IPCC report confirms a better and sustainable future is possible, the onus is now on political and business leaders to make it happen
It is always gratifying to have your assumptions confirmed, particularly when confirmation comes via one of the most comprehensive and in-depth academic exercises in history.
Yesterday's publication of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate mitigation measures takes the microscope to virtually every assumption that supporters of the green economy hold dear - we can still keep climate change below 2ºC, clean technologies are plummeting in cost, decarbonisation can be delivered without damaging living standards, major technological transformations are needed across energy, industry, agriculture, transport and buildings, we risk stoking up a "carbon bubble" by continuing to invest in high carbon assets - and finds that not one of them is wanting. This satisfaction must be what climate sceptics feel like when they scour IPCC reports and find the one line in thousands that appears to agree with their flawed analysis, except in this case virtually every line agrees with new environmentalists' central assertion: a low carbon economy is feasible, affordable, and desirable.
What the latest IPCC report does so effectively is take the disgracefully under-reported clean tech revolution of the past decade and attempt to tell the world what has really happened.
A decade ago green business leaders and campaigners had to make their case using vague reassurances that a decarbonised global economy could be built through the mass deployment of clean technologies, which at that stage were often expensive and unreliable. But now, as the IPCC report demonstrates, we know that the cost of renewables has fallen drastically and that well-located wind and solar power can compete with fossil fuels, even when you pull the intellectually dishonest trick of not making fossil fuel energy pay for its climate impact. We know that zero emission vehicles are technically feasible and financially attractive. We know (as we always knew) that energy efficiency improvements to buildings deliver substantial savings over their lifetime. We know that making wider use of existing best practices and technologies can cut industrial emissions by a quarter. We know that nuclear and carbon capture and storage technologies can deliver utility scale energy capacity, even if some concerns remain about costs. We know gas can cut emissions by replacing coal, just as we also know that it is a short term fix at best and that a long term switch from coal to gas would be like a dieter switching from doughnuts to chocolate.
The IPCC captures these facts and confirms what we have also always known: the revolutionary improvements in clean technologies in recent years mean decarbonisation can be delivered at negligible cost to the economy.
In fact, the report even attempts to put a value on that negligible cost and comes up with 0.06 of a percentage point annually throughout the rest of the century. The cost is minute, barely a rounding error - but a penny lost in economic growth will be too much for some fossil fuel apologists who wrap themselves in the cloak of anti-poverty campaigning to defend their own financial self-interest. As such it is vital to note that the report's economic analysis does not include many of the benefits associated with decarbonisation. Add in the enormous, but difficult to quantify, benefits associated with clean technologies, such as improved air quality and energy security, and the ability of decarbonisation to deliver an economic boost alongside much-needed risk mitigation becomes obvious.
The report is basically the academic equivalent of that famous cartoon that lists the numerous upsides associated with a green economy and asks "What if climate change is a big hoax and we build a whole better world for nothing?" Except, as the preceding IPCC reports made plain, climate change is anything but a big hoax.
Critics of the green economy have argued the previous two IPCC reports' confirmation of spiralling carbon emissions and worsening climate risks proves the current approach to climate change is not working - an analysis that they then bizarrely use to argue for an end to any meaningful effort to tackle emissions. They are sadly right that climate policies have failed in their primary goal of cutting global emissions. But the IPCC's report and all the recent trends in clean tech deployment indicate that they have helped make renewables and other clean technologies technically and economically feasible. We need clean tech cost curves to continue to fall and we need to correct those areas of climate policy that remain flawed, but the potential is clearly there for green policies to still deliver on their ultimate goal of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change.
Inevitably, the report is not all (energy generating) sunshine and zephyrs. The shadow of the terrifying IPCC reports on climate science and adaptation loom large, particularly when the report notes that emissions have continued to climb rapidly over the past decade. The scale of a clean tech revolution that requires steep cuts in fossil fuel investments and drastic increases in clean energy spending is as daunting as ever.
Worst of all is the extent to which so much of the analysis does not reckon with the political, social, ideological, and financial inertia that characterises all economic interactions. Our continued failure to deliver proven cost-saving energy efficiency measures demonstrates that our economies are not set up to deliver perfectly rationale outcomes, even when certain clean technologies and business models are demonstrably better than their alternatives.
This inertia is evident in virtually every challenge the green economy faces, be it in the reports suggesting certain governments wanted sections of the IPCC report on the inefficiency of fossil fuel subsidies scratched out or the dismissive stance fossil fuel incumbents have struck towards the clean technologies that threaten their very existence (against this backdrop it was fascinating that the "carbon bubble" hypothesis and its warning that fossil fuel assets could very quickly become overvalued as the low carbon transition gathers pace, made it into the report). It is only through the continued development of ever more competitive clean technologies and the use of effective policies that recognise the huge risks inherent with the carbon intensive status quo that this inertia can be overcome.
However, while the challenge remains as daunting as ever, the report is shot through with compelling evidence that the world has already begun an historic transition towards a cleaner and more sustainable economy. This evidence is clear, not just throughout the latest IPCC report, but also throughout the expanding library of academic and investment research on the green economy. It takes a particular type of short-sighted, self-interested, small c conservatism to look at the latest IPCC report, look at the falling cost curves for renewable energy, look at the technical feasibility of nuclear and CCS, look at the projected increases in green investment that run to hundreds of billions of dollars, and not think that something exciting and significant is afoot.
It is utterly bemusing that certain newspapers can read the IPCC report and conclude that the big story is that there could be some role for gas as a "bridging fuel". It is akin to reporting on Neil Armstrong's moon walk by leading on the details of one of the rocket fuels that was considered - it's interesting, but it is hardly the main event. Equally, it is bemusing that certain multinationals and investors can continue to nonchalantly fund high carbon infrastructure without even acknowledging the technological transformations and shifting risk profiles that are obvious to anyone willing to look. It is not a new point, but they look ever more like typewriter manufacturers circa 1979.
At the very least governments and businesses looking at the implications from the IPCC report should be hedging their bets and reducing their exposure to fossil fuels while increasing their interest in clean technologies. However, entrepreneurs and true business leaders never settle for the very least, and as such they are already looking at the clean tech transition that is under way and working out how to seize the immense opportunities it offers.
The implications of the IPCC report for green business leaders are clear: a low carbon economy is feasible, affordable, and desirable, and that means it will also be investible, marketable, and profitable for those businesses willing to lead the clean tech revolution. After two reports of unremitting and justified climate doom and gloom, that is the good news.
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