Brexit architects, quantum climates, and clean tech moon-shots

James Murray
Brexit architects, quantum climates, and clean tech moon-shots

The Brexit debate is heating up again and green businesses should be paying attention

It has been a bumper week for Brexit watchers. We've been treated to Michel Barnier's barnstorming demolition of the delusion the UK can enjoy 'frictionless' trade with the EU outside the Single Market and Customs Union; confirmation the UK is quitting the London Convention on nearshore fishing; the latest episode in the never-ending mystery that is the search for Labour's Brexit strategy; Jeremy Hunt's apparent confusion over whether or not EU doctors are rushing to or from the NHS; Liam Fox and his tie-led export strategy; Boris Johnson and his admiration for President Trump's online vulgarity; the CBI flexing its muscles in pursuit of an indefinite transition period that keeps the UK in the single market and customs union for a good while yet; the first concrete call for amendments to the Repeal Bill that would ensure environmental protections remain post-Brexit; and public acknowledgement from one of the architects of Vote Leave that Brexit could turn out to be an "error". All in all, just another run of the mill few days in the no way concerning world of Brexit. Buckle up, we've got the best part of a decade more of this to come.

There are many strands to the latest round of developments, but perhaps the most interesting was the Twitter exchange between legal commentator David Allen Green and one of the driving forces behind the successful Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings.

It is worth looking at the exchange in full, but in brief Allen Green asked if post-election it was still Cummings' view that without major changes within Number 10 and Whitehall Brexit would be a "guaranteed debacle". He responded that it was, and when asked if there was anything that could happen that would make him wish Leave had not won the referendum, Cummings replied: "Lots! I said before REF was dumb idea, other things shdve been tried 1st. In some possible branches of the future leaving will be an error".

Cue much online gnashing of teeth from outraged remainers, a round of media stories picking up on the "admission" from one of the heads of Vote Leave that Brexit could be a disaster, and yet another lesson on how Twitter is rarely a good forum for nuanced debate.

Cummings then responded on Twitter by accusing more than 90 per cent of his critics of misinterpreting his argument on "possible branches of the future" because ">90% looking at politics fit new data into a network of existing beliefs & thereby fool themselves". He then added that it was "partic funny to see well-educated IN-ers ranting about a failure to have 100% confidence, with no awareness such a view is childlike".

Of course, this interpretation ignores the fact most "well-educated IN-ers" understood full well that 100 per cent confidence in future predictions is neither honest or healthy. But they saw the opportunity to spin Cummings' candid acknowledgement of Brexit's potential failure in support of their strategic pursuit of a second referendum or soft Brexit. In many ways, this attack from Remainers was not unlike Vote Leave's spinning of David Cameron's admirable and honest refusal to unilaterally rule out Turkey ever joining the EU as a grave and imminent threat to UK security. As the old saying almost goes, live by the disingenuous dumbing down of complex issues, die by the disingenuous dumbing down of complex issues.

The lip-smacking irony of Cummings' rationale for Brexit - that "my view was/is that there are more possible branches of future in which leaving is good for EUR as well as for UK" - is it is not dissimilar to the argument David Cameron and the In campaign tried to deploy last year.

Cameron acknowledged the EU was flawed, but argued that on balance the UK would benefit more from staying in and pushing for further reforms. At the same time he warned leaving would open up greater risks for the UK; what were the warnings of a greater risk of military conflict if not an attempt to explain one possible branch of the future? As we all know, what happened next was Cummings and his allies bulldozed this argument into the ground through populist sloganeering and attacks on 'Project Fear'.

Inevitably, both sides of the Brexit debate like to see themselves as making rational decisions in the interests of the nation, while accusing their opponents of being in the grip of group think. But the fact is anyone voting last year with any thought undertook what Cummings described on Twitter as "probabilistic judgements made amid uncertainty". Remainers simply concluded there were more positive branches of the future available for the UK as part of the EU - they had plenty of compelling evidence to call on. Some might say that evidence is getting more compelling by the day.

Why discuss any of this inside the Beltway intrigue on a blog nominally about the green economy and climate change?

The first and most obvious reason is that Brexit, however it is handled, will have a huge impact on the green economy and our efforts to tackle climate risks. As such understanding the arguments and intellectual underpinning of the most influential Leavers is important if the low carbon economy is to navigate (or resist) Brexit successfully. Cummings' lengthy and eloquent blog posts on the topic are worth a few hours of anyone's time.

He may have become a bete noire for Remainers, but Cummings' central argument that we need new systems of governance and more regulatory flexibility has much to recommend it. After all, the UK's and EU's central institutions have hardly covered themselves in glory since the 2008 crash, and arguably since long before that. The green economy, perhaps more than any other sector, fully understands the damage done by an absence of cross-governmental co-ordination and stream-lined decision making, not to mention the EU's imposition of one-size-fits-all policy objectives that are too often contradictory.

However, if there is an argument for more heterogeneity in policies and standards, when faced with global challenges such as climate change there is also a desperate need unity of purpose and in some cases, where our pollution impacts our neighbours and vice versa, that logically extends to shared standards, policies, and institutions.

For all its flaws the EU has, on balance, helped drive the first phase of the low carbon industrial revolution. If France and Germany's recent manoeuvres are anything to go by it is pretty serious about driving the next wave of deep decarbonisation. And, as Barnier warned this week, the UK will still be hugely influenced by EU environmental standards if it wants any sort of access to the single market - it's just that by leaving we will have no say in how those standards are developed.

