Showing posts from October 2012
31 Oct 2012, 12:54
Every time you think British energy policy can't get any more ridiculously disorientating, another curve ball appears.
I know it is already a cliché to liken the real-life goings on in Whitehall with the fictitious events of The Thick of It, but John Hayes' catastrophic intervention on wind farm policy would make even Peter Mannion blush.
It now looks increasingly clear that what happened was this: Hayes was due to give a speech to the annual RenewableUK conference in Scotland, but having seen the hostility of his planned comments, energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey ordered him to not be so stupid and pull the section in which he declared "enough is enough" for onshore wind farms. However, somehow the key comments found their way to the Mail and the Telegraph (it is unclear if Hayes had sent them before Davey's intervention or completely defied his boss and leaked them after he was told not to use them), both of which duly gave them the front page treatment.
Having seen two of the UK's biggest papers trumpet the "death knell of wind farms", Davey went ballistic, Lib Dem sources briefed that Hayes had been very "silly", and a statement was issued reiterating that the government had in no way changed its wind energy policy. Just to ensure his humiliation was complete, it was even made clear that Hayes had been talking absolute cobblers when suggesting DECC's review of onshore wind would look at impacts on landscape and property prices. Then the prime pinister weighed in at Prime Ministers Questions and made everything as clear as mud once again, insisting there had been no change in wind energy policy, but hinting that things could change once current plans have been delivered.
Commentators have pointed out this morning that Hayes was simply triangulating: endorsing the continued development of onshore wind farms that are in the planning system in line with the government's goal of delivering 13GW of new capacity by 2020, while throwing red meat to the right-wing critics of wind energy. This is entirely accurate, and Hayes intervention should have next to no direct impact on many planned wind farms. But the mood music is appalling and will simply convince yet more prospective investors that the UK is not open for business when it comes to onshore wind. It is also politically counter-productive, as it alienates the clear majority of people who support wind farms, risks driving up energy bills by forcing the UK to invest in more costly low carbon alternatives like offshore wind and nuclear, and, worst of all for the Tories, makes people who are opposed to wind farms think they have secured a "victory", only for them to find that Hayes is actually talking about potential policy changes that are eight years hence and the wind farm that is proposed for their area is going ahead regardless.
I know green businesses and investors will be sounding like a broken record, but how is anyone meant to pursue low carbon investment strategies with any confidence when faced with this absolutely shambolic political positioning? In the past two months we have had the appointment of Tory ministers who are explicitly hostile to the entire concept of the green economy and low carbon energy to key positions, the clear fracturing of the Conservative Party over environmental policy, a still unresolved fight between the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Treasury over aspects of the Energy Bill that could and should have been finalised months ago, and the prime minister making up energy policy on the hoof and then refusing to correct himself when it became apparent that his plan for lower tariffs made no sense.
It is little wonder that an energy industry and renewables sector that is actually currently seeing record levels of new investment is terrified that its recent progress is about to be blocked.
For investors, energy companies and developers, far and away the worst aspect of this sorry saga is the staggering lack of clarity. Whether they want to invest in renewable energy, nuclear, carbon capture and storage, or even shale gas, companies are left with no real certainty as to how the UK's energy policy landscape will evolve over the coming years. They have been stuck in a holding pattern for two years now, driving forward low carbon investment under the current policy regime, while being unable to plan properly for the next 10 years. The Energy Bill and the Climate Change Act is intended to deliver much needed clarity, and hopes remain that the bill will result in a renewed surge in investment when it is finally published later this month. But leaving aside the fact that much of the crucial detail contained in the bill will almost certainly be delayed until secondary legislation, how can investors have confidence in the new policy landscape when the Treasury and the energy minister are constantly going off-piste and making it pretty clear they oppose key elements UK energy policy?
The problem is that energy companies and green businesses are being forced to wrestle with a scandalous democratic deficit that poses a serious threat to the UK's energy security and environmental targets.
The fact is that we know what the green-minded wing of the government wants. Through countless strategy documents, consultations, ministerial statements and media briefings, it is clear that the official government position is for a balanced energy mix broadly in line with the independent Committee on Climate Change's recommendations and based on renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and storage, and some gas in the medium term. We know the cost projections for this mix, we know the likely impact on carbon emissions, and we know the policy framework green-minded ministers want to introduce to deliver it.
But what do we really know about the pro-gas and anti-wind stance being pursued by George Osborne, John Hayes, Owen Paterson, and co? We know they do not like onshore wind, despite it being the most cost-effective form of large-scale renewable energy. We know they think gas is cheap, despite evidence to the contrary and warnings from the likes of the CBI that prices will continue to rise. We know they think shale gas is a wonderful gift from God that could help hold down gas prices. But we only know this from leaked letters, speeches that were never given, deliberately opaque addresses to conference, mealy mouthed quotes to journalists, and lots of off-the-record grumbling.
