BusinessGreen recently celebrated its eighth birthday - the green economy has been transformed since 2007, but at the same time too many challenges remain unchanged
In unwavering compliance with gender stereotypes, I am useless at remembering birthdays. So it was a pleasant surprise when a few weeks back a colleague informed me it was my work anniversary and I'd been editing BusinessGreen for eight years - and you thought LinkedIn was just a mechanism for recruitment agents to badger you about jobs you don't want.
That BusinessGreen is eight years old (nine if you count its initial manifestation as a small blog on the former IT Week website) came as something of a shock. Eight years is a long time, certainly the longest I've ever worked on anything, and it certainly does not feel as if BusinessGreen has been wrestling with the at times intractable issues presented by climate change and the green economy for closing in on a decade.
There are perhaps two reasons for this, beyond the unavoidably universal sense that time speeds up as you get older: the pace of transformation in the market BusinessGreen covers has been so rapid it is difficult to keep abreast of how much things have changed over such a long period; and, conversely, too many of the issues BusinessGreen covers have remained depressingly constant, again making it difficult to keep track of the passage of time.
Birthdays are meant to be happy occasions so let's get the miserable stuff out of the way first. During the eight years of BusinessGreen's existence (and 22 years prior to that) the world has not experienced a month where average temperatures were below the 20th century average. The odds of such a run of high temperatures occurring naturally are about the same as Jeremy Corbyn winning the next election, and then getting hit by lightning, twice.
And yet faced with these increasingly unanswerable scientific realities and ever more frequent environmental crises which, in the words of Al Gore, are starting to look like "a nature hike through the Book of Revelation", the global response remains tragically incommensurate to the scale of the problem. Climate impacts are escalating fast and are starting to bring with them the very real threats to food and national security that analysts have long warned of. But too many leaders in both politics and business are singularly failing to accompany their acceptance manmade climate change is, as the G20 warned last week, "one of the greatest challenges of our time" with anything that even vaguely resembles an adequate response.
Faced with this existential crisis too many business and political leaders end up resembling, to quote the peerless comedian Stewart Lee in a slightly different context, "a cowardly man trapped between two different forms of cowardice". As contradictory pro-fossil fuel policy follows well-intentioned environmentally conscious rhetoric, you are left with the impression of fearful politicians caught between the realisation their failure to mobilise an early response to climate change will be judged harshly by history and the knowledge they lack the influence, skills, and courage necessary to deliver the scale of change that is so urgently needed - change that will necessarily result in some disruption to the status quo and the vested interests that wish to protect it.
The net result, found to varying degrees in almost all countries, is an incoherent policy response to climate change that combines encouraging and ambitious attempts to cut carbon emissions with completely counter-productive policies to protect business-as-usual and increase carbon emissions in the process. Over the past eight years, BusinessGreen has been forced to spend far too long reporting on the disjointed and at times downright hypocritical policy response to climate change and other environmental challenges - the past six months of UK climate policy being a case in point.
That David Cameron has transformed from a husky-hugging champion of the green economy into a leader who can simultaneously declare he has an "uncompromising commitment to tackling climate change" while launching an energy policy defined by the perceived need to compromise between tackling climate change and keeping the lights on remains a source of constant disappointment. That we live in a world where one of the most powerful political traditions in the world, the US Republican Party, has been so effectively hijacked by anti-science climate denialism that economic and environmental recklessness is now fully accepted as part of our political reality remains a surreal indictment of the limits of the Enlightenment. That politicians can routinely declare climate impacts warrant a "money no object" response and hymn the need for a decarbonisation Marshall Plan/Manhattan Project/Apollo Programme and then cut taxes for fossil fuels and actively block clean energy deployment remains one of our ages' defining failures of governance and imagination.
There are times when faced with the question "what do you think about the green economy" that it feels like the only answer is to channel Ghandi's famous reflections on western civilisation and declare "I think it would be a good idea".
However, as I've argued before, it is the lot of environmental journalists to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance that comes with reporting on staggeringly depressing environmental degradation and enthrallingly optimistic clean technological developments. Consequently, the realisation that the past eight years has seen global emissions and accompanying climate risks rise pretty inexorably is tempered to an increasing extent by the historic gains that have been made by the green economy over the period of BusinessGreen's existence (we'd love to claim some credit, but as everyone knows correlation in no way equals causation). We have been lucky enough to document the early stages of an industrial revolution - a revolution pretty much unprecedented in its pace, scale, and reach.
The successes are too numerous to mention, but just consider a few of these facts. Global solar power capacity increased 27-fold between 2007 and 2014, while global wind capacity has increased four-fold and, according to the IEA, renewables are now the most popular form of new energy generation globally. I remember writing stories featuring breathless predictions solar PV would one day deliver power at $1 a watt - this year the US government reported average prices were at $0.50/W and there were no signs of the recent price drops slowing. In mature economies, energy use is in freefall - it is down 21 per cent in the UK this century with no signs of it increasing again any time soon.