As the journalist Chris Deerin argued this week in an essential post on the current sorry state of the Brexit negotiations, for the first time since the referendum a genuine re-assessment of whether or not leaving the EU is a good idea looks possible. Green businesses need to continue to be vocal in making the case for a genuinely green Brexit built on continued close co-operation with our nearest neighbours and largest market. And if that means no Brexit is better than a soft or hard Brexit, then that case needs to be made too.

Secondly, Cummings' "possible branches of the future" - his quantum politics if you will - is a very good way to think about climate risk and the low carbon economy.

The various projections for climate impacts over this century are all possible branches of the future, as are the projections for energy system decarbonisation, electric vehicle adoption, and so on. These branches are further complicated by what Lord Stern refers to as "the whole story of endogeneity", as potential feedback loops accelerate and climate-related decisions made now have escalating positive or negative impacts into the future (at least I think I've understood that right - this stuff is complicated).

Effective climate risk management and the scenario analysis for different decarbonisation and clean tech adoption paths that the Financial Stability Board recently recommended businesses and investors undertake are essentially exercises in trying to avoid the worst branches of the future.

Cummings has written in the past about applying this thinking in relation to the risk of nuclear war, arguing that we should "apply extreme intelligent focus to those areas that can go catastrophically wrong, like accidental nuclear war, to try to narrow the range of possible histories but instead most people in politics spend almost all their time on trivia". The same approach should obviously also be applied to potentially catastrophic climate risks.

Which brings us to the final lesson for the green economy: Cummings' campaign for root and branch reform of Whitehall.

His recent blog on how government should learn from governance systems that delivered demonstrable success - the Apollo projects, the ARPA/PARC initiatives that spawned the modern IT industry - makes no mention of climate change. Instead it focuses on how we fluked our way to avoiding nuclear war during the last century and now need to tackle a new wave of technology risk from autonomous robots and genetic engineering. But climate change is a similar challenge and his insight into how new approaches to management and governance centred on streamlined, high-functioning teams with high degrees of creative freedom can deliver rapid and long term gains for humanity are compelling.

In fairness, some of this thinking is already being applied to the climate crisis. The Global Apollo Programme is seeking to emulate the moon-shot effort in pursuit of clean tech breakthroughs, while Bill Gates' Breakthrough Initiative is applying a similar high risk, high reward R&D ethic. I was once lucky enough to visit the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which before President Trump started slashing budgets for anything to do with the environment, had a great track record of delivering mission-led innovation for society as a whole.

But Cummings is right, these initiatives remain far too small and too constrained, while daily politics obsesses over trivia. We are still a long way from delivering on Mariana Mazzucato's vision for an entrepreneurial, mission-led state.

Inevitably, there are serious and justified concerns about reforms that essentially boil down to 'leave the brilliant people alone to deal with this'. Democratic oversight and accountability remain critical, as does the political and business skill of building a case for economic reforms and securing public support for technological revolution. Politics doesn't deserve all the opprobrium Cummings heaps on it.

That said, how exciting would it be for the UK to enact a sweeping, multi-dimensional, cross governmental, public-private push that treated the development of a low carbon economy as equivalent - in terms of prestige and relentless focus - to the efforts that put a man on the moon? A programme that allowed for swift decision-making in pursuit of a unified goal backed by a full spectrum commitment to innovation and embracing new approaches to the way infrastructure and the economy operates.

The crucial question, of course, is whether Brexit helps trigger such a drastic overhaul of our approach to the development of a sustainable economy, or whether it acts as a massive hindrance to a transition which was already beginning to gather pace in alliance with our EU partners.

I've always feared it is the latter, and after the past week, I must admit to being more sceptical than ever about the possible branches of the future opened up by Brexit. There is a branch in which Brexit helps unlock a new era of clean tech innovation and deployment. But there is also a very plausible scenario where we end up a pollutocracy governed by the small band of neo-conservative, small government, climate sceptics who hitched their wagon so eagerly to the Vote Leave cause - what Joseph Curtin of the IIEA refers to as an 'ultra hard Brexit'. From a clean technology and environmental policy perspective too many of the paths forward from a hard Brexit look like they could end up becoming a dead end.

More on Politics

Global Briefing: NATO confirms carbon neutral mission

Global Briefing: NATO confirms carbon neutral mission

Military alliance announces target to cut emissions 45 per cent by 2030, Australia explores carbon pricing plans, and all the big green stories from around the world this week

James Murray
clock 01 July 2022 • 6 min read
Saltend Chemicals Park in Hull | Credit: Paul Harrop

How the UK's post-Brexit chemicals standards are starting to trail behind the EU

Publication of UK REACH's priorities for upcoming year prompts concern of a widening gap between EU and UK on hazardous chemical regulation

Cecilia Keating
clock 01 July 2022 • 3 min read
Nuclear power could be ready for a comeback, according to the IEA | Credit: iStock

IEA warns clean energy transition 'harder, riskier, and more expensive' without nuclear

International Energy Agency argues nuclear power can play a significant role in supporting transition to a renewables-dominated energy system worldwide

Michael Holder
clock 30 June 2022 • 4 min read