More pertinently, we do not know what evidence this alternative energy strategy is based on (it is said within Whitehall that the Chancellor has "his own facts" on energy and gas, but he is strangely reluctant to share them), we do not know what Hayes means when he says he supports the "right kind" of renewables, we do not know how much Paterson thinks wind energy subsidies should be cut, we do not know how much shale gas they think the UK can deliver, we do not know what the risk assessment looks like for a "dash for gas" policy. And worst of all, there is no way of finding out.
The Treasury has repeatedly refused to put ministers in front of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, the chancellor has failed to grant an interview explaining his stance on the Energy Bill, the prime minister is still yet to give a proper speech on energy and the environmental issues, the environment secretary is yet to give a straight answer to questions about whether or not he is sceptical about climate change science, and the energy minister does not have the nerve to explain to the wind industry what he means by "enough is enough", opting instead to brief the newspapers.
Whether you agree with my view that the government should continue with its stated strategy of delivering a balanced energy mix, or believe that this approach is costly and unnecessary and we should pursue a dash-for-gas strategy is kind of beside the point. How can anyone make any serious decisions when one side of the debate refuses to make its case in public and reveal which "facts" it is using to justify its position? The anti-green Conservatives might have a compelling argument to support their opposition to wind farms and their support for gas, an argument so convincing it changes the opinion of the two thirds of people who consistently favour renewables over all other energy forms – if so, let's hear it.
After all, this is not The Thick of It. We are dealing with issues that will have a major impact on the future prosperity and security of the UK, not to mention the state of the planet. Debating these crucial issues through the pages of the Daily Mail is not just bad politics and catastrophic policy making – it is an affront to democracy.
31 Oct 2012, 11:02
This is not another blog post about whether or not climate change "caused" Hurricane Sandy and the tragic, deadly devastation it has wreaked on America's eastern seaboard. After all, both sides of this "debate" know the arguments so well they can conduct this fatuous and disrespectful row in their sleep.
No, you cannot categorically link any individual storm to climate change, but yes, climate change and the increased energy held in the global atmospheric system does increase the frequency and intensity of such storms. Whether you prefer to use the analogy of weighted roulette tables, loaded dice, or (my personal favourite) underperforming sports teams, the evidence that human activity is increasing weather-related risks is compelling. There is no point arguing yet again over the linguistics of whether or not this increased risk constitutes climate change "causing" a hurricane, particularly with climate contrarians who pretend to want an intellectual argument over probabilities, but in fact just want to try and find a new spurious way to try and discredit climate science.
No, this is not another blog post about whether climate change caused Hurricane Sandy. This is a blog post about how Hurricane Sandy will cause climate resilience.
Forget the highly politicised argument about the causes of this tragedy for a moment, and instead ask whether those communities, businesses, and politicians tasked with clearing up the damage are now more or less likely to accept warnings that these types of crises are likely to become more frequent.
At the level of individual businesses and state bodies the need for climate resilience and effective disaster response plans has been hammered home in the most painful of ways. Over the coming weeks we will see how the most prepared and resilient businesses are able to bounce back to full operational effectiveness relatively quickly, while those who did not have robust infrastructure and plans in place will face months of suffering.
Around the world, those businesses savvy and large enough to have climate risk strategies in place will be dusting them down and checking they are up to date, while many others who do not yet have such strategies in place will be commissioning them. The global insurance industry will once again be forced to ask in public the existential crises it has been asking itself in private for the past 10 years: how can we continue to operate effectively in a climate hostile world where "extreme" looks increasingly like the new normal?
The climate sceptics can keep howling at the moon all they like, serious business leaders will be looking at the events in the US (not to mention the recent heat waves in Russia, floods in Asia, and droughts in Africa) and asking how can we be resilient and fit-for-purpose in the face of these changing climatic patterns.
At a corporate level that means the development of more robust climate risk and adaptation plans, and greater lobbying of politicians for increased focus and investment on adaptation, for too long the poor relation of mitigation in national climate change strategies.
But more broadly it means a fundamental shift in investment and corporate decision-making. Having seen the chilling pictures from New Jersey and New York are there any prospective investors in low lying properties on the east coast of the US who are not now having second thoughts. Any business or investor that is not undertaking comprehensive climate resilience assessments before making long term property, infrastructure, and supply chain decisions is sadly asking for trouble.
We will have to wait and see if this tragedy will have a significant impact on the presidential election race, the fragile US economic recovery, or public opinion on climate change, but with the US increasingly battered by extreme weather events it seems certain this latest disaster must now have an impact on attitudes towards climate resilience.
