The former environment secretary and sacked cricketer may not appear to have much in common, but look a little closer
Prepare yourself for a week of stories about one brave hero standing up to the bullies, about the appalling injustice that is the inability of privileged white men with friends in the media to get a fair hearing, and about how much better the world would be if we stopped listening to so-called experts and simply accepted the wisdom of those geniuses who bring their natural leadership skills to bear in otherwise dull and bloodless fields.
No, it is not the second week of articles about Kevin Pietersen's autobiography, it is the first week of articles about Owen Paterson's emergence as the latest standard bearer of UK climate scepticism.
The likeness may not be immediately obvious in anything but their names. But as the former England cricket captain continues to hawk his book and the former environment secretary prepares to deliver his lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation this Wednesday, the parallels between the two men become ever more apparent.
Both are renowned for drawing on seemingly inexhaustible wells of self-confidence. Both are perfectly comfortable standing up to authority – Pietersen battling with successive England coaches; Paterson reportedly indulging in a "blunt exchange" with the prime minister. Both have their supporters – Paterson allegedly believes he commands the support of 12 million rural voters who were "smashed in the teeth" by his sacking; Pietersen has Piers Morgan.
More importantly, both believe they were bullied – Pietersen by a clique of bowlers, Paterson by the "green blob" (inconveniently for their critics, both appear to have some justification for their grievances: some of the threats Paterson reportedly received from animal rights activists over his badger cull were utterly unacceptable; and there is some evidence the England dressing room was a pretty fractious place). Similarly, both Paterson and Pietersen appear to firmly believe the world would be a much better place if their advice were followed instead of that offered by the vast majority of climate scientists, engineers, economists, and Ashes-winning cricket coaches. And both were perfectly content to put up with the many iniquities they faced while they were offered a platform for their talents, only going public with fundamental disagreements with their former team mates once they were unceremoniously dismissed.
Of course, while these similarities may offer a diverting start to a blog post, they can be extended only so far. For one thing, Kevin Pietersen is a genuine A-grade, world-beating exponent of his chose profession; Paterson was a low-profile cabinet minister who is condemned to the public indifference faced by all politicians operating at his level – the reality is, only a fraction of the 12 million people who he reckons were so upset by his sacking could pick him out of the proverbial line-up. However, the most crucial difference is that Pietersen's complaints centre on the best way to coach a cricket team, while Paterson's complaints centre on the best way to tackle an existential threat to humanity.
We cannot yet know what Paterson will say in his lecture later this week, but the Sunday Telegraph's comprehensive front-page preview raises several points that green business executives would be wise to challenge.
Paterson's attack on green orthodoxy looks likely to centre on fears that the lights will soon go out – his lecture is reportedly entitled "Keeping the lights on". "Blind adhesion to the 2050 targets will not reduce emissions and will fail to keep the lights on," he will say of the Climate Change Act's over-arching emissions target. "The current energy policy is a slave to flawed climate action... In the short and medium term, costs to consumers will rise dramatically, but there can only be one ultimate consequence of this policy: the lights will go out at some time in the future."
It cannot be said often enough that National Grid – the company that actually operates the grid and is tasked with ensuring the lights will stay on – does not believe this is the case. The government and the grid operator are united in confidently predicting the lights will stay on. Yes, capacity margins are expected to tighten over the next few years, but the grid operators have numerous levers they can pull to ensure supply matches demand and a huge pipeline of new projects is moving forward to address long-term energy security concerns. Meanwhile, continuing improvements in energy efficiency mean UK domestic energy consumption has been quietly ticking downwards, further easing pressure on supplies.
The debate over the cost of keeping the lights on while decarbonising has more mileage in it, but again Paterson's assertion that bills will "rise dramatically" appears remarkably evidence-lite when set against the government and the Committee on Climate Change's assertions that falling clean energy costs and efficiency improvements will keep rising bills in check.
