The argument the world will not make a serious attempt to decarbonise asks you to believe we are victim of one of the biggest political and corporate conspiracies ever committed
Are many of the world's most powerful political and business leaders lying to us? I know, I know, the last thing the climate change debate needs is another conspiracy theory, not when the last 30 years has seen global warming conspiracy theorising run the full gamut from faked moon-landing-level craziness to Watergate-esque 'how the hell did they think they'd actually get away with that' bemusement. But bear with me, because the last few years have seen the emergence of a new climate change conspiracy theory, or rather a climate action conspiracy theory, and it needs addressing, not least because you will be hearing a lot more about it in the run up to, and fall out from, the Paris Summit.
The main theory - and there are numerous overlapping versions - goes like this: many world leaders in the spheres of politics and business say they are fully committed to deep decarbonisation of their economies and corporations, they have signed up to targets to deliver this goal, and enacted policies and investments to ensure it is met. But they are either intentionally lying or unintentionally misleading us all. The targets won't be met and the governments and businesses that are signed up to them are often, in reality, not that serious about trying to meet them.
Like all the best conspiracy theories, it is a depressingly plausible hypothesis. If it is proven to be accurate it will be one of the biggest scandals in the history of civilisation, not that its historic nature will be much comfort to the climate change-ravaged civilisation that remains.
This theory is increasingly popular with many of the world's leading fossil fuel companies, investors, analysts, media commentators, certain politicians, some environmentalists, and, inevitably, plenty of climate sceptics. It is not widely seen as a conspiracy theory, because it is more commonly understood as a dispassionate and realistic acknowledgement of the true scale of the challenge decarbonisation presents and the strengths of the status quo, but it does require us to believe the public are being systematically misled.
At this stage it is too early to tell whether this theory is based on a true conspiracy of intent or a cocked up conspiracy of incompetence and negligence. It is also too early to tell whether these alleged political and corporate machinations will join the long list of crackpot conspiracy theories or will come to be remembered as the greatest deception governments and corporations ever perpetrated on their populations and markets. You absolutely do not have to be part of the tin foil hat brigade to believe this conspiracy is happening. In fact, parts of it almost certainly are.
Few people on either side of the decarbonisation debate want to present their arguments in terms quite this stark, but the assumption world leaders are misleading us is the logical extension of the case put forward by those who reject the carbon bubble hypothesis that we cannot and will not burn our current fossil fuel reserves and avoid dangerous levels of carbon emissions.
All those fossil fuel companies, analysts, business executives, investors, and some environmentalists happily accepting models that assume we will fail to decarbonise quickly enough and will continue on an emissions pathway for several more decades that will result in more can 4C of warming this century, are doing so at a time when the emissions reductions pledges being put forward by governments ahead of the Paris Summit raise the prospect of a trajectory towards 3C of warming with the potential for deeper cuts further down the line.
As such, they are tacitly telling governments they think they are either lying to us all or lack the power and governance skills to deliver on their promises. World leaders really should feel insulted each time the oil industry predicts a 4C to 6C future - they are basically accusing Obama, Cameron, Merkel, Xi, Modi and co of being incompetent and/or powerless.
They are also tacitly telling all those clean tech innovators and green business pioneers that they are not up to the job and will not deliver the technology revolution that is required to drag the world back onto pathway towards 3C or preferably 2C of warming.
The problem for those of us who, in our happier moments, remain optimistic deep decarbonisation can be delivered and the worst climate risks averted is that there is solid evidence to back up suggestions world leaders are working to ensure their commitments to tackle climate change will not be honoured. From Obama's licenses for Arctic drilling to Osborne's North Sea tax breaks it often looks as if pledges to cut emissions should not be taken at face value.
And then there is the sheer scale of the decarbonisation challenge. The extent to which fossil fuels are embedded into the global economy and will continue to drive the development paths of many emerging economies makes it all too easy to conclude that even if governments and businesses decarbonisation intentions are good they don't actually have the power to deliver on them.
