywhere near central London: the air in much of our capital city and many other parts of the country is dangerously polluted for large chunks of the time. A combination of weather conditions make concentrations of air pollution particularly unpleasant on days like today, but even on breezy days the pollution is still being produced, busy roads remain dangerous for the vulnerable, and lives are ended prematurely.
Unfortunately, the perennial haze of noxiousness only becomes newsworthy when pollution levels move from high to very high. But almost 30,000 British citizens are thought to die early as a result of air pollution each year, thousands more have their quality of life eroded, and a recent report put the cost to the economy at £10bn a year. This is not the fault of high pressure or desert dust, it is the result of our cars and factories and policy makers' reluctance to embrace the cleaner alternatives that can tackle air pollution.
Successive governments have failed to take the issue nearly seriously enough. Labour oversaw a boom in diesel cars that was later shown to have dangerous consequences in terms of air pollution (although it has now vowed to beef up action on air pollution if elected through a new network of low emission zones). Meanwhile, over the past five years coalition ministers have often seemed as concerned with identifying loopholes that would allow the UK to avoid EU air quality rules as they have with delivering tangible improvements in air quality.
Where progress has been made it has been too slow and lacking in scale, as evidenced by the glacial progress on tougher emissions zones and the numerous trials in London of clean vehicles that never seem to result in more than a handful of zero emission cars or buses being deployed. Meanwhile, any sense that government is serious about prioritising action on air pollution has been undermined by plans to scale back the network of monitoring stations and lobbying to reduce EU air quality fines. It is little wonder that environmental legal group ClientEarth was moved to launch legal action against the government over its air pollution record.
The technologies and policies we need to reduce air pollution and respond more aggressively to air quality incidents are readily available and have been shown to work in cities around the world. We know that zero and low emission vehicles, car-sharing, congestion charging, low emissions zones, air pollution warnings, and most of all clean and effective public transport works, reducing air pollution and carbon emissions while curbing financial and health costs. We know some cities that take their citizens health seriously have been moved to ban cars and factories from operating on days when pollution poses a significant threat. But rather than respond to a full blown public health crisis with the ambitious measures that were needed the government has instead prevaricated, in the hope that when it comes to air pollution most people will continue to blame it on the weatherman.
18 Mar 2015, 00:07
Hats off to the Guardian. The paper of choice of liberal eco-warriors everywhere has got off to an impressive start with the climate change campaign that will act as editor Alan Rusbridger's swan song.
The decision to give climate change its rightful place on the cover has no doubt had an impact, the paper has looked fantastic, and the long reads on the climate threat have been thought-provoking, if at times contentious. The focus on divestment that was announced this week is completely the right decision. The carbon bubble and the answerable moral and financial logic of divestment are arguably the biggest developments in climate field in years and the Guardian has rightly identified the area it can have the most impact. The paper has also cleverly split its campaign into a general push for wider divestment and a specific call for the Wellcome Trust and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to quit fossil fuels, giving it a genuine chance of some kind of tangible victory.
Personally, I would love to see a bit more focus on the business and technology-led effort to tackle climate change, a bit more optimism, a bit more on the appeal of green freedom and New Environmentalism. But perhaps that will come in the next few weeks. Equally, as a number of Guardian columnists have already acknowledged there is a risk the paper is preaching to the converted with its climate push and could even contribute to a partisan left-right divide on climate action that will make decarbonisation ever harder.
However, if the campaign deserves plaudits for this week's call for divestment it also raises the crucial question as to how, precisely, people should divest. In his article this week, Rusbridger promises "our own campaign will give readers the information they need to make their own investment decisions and to apply pressure on the workplaces, unions, schools, colleges, churches, NGOs, pension advisers and charities in their lives". This is hugely welcome, but most people who are interested in climate change already know what this advice will constitute. Move your money to an ethical bank, invest directly in renewables projects, instruct your pension to focus on clean funds, ask your employer to do likewise, sign petitions, make a fuss.
This is all good advice, but how does it help the vast majority of people who are temperamentally ill-suited to making a fuss? Who really wants to be the guy or girl who tells their boss the workplace pension scheme is good, but can we get rid of the fossil fuel bits? How do you reach the millions of people who are too busy or risk averse to move money into green banks and funds they have never heard of? We all know the statistics about people being more likely to change their husband or wife before they change their bank. The divestment campaign has made rapid and impressive progress, but it faces a major battle overcoming the investment inertia and indifference of the average citizen.
Yes, I know we should make time to divest, should prioritise these issues, should take action. And yes, even if we don't embrace divestment the moral and financial pressure applied by those who boast a more pronounced campaigning instinct can still have a major impact. But how much more successful would the divestment campaign be if it was easier to divest?