26 Oct 2012, 11:45
26 Oct 2012, 00:05
I am not a big fan of the prefix "neo"; it makes me think of Nazis, Marxists, and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. As such I instinctively bristled earlier this summer upon reading Paul Kingsnorth's critique of what he called "neo-environmentalists", not just because of the word he chose to use, but also because he was clearly criticising me, most of the things I believe, and the views of many of the people within the green movement whom I respect.
Kingsnorth's contention, and it is well worth reading in full, is that there is a serious hope deficit at the heart of the modern environmental movement, creating a vacuum that has been filled by so-called "neo-environmentalists". According to Kingsnorth, these "neo-environmentalists" are unashamedly "pro-business", subscribe to failed "Wellsian techno-optimism", "speak the language of money and power" beloved of the neo-liberal movement, are obsessed with placing human values on nature, overly-fixated on climate change, and kidding themselves if they think they can halt or even slow the "global industrial machine" and its continued destruction of the planet.
Now, for a signed up "neo-environmentalist" such as myself it should have been easy to dismiss Kingsnorth's attack as just another dose of understandable grumbling from an unreconstructed old school environmentalist who has fully succumbed to the defeatism embodied by his Dark Mountain philosophy and its nihilistic (although he would argue realistic) belief that attempts to "save the planet" are doomed to complete failure.
But for some reason Kingsnorth's diagnosis of "neo-environmentalism" stayed with me, prompting me to return to the article again and again, always with the same questions: is he right? Is there a "neo-environmentalism"? And if so, what is it? Is it the convenient cover for corporate exploitation Kingsnorth alleges, or is it something altogether different, something more positive and progressive?
At the same time I have, as always, been talking to BusinessGreen readers from across the worlds of business, politics, and campaigning, and it has become increasingly apparent that at least the first part of Kingsnorth's hypothesis is accurate: there is something of a crisis afflicting the traditional environmental movement.
Environmentalism in crisis
As evidenced by the recent transition of the "100 months to save the world" initiative into the "50 months to save the world" initiative, green business success stories, billions of pounds in clean tech investment, and a broadening awareness that climate change impacts are worsening are having next to no impact on global greenhouse gas emissions. After a brief Lehman Brothers-induced hiatus in 2008, global emissions are rising again – and rising fast. Moreover, while the clean tech revolution remains the biggest untold business story of our times, the impact of an economic slump that is entering its fifth year in many industrialised economies means few countries are sufficiently focused on the need to decarbonise. If the latest figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance are accurate, clean energy investment could even fall for the first time this year.
As articulate climate scientists such as the Tyndall Centre's Professor Kevin Anderson are increasingly willing to point out, the outlook is bleak. The chances of avoiding global average temperature increases of more than two degrees Centigrade, as agreed by the international community, have all but disappeared. Once that two degree mark is breached and natural greenhouse gas feedbacks start to kick in, all bets are off as to the scale and the severity of the climate impacts that will result. Serious voices warn that without some form of highly risky geo-engineering breakthrough the world is going to become a very hostile and unstable place over the next few decades. Add in far less high profile crises such as ocean acidification and biodiversity loss and it is easy to understand why hard-headed risk analyses undertaken by notorious environmentalists such as the US military and the global insurance industry can send a shiver down your spine. We sometimes joke in the BusinessGreen office that we need an official apocalypse correspondent – it's not really a joking matter, particularly when climate change impacts are already driving up food prices and pushing millions of people around the world towards famine.
Environmentalists of all shades – be they old school eco-warriors or chief sustainability officers at multinational firms – are being forced to admit that, despite some impressive localised victories, their campaigns are not working, or at least not working quickly enough. For all the investment in cutting-edge clean technologies, the popular support of vast swathes of society, and the political rhetoric committing to urgent action, greener economic models are not cutting through into the mainstream at the pace that is required.
In short, environmentalism is in crisis. And, like all crises, it demands a different response to those that have been tried and proved wanting in the past.
A New Environmentalism?
The second part of Kingsnorth's contention is also accurate. The primary response to this crisis has been the emergence of a form of "neo-environmentalism", characterised by an optimistic hope that technology and innovation can help us alleviate the environmental challenges we face. Although, if we have to call it something, I much prefer the moniker "new environmentalism" - it sounds less threatening if we don't resort to the Greek.
The problem is that the criticism of this new environmentalism put forward by Kingsnorth and other old school greens (and I include some of the more unreconstructed elements of the green NGO community in this), completely misunderstands the true nature of the movement they seek to attack.
