A discussion at the US ambassador's residence reveals parts of the clean tech community are facing something of a crisis of conscience
To Winfield House, the US ambassador's residence on the edge of Regent's Park and a venue so luxurious it could make royalty envious.
It is a beautiful late summer morning, and a sizeable group of climate campaigners, policy wonks and journalists have been summoned to meet with Ambassador Matthew Barzun to discuss the current state of global efforts to tackle climate change and build a global economy. A record player is playing the Beach Boys, one of numerous classic LPs that guests can put on from a collection that is neatly divided into the best of the UK, the US, and the UN. Diplomacy has moved on from the days of Ferrero Rocher.
No one is quite sure what to expect. Has Barzun organised this discussion to offer an insight into the US negotiating stance ahead of the Paris Summit, talking up Obama's increasingly high profile decarbonisation strategy in the process? Or is he keen to get an insight into that the UK's clean tech and green NGO community is thinking at a time when the sector appears to be in the British government's firing line?
The answer is that he wants a free-form discussion about the group's climate change frustrations and hopes - and he wants people to know about it. "You'll know about Chatham House rules, where you can tell people about what was said, but not attribute it to anyone," he says, kicking off the 90 minute conversation. "Well, this is Winfield House rules: you have to tell everyone."
So, what to tell?
With all the easy charm and sophistication you would expect of a seasoned diplomat and successful business exec, Barzun tells two stories that serve to get his points across. The first, sparked by the fact Winfield House is in the process of replacing all its old lightbulbs with ultra-efficient alternatives, is the story of how everyone thinks it was Thomas Edison who invented the incandescent light bulb that transformed the world (and wasted countless megawatt hours of power), but it was in fact Gateshead's own Joseph Swan who made the initial breakthrough. Edison secured the place in history because he patented the technology in the US and developed the successful commercial model. For Barzun, it is evidence of the technological progress the UK and US can drive when the two countries work together. For a room full of Brits, it is a chastening reminder that the combination of technical brilliance and commercial naivety that so often characterises UK firms stretches back through the ages.
Barzun's second anecdote relates to the way in which the first attempt at a digital encyclopaedia the long-forgotten Encarta, the attempt by Microsoft to create an Encyclopaedia Britannica for the internet age, was quickly overtaken when Wikipedia stumbled upon the concept of allowing a network of contributors to update and edit the resource. Barzun, a former tech industry executive, is hopeful this networked approach can be brought to bear on the climate change challenge.
It is a popular and compelling argument in Silicon Valley circles and there are encouraging signs that the smart technology revolution can unleash the 'wisdom of crowds' in a way that helps drive the transition towards a more sustainable economy. But if networked communities are great at building an online encyclopaedia, sharing information on how to build a green home or electric car, or even raising finance for renewable energy projects, it remains less clear how they can build a nuclear power plant or make low carbon aviation a reality. Can networked communities really deliver the hard infrastructure the low carbon economy requires? The next few decades will tell us.
Which brings us to the frustrations and hopes shared by this gathering of green thinkers.
Inevitably, given the near unremitting bleakness of the latest scientific warnings and the failure of political and business leaders to deliver a fully credible response the frustrations are legion. There are the perennial complaints about the disconnect between rhetoric and action, as evidence by Obama's hypocrisy on Arctic drilling and the British government's bonfire of green policies. There are the usual complaints from journalists present about the difficulty of making a slow-moving and all-consuming story such as climate change, relevant for editors and readers, as if it is the fault of the most exciting technological developments of our generation and an existential environmental crisis that will echo through the ages that they are not ‘sexy' enough for newspaper editors. There is genuine bemusement from the UK renewables industry as to how they have been hung out to dry by changing political priorities. And there is the general concern shared by all environmentalists about the difficulty in mobilising public interest in climate change and the continued ability of the pollutocrat class to defend the crisis-inducing status quo.
The hopes - with an honourable mention for the manner in which Obama's Clean Power Plan, China's pledge to peak emissions, and the new UN system of national climate action plans, are fuelling hopes of a Paris deal - can be boiled down to one word: technology. Rapid technological transformations have happened in the past, and the room clings to the hope clean tech can join the industrial revolution and the digital revolution in transforming the world.