Here's what I'd love to see. Every High Street bank offering at least one of the credible and attractive Green ISA products that George Osborne promised five years ago and singularly failed to deliver. Every pension firm and workplace pensions scheme offering at least one climate fund that explicitly excludes fossil fuel assets. The immediate launch of the government-backed green bonds Labour has promised to introduce. A more ambitious community energy strategy that provides crowd-funded renewables projects with all the tax breaks and support they need to convince the average investor they are a safe bet. And clear and enforceable regulations requiring firms to report on the climate risks they face in much the same way they report on financial risks, because, after all, these risks are often one and the same.
It is a remarkably modest package of proposals, but it is one which would make it far easier for millions of people to actually divest. I have nothing but admiration for those people who shop around for the best green investment opportunities, but most of us are not that financially savvy and there is not a newspaper campaign in the world that will change that. What us financial ingenues need is the ability to walk into a High Street bank and tell them to just move my ISA into a green ISA. Yes, I am phenomenally lazy when it comes to savings, but I'd wager millions of people are just as lazy. From pensions to bonds, there is pent up demand for trusted and established companies that can offer easy to navigate green financial products. The hugely admirable early stage green investment platforms are perfect for the astute early adopters embracing the green investment trend, but for divestment to really take off the wider finance industry needs to play a more proactive role.
From energy efficiency loans to green ISAs and climate bonds, the banking sector's inability to offer more mainstream green products is yet another one of the myriad ways in which the financial industry has failed us all in recent years. But it is also one of the banking failures that is the easiest to correct with just a little bit of political and commercial will.
The Guardian and the global divestment campaign have done an impressive job making the case for divestment, but what the campaign needs now (and will hopefully deliver in the coming years) is a focus on the mechanics of helping people divest. Fund managers and institutional investors may be able to wind down their fossil fuel assets over time, but what of the rest of us? How can we make actively joining the divestment campaign a simple, low risk, and, most importantly, low-hassle mainstream activity? Perhaps this should be the topic of the Guardian's next front page splash.
17 Mar 2015, 13:13
Less than two months from the election, the Conservative party lacks a clear energy policy and has failed to deliver "much success" decarbonising the UK's energy infrastructure during its time in office.
Who says? Labour's Caroline Flint taking a break from explaining how a price "freeze" and "cap" are effectively synonymous to launch her latest attack on the Tories? Green NGOs that have never forgiven David Cameron for failing to live up to his early promise as an environmentally conscious moderniser? No, that is the measured conclusion of Conservative MP and member of the energy and climate change select committee Phillip Lee.
According to a report earlier this month from respected trade magazine Utility Week, Lee told a pre-election debate at the Energy Institute that he was deeply unconvinced by what passed for Conservative energy policy. He admitted that the party had relegated energy policy to a "second fiddle" issue in the election campaign and is still yet to set out an official position on a host of energy and climate issues.
He also said he did not think "we've done particularly well" with the government's flagship electricity market reforms, arguing that the wide-ranging measures would struggle to meet their "admirable" goals because they were trying to operate on "too many fronts".
Anyone looking for a further example of quite how partisan parts of the media have become in the run-up to a knife-edge election (although I have no idea why anyone would need any more examples of media bias given the events of recent weeks) should simply imagine the uproar that would have resulted if an influential Labour MP had publicly declared he had no idea what the party's energy policy was and implied that those bits he was aware of were not up to scratch.
The fact is Lee's comments were worthy of a much wider audience, not because they were a pre-election "gaffe" or evidence of a backbench "rebellion", but because they were entirely justified. With polling day fast approaching the Conservatives do not have anything approximating a coherent and comprehensive energy policy, and while the manifesto may yet surprise everyone there have been no leaks to suggest exciting developments are in the pipeline. On an issue that impacts on living standards, health, national security and climate security, the party that according to several recent polls is likely to have first go at forming a government on 8 May is strangely silent.
However, that is not to say we are completely blind to the energy and climate policies that will feature in the Conservative manifesto.
We know David Cameron wants to block the development of onshore wind farms that have not yet secured planning permission, although we do not yet know whether he intends to achieve this goal through planning reforms or subsidy changes, nor whether the reforms will affect devolved administrations such as Scotland that are much keener on onshore turbines.
We know several influential Conservatives are concerned about the deployment of solar arrays on agricultural land. But we do not know if they will ban such developments, nor how they plan to accelerate the roll-out of rooftop solar arrays that they claim to favour.