We may subscribe to what Kingsnorth calls "techno-optimism", but we are in no way naïve about the scale of the environmental challenges we all face. Most of the people I would characterise as New Environmentalists are actually deeply vexed about their continued optimism, clinging to it as much in hope as expectation. We are not blinding ourselves to the reality of the environmental threats we all face, it is just that we choose to tackle them in the knowledge that the odds are stacked against us rather than succumb to a sense of resignation that would fully guarantee a staggeringly tough future for civilisation and condemn billions of people to continuing poverty and near perpetual crisis.
We may see the development of green business models and technologies as the primary route towards a more sustainable economy, but we are not as dismissive of traditional green thinking and its "emphasis on limits and transforming societal values", as Kingsnorth alleges. Much of the most interesting New Environmentalist thinking has nothing to do with technology. It is rooted in the kind of behaviour change old school environmentalists have been trying to instigate, largely unsuccessfully, for decades. We do understand essential environmental limits and want to find a new way of operating within them by re-engineering GDP and other economic indicators to eventually support a stable, closed loop economy. We want to gradually transform societal values to promote more livable, localised communities and shared, efficient consumption. Where technology is harnessed in this context it is used to fundamentally transform unsustainable business models, through dematerialisation of products or video conferencing meetings as a replacement for air travel, to name just two examples.
To suggest New Environmentalism is designed to "make people feel comfortable about their plane flights and their iPads" completely ignores how nervous some of the world's less adaptable businesses are about the threat posed by emerging lower consumption, lower impact business models. The New Environmentalism is pro-business, but it is a very different sort of business to the business-as-usual approaches our critics assume.
Another misconception is that this New Environmentalism is blindly and enthusiastically promoting technology as some sort of panacea to the environmental crisis. There are enthusiastic cheerleaders for bleeding edge technological fixes such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, nuclear power, and at the furthest extreme geo-engineering. But the more enthusiastic they are the closer they are to being conventional techno-evangelists, rather than New Environmentalists. New Environmentalists are in no way naïve about the risks associated with these advanced technologies. We have no desire to see any of them adopted without an extremely robust evidence base and comprehensive testing and trials. Even then we remain conflicted about the potential for Rumsfeldian "unknown unknowns", it is just that the environmental outlook is now so stark that the risk of continued inaction is almost certainly worse than the risks associated with deploying some of these new technologies in a highly controlled manner.
Similarly, we are not naïve about the dubious track record of many businesses, including many of those that are now leading the development of the green economy. Businesses have been guilty of many of the atrocities old school environmentalists have accused them of. There can be no justification for the short-sighted self-interest of many corporations and the catastrophic environmental damage they have caused.
But you have to see their achievements in the whole, neither underplaying the harm that has been done, nor belittling the staggering technological and social achievements of the past two centuries. No one is pretending that the current capitalist system is perfect, far from it. But businesses have been one of the primary crucibles for innovation and the improvements in quality of life and general well-being that have come with it. There is worrying evidence to suggest the pace of innovation has stalled in recent decades with only a handful of industries delivering game-changing new technologies, while too many firms focus on incremental improvements. The internal combustion engine and the energy grid, for example, are recognisably much the same today as they were 100 years ago, while the past 20 years has failed to emulate the widespread technological changes that dominated the first half of the 20th Century. But as the great industrial, consumer, and digital revolutions have proven in the past, businesses are capable of developing and deploying new technologies at a breakneck pace when conditions are right. The key question for critics of New Environmentalism is where else is the innovation going to come from to tackle environmental challenges and protect the poorest and most vulnerable in our societies from the consequences of our mistakes over the past 150 years, if not from businesses?
Ultimately, businesses are no more a homogenous community than any other human grouping. They are nothing more or less than teams of people and as such they are capable of the full range of human behaviour, from the inspiring to the depressing. New Environmentalists want to work with and within businesses to drive the development of a sustainable global economy, but that does not make them apologists for those regressive businesses still undermining this vision.
Finally - and this is the area where I take greatest exception with the criticism aimed at New Environmentalists by Kingsnorth and others - old school greens do not have a monopoly on appreciation of the natural world. Yes, we are investigating approaches that would try to measure the economic value of ecosystem services, or "put a price on nature" as our detractors argue. We understand the limits and risks associated with this approach and are extremely cautious about deploying this thinking in any way that allows further environmental degradation. But we also understand that the current approach allows critical environmental services, such as clean air, water, and soil, to be regarded as having no economic value, making them far more vulnerable to destruction than if we put an appropriate economic value on them.