But many of those claiming global, national, and corporate emissions goals will not be met do not confine themselves to arguing deep decarbonisation will prove too difficult, they also suggest we will not even make that serious attempt to prove them wrong. Hence, continued investment in exploring for high cost fossil fuel reserves can be justified because climate legislation will not bite that hard and alternative clean technologies will not prove that disruptive. They are effectively assuming those world leaders who claim the global economy can fundamentally change are bluffing, and are calling that bluff.
However, the argument environmentalists are the naïve victims of a global conspiracy where the combined power of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy and vote-winning real politik makes any talk of deep decarbonisation a con has to be set against some counter evidence.
Many of the world's largest industrialised economies are already engaged in an historically significant but underreported trend that has seen economic growth decouple from energy use and emissions output. Modern economies are operating with a far higher proportion of clean power on their grids than anyone ever thought possible. For all its myriad flaws, many of the climate targets set under the Kyoto Protocol have been met. The EU is on track to overshoot its emissions goals for 2020. Only this month, India noted how it is on track to slash the carbon intensity of its economy 20 to 25 per cent by 2020. These trends are not moving fast enough to comfortably disprove the pessimistic assertion the next wave of emissions targets will be missed, but the past is not always the best guide to the future. There are signs systemic change is underway.
And then we have to consider the next wave of emissions targets that are in the pipeline. It now seems pretty certain the Paris Summit will result in the adoption, albeit on a voluntary basis, of a global network of climate action plans, the bulk of which include detailed commitments to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and mobilising billions of dollars of clean tech investment. These action plans, or INDCs in the jargon, follow the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which, if they are met by 2030 as planned, will result in a global economy transformed. The UN's targets on everything from sustainable energy to protected seas look absurdly optimistic, but much the same was said of the Millennium Development Goals, which through a combination of investment, ingenuity, and economic progress have proven transformational, even if not all of them have been met.
On top of these national and international targets come a host of equally ambitious sustainability goals from many of the world's largest businesses. Through their commitments to slash emissions or source 100 per cent renewable power, many of the world's most influential multinationals are rejecting suggestions from their polluting peers that deep decarbonisation over the next few decades is a pipe dream.
Advocates of the climate action conspiracy theory have done a very good job of positioning it as rational and realistic, hence why it is not really seen as a conspiracy theory at all. But if you think about it, it is actually pretty incendiary. Whenever a Prime Minister or President or the G20 says they will deliver deep decarbonisation in the coming decades, the response implicit in investment plans and projections that assume 4C of warming this century is ‘no, you won't'. Whenever the finest minds in Silicon Valley put forward a vision to create a cleaner global economy, the response from some of their counterparts in polluting industries is 'not gonna happen'.
One of the first rules of journalism is to always remember Louis Heren's famous adage, 'why is this lying bastard lying to me?' But is it plausible that virtually every world leader preparing to travel to the Paris Climate Summit this December will inadvertently or wilfully lie to us when they say they will take ambitious action to tackle climate change? Because that is what those advocating for, or investing in, the long term continuation of carbon intensive activities are claiming. They are asking investors to accept the emergence of cost effective clean technologies and the sweeping introduction of national climate action plans are minor developments to distract the masses while fossil fuel incumbents can continue to operate much as they have always done, limiting themselves to the occasional nod towards decarbonisation happening at some point, far in the future, when it is already too late. They are arguing that if they hedge their bets at all it should be through marginal investments in a handful of carbon capture technologies, rather than an urgent rush to re-engineer their entire operations and deliver the clean technologies we desperately need.
Call me naïve, call me optimistic, perhaps even call me a crazy conspiracy theorist, but I'd argue businesses have to at least countenance the possibility that governments and corporations might just do the things they say they are going to do. There will no doubt be plenty of setbacks along the way, but the flurry of new policies in the build up to the Paris Summit suggests we are entering a period when the argument that meaningful climate action is not happening will look about as credible as the argument climate change itself is not happening. We may still fail in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change and world leaders may struggle to deliver on their promises. But savvy businesses and investors need to recognise how the global commitment to deep decarbonisation is strengthening, because after all, who wants to build a business plan based on a conspiracy theory.
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