We know Cameron wants offshore wind, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage plants to play an increasing role in the energy mix and pick up the slack created by blocking onshore wind developments. But to date there has been scant detail on how a Conservative government would boost any of these sectors, what level of funding will be made available to support them post-2020 and how Tory ministers would respond to charges that these technologies are more expensive than onshore wind, solar power and energy-efficiency programmes.
We know Cameron wants to make the UK the most energy-efficient country in Europe. But we also know he diluted the government's flagship energy-efficiency programme, oversaw a faltering Green Deal financing initiative and launched a capacity market that allowed little space for innovative demand response schemes. We have no idea what a Conservative government would do to tackle fuel poverty and energy inefficiency, beyond an assumption it would continue with a Green Deal and ECO scheme that many critics regard as badly flawed.
Most importantly, we know the prime minister believes climate change is one of the biggest threats the UK faces and is publicly committed to working with other parties to set new carbon targets, agree an ambitious international climate treaty and phase out unabated coal. But we do not know what kind of targets he wants to set, when he plans to phase out the use of unabated coal nor how he plans to marry this decarbonised vision with his love of shale gas projects and desire to dish out tax breaks to North Sea oil and gas firms. We are also in the dark as to how Cameron plans to keep in check Tory colleagues (and potential UKIP allies) who remain resolutely opposed to any and all decarbonisation policies.
In fairness to Conservative Central Office, the energy policies offered by Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens and SNP all have areas where clarity is similarly lacking. Equally, as all parties struggle to adapt to the age of multi-party politics we do not know how negotiable those policies that have been announced are. For example, will the Lib Dems make continued support for onshore wind farms and the adoption of a decarbonisation target a condition of a second Con-Lib pact, or would these green proposals go the way of tuition fees? Would UKIP make scrapping the Climate Change Act central to any confidence and supply agreement with a minority Tory government? Could Labour and the SNP cooperate on phasing out unabated coal power even if neither wants a full coalition?
But if all of the parties face legitimate questions about their energy policies, it is only the Conservative party that is currently offering an energy strategy that is as opaque as Grant Shapps' CV. Meanwhile, all of the evidence suggests Chancellor George Osborne is more likely to use the last budget address of the parliament to heap praise on Gordon Brown than he is to sketch out a comprehensive energy policy for the next five years.
Regardless of your political predilections, this policy black hole matters and urgently needs addressing in the Conservative manifesto.
Whatever happens in May (and perhaps again in September) the next government faces a host of critical energy and environment issues. In a matter of months businesses and investors will simply have to know what is going to happen to decarbonisation policies post-2020, the energy efficiency sector needs reassurances that the Energy Company Obligation is not going to be allowed to fall off another cliff, other governments need to know what role the UK intends to play at the Paris Summit, and we all need to know precisely how the next government plans to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. For good measure, green campaigners and Tory MPs are going to want to know what is happening with Heathrow as well. A functioning democracy should discuss each of these issues (and many more) in detail before the election, not after it.
All of the parties are wrestling with the challenge presented by the carbon bubble and the contradictions inherent in simultaneously pursuing high and low-carbon infrastructure. But they have an obligation to tackle those contradictions in front of the electorate with clear and coherent policies that at least attempt to live up their leaders' bold words on the non-negotiable need to decarbonise. As Phillip Lee's criticism implies, the Conservative party is currently struggling to honour that obligation. The upcoming manifesto offers a last chance for the party to present the credible energy policy that is currently notable by its absence. Let's hope they seize it.
13 Mar 2015, 12:05
The most important thing to do is to try and retain a sense of perspective. The news the IEA is prepared to declare global carbon emissions stopped growing last year is huge, gargantuan, brobdingnagian in its historical significance. This could be it. This could be the point at which global greenhouse gas emissions peak and we begin the long voyage towards a modern decarbonised economy compatible with the continuation of a climate that is conducive to human civilisation. We could be living through an era historians will one day herald as the dawning of an age of environmental and economic enlightenment. Like I say, it is important to retain some perspective, optimism can run away from you.
The reality is that the Financial Times' report this morning suggesting global carbon emissions failed to climb last year even as the economy grew three per cent comes with the usual troupe of caveats.
First, official emissions figures are notoriously difficult to compile as fugitive emissions silently seep into the atmosphere unheralded and certain industries in some countries routinely massage the figures they report. We will have to wait for accurate measures of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions concentrations to get confirmation carbon emissions have really stalled.
Secondly, the halt in emissions growth will in no way bring climate risks down to acceptable levels. Celebrating an end to increasing emissions is akin to a man who weighs 25 stone popping open the champagne because they have stopped gaining weight. It is not so much a step in the right direction, as an end to stepping in the wrong direction. What we need is to cut emissions at breakneck pace for several decades. The fact today's news should be on front pages all around the world but has barely caught the attention of the mainstream media makes delivering this rapid transformation of the global economy even harder to achieve.
