Over the past year I have been fortunate enough to be loosely involved in a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) initiative to promote the UK's Climate Change Act to countries across Europe.
Through a series of Embassy events designed to enhance the UK's standing as a pioneering low carbon economy, the British government and Friends of the Earth have offered their counterparts overseas information on how we came to be the first country in the world to adopt a binding Climate Change Act, as well as informal advice on how such legislation could work in other jurisdictions.
My limited role at events in Berlin, Helsinki and this week Sarajevo (lovely place - go before the tourists discover it), was to outline how the Climate Change Act and the investment certainty it brings has been broadly welcomed by businesses, while also trying to explain how in almost all countries there is an emerging low carbon sector that is willing to defy the anti-regulation zeal of traditional business lobbyists and support progressive climate change legislation. It was a pretty easy gig, given that is what we do at BusinessGreen on a near daily basis. The events have also proven to be hugely informative on a number of fronts.
Firstly, my brief soujorn into the world of ambassadors and diplomats has further confirmed what our international reporting has already made plain: in virtually every country across Europe there is huge appetite for the development of a low carbon economy. The audiences at the embassy events were self-selecting in that only politicians, civil servants, and business execs with an interest in climate change policy would have attended, but many of the events were over-subscribed and the level of engagement and debate was extremely high. From wind farm developers in Bosnia and Herzegovina to biomass firms in Finland, a thriving and ambitious low carbon sector is gaining traction right across Europe.
Moreover, the level of political consensus on the need to take urgent action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and deliver low carbon growth, while not yet complete, is robust. The climate sceptics and their friends within carbon intensive industries that counsel caution and warn of economic collapse have never been more marginalised. Governments across the whole of the EU, as well as those countries keen to join the bloc, increasingly accept that business as usual is not an option. It is remarkable how often it now goes unremarked that the EU's 27 member states have agreed to hugely ambitious emissions and renewable energy targets (and are seriously considering making them more ambitious still) - this is hugely significant achievement.
That is the good news; the bad news is far less gratifying.
The FCO events have revealed that, while there are plenty of voices in plenty of countries calling for more ambitious low carbon policies, the adoption of binding climate change legislation turning that desire into tangible results remains hugely challenging. Many governments simply do not have the resources, the time or the expertise to deliver the low carbon framework emerging green businesses are calling for.
Maybe it is a symptom of Western arrogance to think of governments as being, if not infallible, then certainly administrative powerhouses and bastions of professionalism. Sadly, this is not always the reality. It is an oft-ignored aspect of the UN's international climate change negotiations, but the repeated calls for 'capacity building' in the Copenhagen and Cancun Accords are the direct result of many countries, particularly but not exclusively in the developing world, lacking the governance structures, resources, skills and cultures required to deliver sophisticated climate change strategies and initiatives.
For example, in Sarajevo, one minister lamented the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina's low carbon efforts had been forced to hand back €14m in green funding to the EU because it could not identify and manage a suitable project. Another pointed out how a political structure that results in 30 different governments at the level of federation, state and cantons makes it nigh on impossible to deliver a coherent national climate change plan. Similar challenges are seen in any relatively small industrialised countries where the limited size of civil service operations forces ministers to prioritise and as a result push complex low carbon policies to the bottom of the in-tray.
It is a hugely difficult balancing act for larger industrialised countries given that they do not want to be accused of interfering at best and imperialist arrogance at worst. But there needs to be an acknowledgement within the UN negotiations that support and guidance on how to develop effective climate change governance structures is easily as important as the cold hard cash industrialised nations have promised developing countries to help them fund the development of their low carbon economies.
Finally, the events have served as a useful reminder as to how lucky we are in the UK's green sector and how critically important our role could be in helping to develop the global low carbon economy.
It is easy to criticise British governments for their failure to move far and fast enough in addressing climate change - and in recent weeks with the feed-in tariff fiasco and Green Investment Bank fudge it has got easier still. But it is worth reminding ourselves that, thanks to a particular set of circumstances, the UK was able to deliver the world's first climate change bill - a piece of legislation which, regardless of the vagaries of the government of the day, provides businesses with genuine certainty that the low carbon economy will continue to accelerate.
The FCO's Embassy events have secured some notable successes. They have helped to bolster the UK's standing as a pioneer in low carbon policy, fostered plans for improved climate change legislation in a number of countries, and, as importantly, started dialogues that will help promote British green businesses to markets overseas.
But despite these gains, they have not yet managed to deliver Europe's second climate change bill. Advanced plans for climate change legislation in Ireland and Hungary faltered on economic travails and changes of government, while even countries with ambitious low carbon strategies such as Germany, Spain and Finland have not been fully convinced of the case for binding legislation. Other nations have shown themselves to be a long way short of the governance structures and political will necessary to deliver wide-ranging legislation.
All of which leaves the UK facing a huge responsibility. It may not always seem this way on a day when new research suggests British investment in clean energy last year fell from third to 13th in the world, but the UK has one of the most sophisticated low carbon policy frameworks and one of the most benign green investment climates in the world.
We have a Climate Change Act, EU energy and renewables targets, low carbon incentive programmes and subsidy mechanisms, pioneering green firms, and enviable renewable energy resources. We have a country that is economically and geographically large enough to deliver investment in low carbon infrastructure, but not so large as to make the transition to low carbon technologies impossibly daunting. We have a 15-year track record of reducing emissions while continuing (for the most part) to deliver economic growth.
More important still, while politicians may disagree on the policy mechanisms necessary to curb emissions, we have a near complete political consensus on the environmental and economic case for building a low carbon economy. Add in relatively high standards of governance, policy making and enforcement and it is clear that the long-term outlook is encouraging even if short-term economic concerns have fuelled a degree of pessimism among green business leaders.
The coda to this rosy assessment is that if the UK, with all its advantages, cannot build a prosperous functioning low carbon economy over the next decade then you start to wonder if anyone can.
North America has immense technological resources, but is hampered by the politicisation of climate change, while Australia's low carbon sector finds itself similarly hamstrung by climate sceptic politicians. Many developing and emerging economies such as Bosnia and Herzegovina want to build a low carbon economy, but find themselves having to deal with the more immediate challenges presented by poverty, governance, and occasional instability. The Middle East has the economic resources, but remains wedded to hydrocarbons, while even China, the country investing more than any other in clean technology, is still hugely reliant on coal power and dwindling resources to fuel its on-going economic miracle.
The political stability, relative prosperity and geographical resources enjoyed by the UK means that it is part of a small band of nations, alongside countries and regions such as Germany, France, Scandinavia, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand, which, through luck and judgement, have the combination of circumstances required to build a low carbon economy.
The question for those politicians who currently appear committed to undermining the UK's low carbon prospects is, if not here, where?
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