I understand fully why some people find this concept offensive. In an ideal world, I'd find it offensive. But it is not an ideal world and let us not pretend the current approach it working. Public art, buildings, and architecture all have an economic value attached to them alongside regulations to ensure they are protected and a societal understanding that they are "priceless". Why should environmental services not also have an economic value, which will inevitably be staggeringly high, alongside regulatory protection and a full understanding of their spiritual value? New Environmentalists care just as deeply about the natural world as any hair shirted eco-warrior, it is just that we care enough to try and find a better way of protecting it.
A New Environmentalist Manifesto
If that is what the New Environmentalism is not, then what is it?
Last year, BusinessGreen made an imperfect attempt at defining the values progressive sustainable businesses should ascribe to with our BusinessGreen Charter. The tenets we set out remain necessarily vague, but they are a reasonable starting point for assessing where most green businesses, and by extension New Environmentalists, stand. It is worth quoting the charter again in full:
- We recognise that business-as-usual is unsustainable.
- We will develop new business models that take account of environmental constraints.
- We are attempting to manage the risks posed by climate change and ecological degradation.
- We accept that we have environmental impacts and will strive to reduce them.
- We acknowledge that good regulations and policies will play a crucial role in the development of the low carbon economy.
- We understand that the short-term costs associated with green measures will deliver long-term benefits.
- We know that the low carbon economy will deliver countless commercial opportunities.
- We are striving to build a green economy by harnessing what businesses do best: investing and innovating on behalf of our stakeholders, customers and society as a whole.
In many ways these idealised values are frustratingly imprecise; so much so that critics could accuse them of being little more than opaque platitudes. But like the numerous communiques, charters, and letters that business leaders have put their signatures to in recent years calling for real and urgent action to address climate change risks, these core values have to remain vague if they are also to remain inclusive. It is this that is one of the simultaneous strengths and weaknesses of the New Environmentalism: it is a continuously evolving and remarkably broad movement, incorporating everyone from Greenpeace campaigners to senior executives at multinational firms. Precise policy positions and technology preferences are still being hammered out as the evidence base evolves, often through fierce argument and failed experiments. But at the moment it is impossible to declare a firm, detailed, and comprehensive New Environmentalist position on complex issues such as carbon pricing or geo-engineering, just as older environmentalists never resolved internal tensions over nuclear power or GM crops.
But while these values may be vague, there is a suite of underlying principles that all New Environmentalists would accept. As previously alluded to, New Environmentalism is anti-business-as-usual, but unashamedly supportive of progressive and sustainable business models, as well as responsible forms of capitalism. It is also inherently optimistic and technocentric, but most of all it is highly pragmatic. It is based on nothing more or less than a cold headed assessment of the environmental risks we face and an evidence-based analysis of potential solutions. In this respect it is not so much a new form of environmentalism, but a simple re-embracing of Enlightenment values and business best practices.
It is this pragmatism that is currently driving the next phase of the New Environmentalism, a shift from conceptual philosophising to technological deployment.
As environmental risks and climate change impacts intensify ever further it is blindingly apparent that the New Environmentalism must be about action, not endless debate. It might not command the headlines it deserves, but this action is now taking place all around the world. Renewables remains the primary energy investment category globally, while multinationals from Unilever to General Electric and Nike to IBM are investing billions in the rapid development of cutting-edge clean technologies. This deployment phase is not yet happening quickly enough, but it is already evident in the integration of solar panels and electric cars into our city-scapes, just as it is in the continued expansion of green investment funds and environmental policies. All the evidence points to an acceleration of this trend, with countries as diverse as the UK and South Korea, Brazil and Japan, and even India and China, embracing strategies that will support the rapid roll out of increasingly mature and cost effective low carbon infrastructure during the second half of this decade.
A recent debate hosted by the "50 Months and Counting" initiative stressed this focus on action with speakers including Professor Kevin Anderson, environmental campaigner George Monbiot, the Rev Giles Fraser, Green MP Caroline Lucas, and children's author and teacher Saci Lloyd, all highlighting the need for clear and targeted action over the next four years designed to lay the foundations for a full blown low carbon transformation of our economy. The nature of this action may vary from community-level renewables or efficiency projects to political funding reform and a fundamental rethink of consumption patterns, but it is all designed to accelerate the emergence of sustainable economic models.
It is in this area where New Environmentalists can agree with Kingsnorth and his desire to build a more localised environmentalism, or, as he puts it, an adherence to the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh's philosophy that "all great civilisations are built on parochialism".
"Perhaps it's time to go back to basics," Kingsnorth writes. "So we might learn what grows wild in our local area and whether we can eat it. We might build up a bank of practical skills, from horticulture to land management. We might go out at night and plant seeds in vacant flowerbeds near where we live. We might work on small-scale engineering projects, from water purification technologies to micro-solar panels. We might work to save bees or butterflies or water meadows or woodlands or playing fields that we know and have a relationship with. We might walk in the hills, or on the canal bank, or in the local waste ground; get to know our place and how it works."