Thirdly, a year long hiatus in the near-uninterrupted upwards trajectory of global emissions does not necessarily mean they will peak. Yes, the manner in which emissions have stalled this time without the help of a crippling economic crash is hugely encouraging, but it does not necessarily follow this year we will be able to grow another three per cent and see emissions fall at the same time. The oil price crash could revive the fortunes of gas-guzzling cars and carbon intensive business models, the slowdown in China's emissions could be offset by new coal capacity in India, elections could see several leading economies water down their decarbonisation policies. All discussions of global emissions trends should be accompanied by the reminder that a Republican White House and Congress would make tearing up progress on clean energy one of its top priorities.
Fourth, climate change is not the only potentially catastrophic environmental risk the global economy faces. There are no similarly encouraging figures in the pipeline revealing that we're making surprisingly good progress tackling biodiversity loss or resource profligacy. The reasons for this absence is because we're making hardly any progress at all.
Worst of all, evidence emissions have peaked could be seized upon by world leaders gathering in Paris this December to declare the current framework of flawed and inconsistent policies is working just fine, that the world has now decoupled emissions and economic growth, and all we need to do is continue as we are in pursuit of the apparently sunlit uplands of a 2C world.
And yet, while remaining fully aware of the need for caution, it is hard not be excited by the latest data. If the imminent IEA report were an outlier it would be easier to dismiss, but it fits into a pattern of increasingly encouraging emissions data. A series of official Chinese reports have shown coal use fell last year, while US emissions have been dropping for a while as a result of the shale gas revolution and a drastic increase in renewable energy capacity. In addition, the EU has been on track to meet its goal of cutting emissions 20 per cent by 2020 for some time.
There was ample evidence industrialised economies were able to continue to grow while cutting emissions well before the IEA revealed OECD nations grew nearly seven per cent over the past five years while cutting emissions three per cent. Taking the UK as just one example, a remarkable recent analysis from Carbon Brief detailed how emissions fell eight per cent last year. Yes, a mild winter played a role, but so did a long-running reduction in energy demand and continued increases in renewable energy capacity.
Logic dictated it was only a matter of time before the under-reported yet globally transformational emergence of clean technologies and effective climate change policies began to have a discernible impact. How could it not? Every wind turbine, every solar panel, every shuttered coal plant, leads to the generation of energy at a lower carbon intensity than that which has gone before. Every electric car or LED light bulb replaces dirty and inefficient technologies that pushed global emissions ever upwards. For decades developing economies have emulated or leapfrogged the business models and technology trends of OECD nations, it stands to reason the same would happen with clean technology.
Of course, the risk remains this encouraging development could lead to a degree of complacency among business and political leaders. But I'd argue it is more likely to give them the massive confidence boost they need to pursue ever more ambitious decarbonisation efforts. If the data is accurate it shows decoupling economic and emissions growth is possible at the global level, and all without compromising living standards or completely tearing up current economic, political and legislative systems.
The growing numbers of global businesses that are boldly pursuing zero emission, zero waste or 100 per cent renewables policies, and demonstrating that such an approach is commercially viable, will feel both vindicated and encouraged that they can now exploit their first mover advantage. Others will look on and start to realise that decarbonisation trends are something they have to adapt to whether they like it or not. A fossil fuel industry already struggling to offer a coherent and credible response to the divestment trend and warnings of stranded assets will be forced to recognise that the long term risks faced by its business-as-usual strategy are more acute than ever.
Keeping a sense of perspective is critical. There is no guarantee this is the point at which carbon emissions peak, and even if it is there are no guarantees we can deliver the vertiginously steep reduction in global emissions that is required. The challenge remains daunting in its enormity. The known and unknown climate risks that we all face still threaten potentially disastrous consequences. Much bolder policy reforms and as yet uninvented clean technologies are still needed to deliver the scale of emissions reductions that are needed. But if this is the emissions turning point it opens up a whole world of possibilities for the green economy.
Throughout history incumbent industries have a tendency to die very slowly and then really fast. Solar power, electric cars, energy efficient technologies, perhaps even new nuclear and carbon capture and storage, all have the potential to replace the polluting unabated fossil fuel industries that pushed global emissions upwards to this still potentially catastrophic point. To build a new future you first have to envisage it. Evidence that global emissions growth has stalled gives the world permission to envisage a greener, healthier, decarbonised future. Sometimes, and today is one of those times, you also need a perspective that allows for the possibility of such a future.
ABOUT JAMES' BLOG
Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray