Too many industries claim to support action on climate change, but still resist any measures that challenge polluting business-as-usual models
Last week I had one of those weird days where events appeared to conspire to create their own narrative arc, which is always handy when your job entails wrestling a narrative from seemingly disparate events.
The day started with a breakfast briefing hosted by PR company Edelman on whether energy companies can restore their battered reputation, which raised plenty of interesting questions about why utilities are held in such low regard they make your local estate agent look like a beacon of trustworthiness, but provided far fewer answers about what energy executives can do about their dismal popularity ratings.
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was the way in which the industry representatives on the panel, led by Energy UK's chief executive Angela Knight, were pretty dismissive of the role green energy could play in restoring consumer trust. There was an acknowledgement renewable energy companies had done some "good things" marketing themselves (did I detect a hint of condescension?), but there was also a warning that we have to consider renewable energy costs and a pretty clear rejection of the idea that clean energy can play a key role in restoring consumer confidence in energy companies, regardless of the fact a clear majority of the public favour clean energy.
Coincidentally, that afternoon I then had a coffee with a contact at BT who gave me the nod that the telco giant was preparing to announce that it had signed a deal with Npower to source 100 per cent of its power from renewable sources. Some commentators have questioned the impact this commitment will have on actual UK renewable energy capacity, given we have a binding renewable energy target and investment is primarily driven by the government's various subsidy mechanisms. But one thing is clear: if a company that uses almost one per cent of the UK's power says it only wants renewable power, it seems strange to suggest that the provision of green electricity has no role to play in improving relations between energy companies and their customers.
The day then ended with John Ashton's lecture on the parlous state of UK climate politics and the binary choice we face between what he described as a "must, now, can" approach to decarbonisation and a "mustn't, not now, can't" mentality. According to Ashton, the "mustn't, not now, can't" approach is in many ways just the more respectable face of the climate denier dismissal of climate change as a threat, given that both schools of thought urge businesses and policymakers to "cling to business as usual and hope for the best".
It is a compelling and hard-hitting analysis and one that took me full circle, back to the breakfast briefing earlier in the day and the panel's reluctance to talk about decarbonisation and how energy companies should use green technology as a means of reaching out to disillusioned customers. It is a stance that is not only in contradiction to growing demand for green energy from BT and others, it also looks like an example of the "musn't, not now, can't" mentality in action.
Across numerous industries this approach has become worryingly embedded. Most intelligent executives accept that we have to decarbonise our economy and take action to tackle climate change, but when it comes to the steps that are actually needed there is a tendency to argue that we "musn't" take such bold steps, or we should but "not now", or we could but they "can't" work. In the most blatant cases, as embodied by BusinessEurope's recent efforts to trash modest climate policy reforms, these delaying tactics are a pretty transparent attempt to destroy all policies that challenge business-as-usual, while clinging to the fig leaf argument that you would like to see action on climate change taken at a later date. More insidious are the numerous industries that accept decarbonisation in principle, but still quietly lobby against ambitious policy and technology deployment on cost or feasibility grounds. Sometimes their concerns are justified, often they are not, and always they lead to a delay in the steps necessary to deliver decarbonisation.
Of course, delivering decarbonisation at the lowest possible cost is hugely important, as Policy Exchange's Guy Newey eloquently argued on BusinessGreen earlier this week. It is possible, indeed it is highly desirable, to embrace an ambitious "must, now, can" approach to climate change that is in no way financially profligate and seeks to deliver decarbonisation in the most cost-effective way possible. In fact, Newey puts forward some credible proposals for how this could be done – personally, I don't agree with all of them, but it is clear you can raise concerns about the cost of some low-carbon technologies and then set out an alternative approach that you think can still deliver rapid decarbonisation.
The problem is that many of those industry groups and commentators who criticise the cost of clean energy or seek to undermine low-carbon policies and investment don't do this. They explain why we "musn't" follow a particular path to decarbonisation, but then fail to offer any credible proposals for climate action that we "must" take instead.
The one point that Energy UK's Knight made last week that I agreed wholeheartedly with was the assertion that "we should not run away from the fact that we are going to go through a transition period that will lead to more investment, more jobs but also more costs. We may want to move to more renewables that cost more at the moment – in that case be upfront about it and sell the story." It is great advice, the energy industry, green NGOs, and politicians should be making a compelling case for investment in clean energy that we must make in order to realise a huge range of environmental and economic benefits. But is the energy industry really doing this? Is Energy UK doing this? Is it demanding a honest debate about energy policy and costs in order to make the case for why decarbonisation and clean energy is essential? Or is it demanding that debate so as to turn the public against clean energy and energy efficiency policies that are having a (still relatively modest) short-term impact on bills? The fact that the answers to these questions remain opaque tells its own story.
It would be better for everyone if the debates on energy and climate policies were honest and open – honest and open about costs, benefits and climate impacts. It would also be better for everyone if the companies that actually stand to benefit from the low-carbon transition fully embraced the future and started cheerleading for it, rather than clinging to a business-as-usual approach that threatens everyone's long-term interests.
As the UN Global Compact and Accenture's upcoming survey of global CEOs will soon reveal, a gap is opening up between those businesses, like BT, who have embraced the "must, now, can" approach to climate threats, and those who are nominally committed to tackling climate change but are all too willing to obfuscate and delay in support of the status quo. It is perfectly justifiable for businesses to have a problem with certain low-carbon policies and technologies; after all we are at the start of a long economic transition and some of these policies and technologies will be flawed. But it is not justifiable to attack measures that are designed to deliver decarbonisation without putting forward credible alternative pathways towards a low-carbon future. Ashton is right: there are only two options. All business leaders should be asking themselves whether they embrace the "must, now, can" brio that should always characterise the best entrepreneurs, or whether they are happier siding with the "musn't, not now, can't" stance beloved of corporate dinosaurs.
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