Is it such a leap from this belief in a "parochial environmentalism" to the growing New Environmentalism movement towards community-owned micro-generation projects, energy efficiency retrofits designed to create more comfortable buildings and livable communities, "pay-as-you-live" shared ownership business models, and even corporate accounting efforts intended to better understand supply chain impacts and ecosystem services?
Getting the message right
The challenge for this New Environmentalism is in how best to disseminate its values and galvanise action at a global scale and a breakneck pace.
The first step has to be in publicly laying claim to a new moniker. The traditional green movement has delivered many remarkable achievements and boasts campaigners and thinkers who command and deserve immense respect. But unreconstructed "environmentalism" comes with too much cultural and political baggage to ever lead the march of new technologies, economic models, policies, and values into the mainstream - which is ultimately what is required and what we all want.
The emergence of New Labour may have left a remarkably mixed legacy, but it is an instructive example of how a movement can reinvigorate itself and reconnect with the public by embracing pragmatism and publicly distancing itself from elements that have long proven unpopular with a majority of people. I fear staging a "Clause 4 moment" around a totemic issue such as nuclear power or GM technology would risk tearing the environmental movement apart at a time when it needs to be united. But there would also be a powerful dividend to be gained from a public assertion that green campaigners and businesses understand the world has changed, are completely aligned with mainstream concerns, and are prescribing realistic, yet still ambitious, solutions to our environmental and, as importantly, economic problems.
Of course, a new name is meaningless without a new strategy, a renewed sense of mission. As the New Labour warrior Alastair Campbell has been only to keen to point out in recent months, the government's current woes stem from the lack of an over-arching strategic vision that can provide the bedrock for clear and consistent communication.
The New Environmentalism needs a simple and unequivocal strategic vision that can then enable no more than four or five core messages. All successful social and economic transformations require an accessible and compelling message to present to the public that resonates with their concerns. Civil rights, feminism, international development, social democracy, neo-liberalism - all immensely complex, all successfully boiled down to a simple proposition that people can instantly recognise and understand. Whether it is the powerful plea for justice and equality of the civil rights movement, the calls for fairness of feminism, international development, and social democracy, or the arguments for freedom and opportunity presented by neo-liberals, a simple message is critical.
In contrast, environmentalism is all over the place and has been for years. Is it about protecting cuddly animals or tackling global climate change? Does it support clean technologies or regard them as modernist monstrosities? Is it necessarily apolitical or an integral part of people's political identities? The answer, of course, is all of the above, but if environmentalists want their ideas to make it into the mainstream they cannot let the debates that surround every campaign, every technology, and every policy morph into staggeringly complex conversations that tackle every aspect of our economy and every aspect of our environment - or to put it another way, everything.
These debates still need to be had, but they should not define the manner in which New Environmentalists present themselves to the world. We need that simple and compelling message that people can instantly recognise and support. Luckily, businesses and campaigners increasingly understand this and, after years of messing around with photos of polar bears, they are working hard to develop green messaging that is both more accessible and more likely to resonate with its audience. The excellent new "Green is Working" campaign highlighting the economic and jobs benefits of low carbon investment is one good example of this approach in action, as is the growing body of ads that present electric cars and other clean technologies as cool desirable and modern, rather than green and worthy.
It is this combination of modernity and desirability that should be at the heart of the New Environmentalist proposition. If a single word description of the New Environmentalism is necessary it should be "progress", or if that is too politically-loaded, "quality of life". Frame all messaging with the understanding that "protecting the planet" is actually about improving "quality of life" for everyone, and then you have the foundations for the four or five key messages that should support all green campaigns, products, and business models. Namely, that clean technologies are better, not just greener; that energy efficiency and renewables deliver lower operating costs; that greener communities and businesses are cleaner, safer, and more comfortable than what we put up with currently; that low carbon investment delivers jobs and economic growth; and, if you want to scare people, that more sustainable business models help protect us against existential climate change threats and energy insecurity.
As anyone who has ever been on a media training course will know, the repetition of key messages at every opportunity is the most effective way to ensure that they reach their audience. New Environmentalists need to be fixated on presenting these positive arguments whenever they can. Yes, the never-ending debates over policy and technologies are important and must continue, but they should not define how New Environmentalists present themselves to the wider world. We have to make a positive case for change and tell a positive story about a better world.
Moreover, as the new chair of the UK's Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben, argued only this month, we need to be prepared to defend this positive vision and push back much harder against the vested interests and willfully misleading commentators who wish to tear it down. New Environmentalists should be much prouder of the progress that is being made and much more willing to fight to advance it.