As climate impacts intensify and the sheer scale of the transformation required becomes more obvious it feels like this straw to be clutched at is in danger of drifting out of reach. As Obama said, in the same month he approved drilling in the Arctic, there is such a thing as being too late on climate change.
Franny Armstrong, director of the Age of Stupid and founder of 10:10, puts it best: "My hope is that we are the last generation that can avert dangerous climate change - the previous did not know and the next generation will be too late - my frustration is that it looks like we won't".
So, the conversation turns to the all-important question: what is to be done? How do you accelerate the rollout of the clean technologies that represent the last best hope of avoiding dangerous climate change? How do you secure the public and political support necessary? Where does the green economy go next?
The proposal put forward by Anthony Hobley of the Carbon Tracker group is that the clean tech sector needs to find more firepower. He likens the current energy policy battles to the red flag battles between the railroads and the nascent automotive sector in the US, when lobbying by the then dominant railroads saw the adoption of the car hamstrung by countless rules, including the requirement for cars to be proceeded by someone walking alone waving a flag to alert pedestrians. The only way to win such a lobbying battle is to fight back, he says, noting that the US clean tech sector now employs as many people as aviation but spends just five per cent of what airlines spend on lobbying.
There is a growing sense that a repeat of the 'red flag wars' is precisely what is happening to clean tech in the UK and in numerous other markets. As renewables and other forms of low carbon innovation have emerged as viable alternatives to incumbent technologies the private lobbying against the policies that enable them has stepped up a gear in an attempt to protect the status quo. Clean tech industry groups have gone about their business, publishing compelling reports, requesting meetings with ministers, generating positive headlines and public support. But they have found themselves arguing with an invisible enemy that has privately managed to embed its narrative - renewables are expensive and unreliable, climate change is not that big a cause for concern, technology will save us at some undetermined date, think of the tax revenues and jobs from fracking and the North Sea - among media and political taste-makers.
Consequently, just as renewables promise to break through into the mainstream and deliver genuine cost competitiveness subsidies are hacked back or charges are imposed on people importing power to the grid in an increasingly desperate attempt to put clean technologies back in their box. It is impossible to verify the extent to which this (conspiracy) theory is justified, but plenty of people in the clean tech and mainstream energy industry believe it is largely accurate, their fears fuelled by both the repeated failure of governments to properly justify pro-fossil fuel policies and the revolving door and system of secondments that sees civil servants and energy execs trade places with remarkable frequency.
Where there is much less agreement is over what the clean tech sector should do next.
Hobley is adamant the industry needs to learn to 'play the game'. More needs to be spent on the lobbying, marketing, and advertising that is, rightly or wrongly, part of the cost of doing business in modern economies. The many strengths of the clean tech sector need to be better represented to the policymakers and investors who will ultimately determine whether the low carbon transition is made.
Others are less convinced. Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute asks why this emerging and popular sector would want to emulate an incumbent energy industry that is largely loathed by the public and is notorious for its activities around the globe. The Telegraph's Emily Gosden argues the renewables sector is already far from 'blameless' in the current battle over energy policy, pointing to the lobbying for and acceptance of excessive subsidies. Leaving aside the fact there is scant evidence of fossil fuel firms ever lobbying for subsidies to be cut, as renewables firms have done, it is a fair point - the renewables industry has taken a shellacking in the press while largely attempting to play by the rules, imagine the media outcry if it took the gloves off in the lobbying battle with incumbent industries.
And then there are the practical problems associated with a more robust lobbying strategy. The green economy is growing fast, but many of the businesses involved remain small, disparate, and early stage. With a few honourable exceptions, the budgets simply are not there to match the fossil fuel industry's lobbying muscle. The situation is complicated further by the way in which many of the low carbon engineering giants are also high carbon engineering giants with interests in both green and dirty infrastructure. They are not yet at the tipping point where they see more long term value in lobbying for policies that benefit their green arms by actively harming their polluting arms. Hence the tendency of Obama and other world leaders to settle on logically flawed, but politically convenient, all-of-the-above energy strategies.
The discussion wraps up, climate frustrations and hopes both given a good airing, and, as is so often the case in such an all-encompassing debate, satisfactory conclusions hard to come by. But, as the green economy faces one of the periodic barriers that marks the road into the mainstream, an important question has been asked: how cynical should the clean tech sector be?
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