And then there are the developments that really take the breath away. When BusinessGreen launched the electric car market did not extend far beyond the dinky G-Wiz (remember them?), an admirable trailblazer, but also the automotive embodiment of the assumption consumers would have to compromise if they wanted a clear environmental conscience. Now Tesla and Jaguar are racing to release all electric SUVs that can do up to 300 miles on a single charge. Meanwhile, energy storage and smart grid innovations are already solving the problems presented by intermittent renewable energy sources, while advances in material science are quietly making the vision for an ultra-resource efficient circular economy a reality. The shortlist for our upcoming BusinessGreen Technology Awards offers just a snapshot of the startling levels of innovation that now characterise the green economy. For every carbon capture and storage demonstration programme that has spent eight years locked in scandalous stasis, there are countless other successful clean tech projects that have served to transform the business landscape.
All of this progress has been made against a backdrop where, despite the biggest economic crisis of all of our lifetimes, public support globally for cleaner technologies and greener ways of doing business has only increased. This public backing has been more than matched by boardroom interest as the 'carbon bubble' argument has transformed from wonkish seminar room discussion to the fastest growing divestment movement in history. The misinformation peddled by climate sceptics and pollutocrat lobbyists has barely made a dent in either public or corporate consciousness, as majorities of people around the world instinctively recognise the multiple benefits associated with clean technologies and greener business models. Consequently, from Apple to IKEA and Nike to Unilever, the world's most powerful and influential brands are mobilising billions of dollars of investment in a fundamental re-imagining of how they operate.
Best of all, there are signs this remarkable and still under-reported progress is starting to move the dial. Since BusinessGreen began reporting, UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen a staggering 23 per cent, even as the economy has continued to grow, albeit with a bit of a sizeable hiccup for a few years back there. Better still, there is evidence, albeit inconclusive, that last year saw the growth in global emissions finally decouple from economic growth, thanks in large part to the crisis being foisted upon the global coal industry.
Pretty much regardless of what happens at next month's Paris Summit this progress will only accelerate over the next eight years and beyond. According to the most recent analysis from the IEA, if the world can deliver on the national decarbonisation plans already submitted to the UN, then we will be on track for temperature increases of 2.7C this century. This is still well past the threshold for dangerous climate change and no one should be under any illusions about the potentially catastrophic impact of 2.7C of warming. But it is also important to recognise this constitutes significant progress. The so-called INDC plans already on the table for Paris promise to move us from talking about a 4-6C world within the lifetime of a child born today to talking about a 2-3.5C world. We are inching in the right direction.
Moreover, there are plenty of reasons - not least amongst them the continued rapid reduction in clean energy costs, the advances in energy storage, and the willingness of world leaders to countenance the idea of full decarbonisation during the second half of this century - to suspect these national climate action plans will deliver deeper emissions cuts than currently predicted. National carbon targets tend to represent a floor rather than a ceiling. It remains entirely possible that temperature increases can be limited to under 2C.
As Tom Burke of the think tank E3G put it to me recently, "look at what has been achieved following the 'failure' of Copenhangen, just imagine what can be achieved following a successful agreement in Paris".
Even in the UK, where recent policy moves have appeared wilfully designed to increase carbon emissions (anyone doubting this should look at the impact assessments that confirm this will be the effect of overly steep subsidy cuts and carbon taxes for clean power generators), the next eight years will see continued decarbonisation.
By the time BusinessGreen celebrates its 16th birthday in 2023 (fingers crossed) the UK is expected to have a new nuclear power plant providing seven per cent of the country's power, a working CCS demonstration plant, well over a million more homes boasting energy efficiency upgrades, cost-competitive solar panels on millions of buildings, a smart meter in every building, hundreds of thousands of electric cars, the world's largest fleet of offshore wind turbines, and the world's first phase out of unabated coal power. Moreover, as the government confirmed last week a new and even more ambitious plan will be announced half way through this parliament to ensure even deeper emissions cuts are achieved in line with the UK's carbon budgets.
The UK could and should be even further along the path to decarbonisation and the likelihood is some green economic opportunities will be lost to the US, China, Germany and those other nations currently offering a more unequivocal commitment to decarbonisation. But the direction of travel remains clear and unanswerable. Climate action is here to stay.
It may be BusinessGreen's birthday, but there's no point sugar-coating things. The outlook for the global environment looks considerably bleaker than it did in the autumn of 2007. But somehow it simultaneously looks more encouraging than it has at any point over the past eight years. Whether this apparent contradiction is any closer to a resolution by the time we celebrate BusinessGreen's ninth birthday, let alone its 16th, depends a lot on the choices political and business leaders make over the next few months.
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