Paterson's planned assertion that the UK should suspend the Climate Change Act until other nations adopt similar targets is on equally shaky ground. The UK may be rare in having a Climate Change Act that requires emissions be cut 80 per cent by 2050, but the idea that it is alone in attempting to decarbonise at this rate is just plain wrong. Virtually all nations have signed up to a goal of limiting temperature rises to 2°C, which according to scientific advisers equates to an 80 per cent reduction in emissions from industrialised nations and a 50 per cent cut in emissions globally by mid-century. Countries and regions as diverse as Mexico and California have comprehensive Climate Change Acts and more than 60 nations, including all the world's major economies, have ambitious climate legislation in place.
There are no grounds for suspending the Climate Change Act on competitiveness grounds, a fact further underlined by the continued absence of any compelling evidence that businesses are leaving the UK to avoid its climate legislation. Moreover, while the Climate Change Act cannot actually be suspended, the five-year carbon budgets it sets can be changed if scientific or economic analysis shows such a change is in the UK's economic and security interest. Some ministers who are known to be lukewarm towards climate action have looked everywhere for such evidence – and they have not been able to find it.
Paterson's mooted alternative proposal for decarbonising through "four possible common-sense policies: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors and demand management" is worthy of more consideration. In fact, were it not for his apparent suggestion that investment in these relatively low-carbon technologies should be exclusive of other clean technologies, many green businesses would endorse these methods. The problem is that Paterson appears to be arguing that investment in renewable technologies that are seeing costs plummet should be ended in favour of more investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and largely unproven nuclear reactors.
According to the Telegraph, he will also argue that the only thing stopping this course of action is the UK's 2050 emissions target. But this is categorically not the case. You could argue the EU's renewable energy targets have made investment in nuclear and fracking less attractive, but the targets set by the Climate Change Act are deliberately non-technology specific. If as-yet-uninvented modular nuclear reactors and as-yet-untapped UK shale gas can meet the UK's carbon targets in an affordable manner, as Paterson predicts, there is nothing in the Climate Change Act to stop them. It will be interesting to see if this misleading line makes its way into Paterson's speech.
However, for all the technical arguments about decarbonisation costs, risk profiles, and international competitiveness, the greatest concern for the UK's green business community is Paterson's wider argument that the country's economy would benefit from the scrapping of the legislation underpinning so much of the government's green economic policy. The worrying reality is that this argument, coupled with his suggestion that green firms are the "subsidy-hungry allies" of "the bullies in the environmental movement", is gaining traction on the right of British politics.
Scrapping the Climate Change Act would have a negligible impact on energy bills, lead to more deadly air pollution, put billions of pounds of clean energy investment and tens of thousands of jobs at risk, leave the UK more exposed to volatile fossil fuel imports, undermine one of the biggest export opportunities for British firms, and result in the country playing catch-up in the global clean tech revolution. In addition, there is little evidence to suggest it would make the UK's carbon-intensive industries more competitive, and ironically it may even make it harder to deliver Paterson's own vision of decarbonisation through shale gas, new nuclear reactors, combined heat and power, and smart grid technologies, as some of the policies supporting these nascent industries would be jeopardised by the removal of the Climate Change Act. Ed Davey is right to call Paterson's proposal "stupid".
But with UKIP on the march, none of this counter-argument appears to be cutting through with Paterson's audience of frustrated right-wing politicos and opinion formers. Paterson's lecture will make for fascinating viewing, but judging by the Sunday Telegraph preview his attacks on the green community and the Climate Change Act appear to remain rooted in his belief that climate impacts will not be that bad and if they do worsen, we can deal with them at a later date. As every credible science academy in the world and huge numbers of business leaders have made plain, this approach is the height of recklessness and can only be justified by ignoring the huge opportunities that competitive clean technologies offer. But again, Paterson's invite-only audience seems utterly deaf to these scientific and economic warnings.
Paterson's attempt to use the Climate Change Act and the green community as a scapegoat for economic woes has secured itself a hearing on the right wing of British politics and unless centre-ground Tories and progressive business leaders challenge it head on, it will become ever more entrenched. Because the one last thing Owen Paterson has in common with Kevin Pietersen is that we can expect to hear a lot more from both of them.
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