As President Obama asks why anyone would not want to accelerate clean tech investment, David Cameron comes up with an answer of sorts
It was the kind of oratorical flourish for which President Barack Obama has become rightly famous. "Even if the planet wasn't at stake, even if 2014 wasn't the warmest year on record - until 2015 turned out even hotter - why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?" he asked, as a large chunk of his latest State of the Union address was once again given over to climate action.
And why wouldn't you, when ambitious climate policies have delivered a scenario where "in fields from Iowa to Texas, wind power is now cheaper than dirtier, conventional power"?
Why wouldn't you, when the US has cut imports of foreign oil by nearly 60 per cent, and cut carbon pollution "more than any other country on Earth"?
Why wouldn't you, when vibrant modern economies now consistently embrace the "moon shot" technical challenge presented by climate change rather than shrink from it?
And why, having done much of the hard work and delivered increasingly cost effective clean technologies, would you want to decelerate rather than accelerate the transition away from "dirty energy"?
As Obama put it, "rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future".
Well, why wouldn't you want to do all that?
As luck would have it earlier that afternoon, an ocean away, in the rather less salubrious surroundings of Portcullis House's Grimond Room, Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to provide an answer of sorts.
Pushed repeatedly on why he had rolled back a host of clean energy policies and reneged on a manifesto commitment to provide £1bn of funding to a carbon capture and storage (CCS) demonstration project, Cameron reached for the same defence.
You have to remember, he told an audience of senior MPs in a tone that suggested he felt they required some remedial level tuition, that every pound of support provided for renewable energy goes straight on people's bills.
Leaving aside the fact the Prime Minister was being asked about CCS funding, which would have been provided by taxpayers rather than billpayers (an important, if oft ignored, distinction); leaving aside the fact the government has blocked clean technologies such as onshore wind power that would add less to bills than the technologies it favours; leaving aside the fact these subsidies are time limited and will fall as technology costs fall; leaving aside the fact wholesale energy costs are currently dropping largely offsetting the impact of subsidies; and leaving side the fact some of the levies that go on people's bills pay for energy efficiency measures that actually reduce bills. Leaving all that aside, there we have it. Why would you not want to undermine the chance to produce and sell the energy of the future? Because exploiting such an opportunity has a short term cost implication.
In reality, Obama and Cameron are not as divided as they appear on climate policy. Both want to boost the clean energy sector and enhance climate resilience. Both have put in place ambitious policies to curb carbon emissions. And both now reap the reward from such policies, highlighting how they have overseen green economic success and deep emissions cuts. Cameron's visible pride yesterday in the roll out of clean technologies and the emissions savings he has helped engineered provided evidence he does not share the ideological opposition to all things green harboured by some of his colleagues.
But while Obama and his prospective Democrat successors want to build on that success by using every opportunity to nurture confidence in the clean tech sector and deliver policies that keep the door open for as wide an array of potential climate solutions as possible, Cameron wants to narrow the technology options available and slow the pace of the low carbon transition in the name of poorly defined, relatively small, and demonstrably short term cost fears.
It is bad enough this cloyingly short-sighted approach promises to slow the rate of emission reduction and lock in fossil fuel infrastructure that will be difficult to phase out during the 2030s. It is even worse that some of the technology options the Prime Minister favours (while nominally insisting he does not pick winners) remain unproven and high cost ventures, such as modular nuclear reactors.
With little in the way of meaningful political opposition Cameron could have navigated a middle route between his current position and Obama's all-American clean tech cheerleading. He could and should have cut clean energy subsidies, but in a more modest way that allowed the pace of decarbonisation to continue. He could and should have promised more focus on energy costs concerns, but in a long term manner that prioritised energy efficiency. Most of all, he could and should have provided an earlier, more detailed, and oft-repeated signal that ambitious new climate policies will be needed to meet the UK's long term carbon targets and that such policies will bring with them massive commercial and economic benefits to the country, just as Obama has done for much of the past four years.
Businesses could then have invested with confidence in green infrastructure that will shape the country's long term competitiveness, rather than approach every project with the creeping fear the government is about to sacrifice long standing plans on the altar of short term expediency. Businesses from across the spectrum could have happily signed up to such a nuanced position that balances long and short term concerns, and the Prime Minister would not have been forced to resort to the unedifying tactic of accusing credible critics such as the CBI of spouting "utter nonsense".
Hope remains that warnings from the growing band of progressive businesses will still cut through and Cameron will realise the recent emissions cuts and clean energy investment he rightly praises will stall without a new and ambitious long term carbon plan. Campaigners need to acknowledge the government has done some good things to reach this point and that justified criticism needs to be tempered with encouragement if Amber Rudd's promised strategy for meeting medium term carbon targets is to correct the current policy flaws. The Prime Minister needs to recognise that respected critics with deeply held views are not always talking "nonsense" and many of them actually want to help him in realising a huge economic opportunity for the UK.
Most of all though it is to be hoped a Prime Minister in search of a legacy looks across the Atlantic and recognises that modern statesmen and women simply have to have an ambitious and credible position on climate change. Anything less and you start to look like you are "subsidising the past" at a time when the clean tech future holds immense promise. And why would anyone want to do that?
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