Equally, they need to celebrate their successes and occasionally even thank the business and political leaders that help make them possible. Whether it is global giants such as IKEA and Unilever pledging to become genuinely sustainable within eight years, innovative green start-ups such as Ecotricity and Good Energy seeking to bring clean energy to the public, or cutting-edge researchers working on the carbon capture and storage projects or ultra-efficient solar cells that could genuinely decarbonise our economies, we need to raise the profile of green success stories. Never in the history of campaigning has there been a group worse at celebrating and promoting its victories than environmentalism.
Thankfully, there is already remarkably sympathetic audience that is ready and willing to embrace the values of New Environmentalism. Climate sceptics may have enjoyed some success in convincing people that climate science is complex and uncertain, mainly because climate science is complex and uncertain, albeit not in the ways climate contrarians allege. But critics of the green economy have proven much less adept at turning the public against clean technologies that they can see and like. As repeated polls have shown a clear majority of the British public want to see more investment in renewable energy, and are opposed to our continued reliance on fossil fuels. Moreover, consumers and businesses are voting with their wallets, driving growing demand for green goods and services, and leading to a five per cent a year expansion in the UK's green economy, despite an otherwise sluggish economic backdrop. In short, people love the green economy and are happy to ignore the naysaying of vested interests and anti-green ideologues.
Deployment, deployment, deployment
However, despite this receptive audience, if it is to be successful New Environmentalism's strategic vision has to backed by a "ground war" that is entirely focused on the rapid deployment of green technologies and business models.
As I have argued before, the model to learn from is the roll out of IT infrastructure during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, which managed to rapidly normalise computer and mobile phone technologies and deliver a deployment rate that rose exponentially for year after year. There are obvious differences between IT and clean tech in the scale of the barriers they face, but New Environmentalists should be busy memorising the play book of the early digital entrepreneurs and emulating their never-say-die evangelising and complete fixation on both cutting edge innovation and the grunt work of technological deployment.
This means focusing far more than is currently the case on the core business of transactional sales and installation, not to mention the collection of the kinds of successful case studies that can prove clean technologies and business models are working. Policies are important, but New Environmentalists needs to repeatedly ask themselves: how will this policy accelerate the deployment of more sustainable technologies and business models? If the answer is not immediately apparent, then it is not a policy worth fighting for.
Providing this technological deployment with the support it needs will require environmentalists to work much closer with large corporations than many traditional greens are comfortable with. But, as politicians are wont to say, this time there is no alternative. Environmentalism has secured many important victories, but attempts to deliver international climate change treaties, forge a new economic settlement that takes account of sustainability, protect globally significant habitats, and scare the public and politicians into action have all ultimately failed. It is only by embracing a New Environmentalism that we will have any hope of tackling the daunting environmental challenges we now face, while still delivering the improved economies and societies that we all want, regardless of political or ideological affiliation.
New or Neo Environmentalism is here, it is real, and most of all it is working. A new road is being forged for the environmental movement, and to slightly misquote someone who many traditional environmentalists will instinctively recognise, the times are changing. Now is the moment to "get out of the way, if you can't lend a hand".
19 Oct 2012, 17:21
I must admited I am feeling a bit politics-ed out.
Three weeks of Party Conferences followed by the prospect of three more weeks of fighting over the Energy Bill is enough to leave even the most durable of green political junkies suffering from some kind of environmental policy ennui.
The problem is that the arguments are so circular and the opponents green businesses are forced to engage with so lacking in anything that can be called an evidence base that the entire endeavour can end up feeling a little futile. Add in the government's increasingly shambolic handling of issues that will determine the health of our economy for decades to come and it is easy to wonder whether the compelling case for a greener economy will ever make the breakthrough that is required.
So, in the interests of cheering myself up if nothing else, I thought it would be instructive to spend Friday afternoon trawling through what has happened outside the Westminster bubble in recent weeks. Here is an entirely non-comprehensive run down of the real world projects, initiatives, innovations, and successes that we sometimes risk forgetting when wrestling with the green policy jungle.
This, ultimately, is what people mean when they talk about green growth and sustainable economies:
- Levi's is taking old plastic bottles and using them to create fabric and stitching, which in turn can be used in jeans, cutting emissions and waste in the process.
- Rezidor, the giant hotel chain that owns the Radisson, Missoni, and Regent brands, is putting LED lights in over 300 of its properties, as part of a programme designed to save the firm €24m over four years.
- Investment firm Ingenious is launching a new £2m fund to take solar powered charging units to communities in Africa, accelerating development efforts by giving off-grid villages the ability to charge mobile phones and laptops.
- Cadillac has become the latest car giant to reveal plans for a plug-in hybrid, the ELR, vowing to start selling the car from late next year.
- Roman Abramovich, no less, has shelled out nearly £9m to take a stake in British fuel cell specialist AFC Energy.
- PwC has confirmed that it has reduced energy use from its UK operations by 29 per cent between 2007 and 2012, saving £7m on its energy bills.
- Tesco is pioneering a new six-day-a-week rail freight delivery route between Magor in Wales and its main distribution centre in Daventry, taking 40 lorries off the roads with each journey.
- Abundance Generation has launched a new debenture that allows people to buy renewable energy bonds as gifts, building on the success of a community funding model that is aiming to raise sufficient capital for a wind turbine in the Forest of Dean.
- London's Excel Centre has signed up for a new "negawatts" service that allows it to make money by simply turning off non-essential devices for short periods when requested by the Low Carbon London (LCL) demand response programme.
- Retailers and suppliers signed up to the Courtauld Commitment on waste cut product and packaging waste by 8.8 per cent between 2009-2011, far exceeding their five per cent target, while supermarkets slashed packaging waste by 8.2 per cent over the same period.
- You can now hire a Nissan Leaf by the hour as part of the UK's first electric car club in Milton Keynes being operated by UK start up E-Car.
- The Crown Estate has signed deals with three consortia working on plans to deliver 800MW of capacity from offshore wind and tidal farms off the coast of Northern Ireland - 40 per cent of the province's electricity is likely to come from renewables by 2020.
- Australia has opened a record breaking 10MW solar farm and is on track to have solar panels installed on one million homes by next summer.
- Unilever has unveiled a plan to reorganise its entire European logistics operations, optimising deliveries in a manner that will cut the distance travelled by around 200 million kilometres a year - that's enough to travel around the world 5,000 times.
- Thirty schools have been selected to take part in a Solar Schools programme that will crowd source funding to support solar installations.
- Bloomberg has secured the WindMade label for its US operations, after confirming that the media giant sources 58 per cent of its electricity from wind farms and a further 25 per cent from biomass projects.
- Puma is to expand its pioneering environmental profit and loss accounting initiative, requiring suppliers and partners to sign up to the new methodology for measuring their true environmental impact.
- Siemens, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi are all racing to make use of a new carbon capture and storage text centre in Norway.
- Kenco has teamed up with Terracycle to deploy dedicated coffee packaging recycling points across the UK.
- National Grid and E.ON have opened a cutting-edge combined heat and power system that will use waste heat from a gas fired power plant in Kent to support operations at a neighbouring gas depot, cutting emissions by 300,000 tonnes a year.
- Triodos Renewables has inked a deal to install four wind turbines at a sewage plant in Bristol, providing electricity for 4,500 homes.
- AT&T has placed an order for 9.6MW of zero emission fuel cells from pioneering US firm Bloom Energy, taking its total fuel cell capacity to 17MW.
- Coca-Cola Enterprises has announced a new €9m joint venture in France designed to replicate the success of its UK recycling efforts and construct a closed loop recycling centre.
- Three of the world's largest users of charter ships, agricultural giant Cargill, chemicals company Huntsman, and oil trader UNIPEC UK, have agreed to ban the use of ships that do not meet minimum fuel efficiency standards, ruling out around 15 per cent of the global fleet.
- Boeing has revealed that it is to train pilots at a new centre in Turkey that is 100 per cent powered by renewable energy.
- Consent has been granted for a new £250m waste-to-energy plant in Cheshire capable of providing low carbon electricity to 80,000 homes - the local MP, one George Osborne, was opposed to the plan.
- Asda is to launch a new campaign to help suppliers reduce their environmental impacts after an initial programme saved the company £13m over the last 10 months.
- Kings Cross station is now getting around 10 per cent of its power from renewable energy thanks to a newly-opened solar array on the roof.
- Over one million tonnes of food waste each year is being used to generate electricity and heat at anaerobic digestion plants.
I was originally intending to run this list all the way back to the start of the conference season, but I've decided to move the cut-off point forward to the start of the month - I reckon you get the idea.
None of these stories are about dubious reports, estimates, or projections. They are green investments, decisions, and projects that are happening now, demonstrating that a more sustainable way of doing business is both possible and desirable.
Moreover, the vast majority require little or no government intervention, and they are all becoming increasingly attractive to corporates and investors as clean technologies and business models mature.
The policy landscape remains critically important for accelerating the development of these projects and millions more like them. But as the green economy prepares itself yet again for an almighty row over both the Energy Bill and the general direction of the government's low carbon strategy, don't let anyone tell you green isn't working.
As those protestors who descended on the Treasury made plain this week, green is working, it's here to stay, and its success is inevitable. And that should be enough to cheer everyone up.
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray