A climate of cynicism

James Murray
A climate of cynicism

It is hard not to be cynical about the recent wave of political support for climate action, but it is a sign the debate is moving forward

One of the many downsides of climate breakdown, along with the rising sea levels and escalating food insecurity, obviously, is that it makes you cynical. This is particularly galling when you work as a journalist and don't have a huge amount of optimism in reserve to begin with.

This cynicism is particularly corrosive, perhaps even counter-productively so, when faced with good news. And there is no doubt the past few days have seen a flurry of good news for the UK's green economy.

The long-awaited Offshore Wind Sector Deal confirmed the government is confident renewables will provide the backbone of the UK's power system over the next decade. Electric vehicles dominated the Geneva Motor Show. One of the world's largest dairy companies announced a net zero emission strategy. The world's largest Sovereign Wealth Fund has fired the starting pistol on fossil fuel divestment. Even plans for a global aviation carbon offsetting scheme are edging towards take-off.

Meanwhile, the UK's two main political parties have found themselves in a place few expected: engaged in a beauty parade of green policies and commitments.

Theresa May chose Orsted's offshore wind hub in Grimsby for her latest Brexit speech and talked up both her commitment to environmental protections and the critical role of the offshore wind sector. Her speech was followed by pre-briefing over the weekend suggesting Chancellor Philip Hammond will use this week's Spring Statement to announce new green building standards, new rules to boost green heat technologies, a new voluntary aviation offset scheme, and fresh moves to beef up the government's work on natural capital. Crucially he is expected to say he has "heard calls from young people" that more climate action is urgently needed. The line will be worth it alone for the sight of the Conservative benches, given a fair few of Hammond's colleagues recently branded School Strike protestors as "truants".

Meanwhile, over on the opposition benches Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have also heard the calls of young people and this weekend used Labour's Scottish Conference to step up calls for a Green Industrial Revolution triggered by a net zero emission target and an historic wave of state investment.

All good stuff, right? Not to mention pretty much unthinkable just a few short weeks. The school strikes, combined with the years of green business investment, are having an impact and political leaders are finally responding.

The problem is that it is at this point that the cynicism kicks in, alongside the old question from journalism 101: 'why is this lying [expletive deleted for fear of spam filter] lying to me?'

Take Hammond's plans. They are welcome and will deliver positive progress, but unless they are part of a sweeping new programme that goes far beyond new build home standards they won't get the UK back on track to meet its medium term carbon targets, let alone the more ambitious net zero goals that are urgently needed. The likely proposals won't even make up for the ground lost over the last five years of virtual inaction on energy efficiency and biodiversity. Hammond will dress the measures up with a promise to unleash innovation that accelerates the rate of decarbonisation post-Brexit. But the reality is that we now have 25 years to build a net zero emission economy. Or to put it another way, every quarter that slips by is one per cent of the available time. Hammond's new proposals will almost certainly be palpably insufficient. 

And even if the plans do turn out to be hugely ambitious, well... *gestures at Brexit*. The government is on the brink of self-inflicted economic chaos and with less than three weeks to go the promised environmental governance regime, in the words of one critic, has more holes than a colander. A Rogue's Gallery (to put it politely) stands ready to replace Theresa May. It is fair to say that not a single one of them went into politics to tackle the greatest existential challenge faced by the global economy. In some cases their aspirations pull very strongly in the opposite direction.

The response from school strikers to Hammond's overture is likely to be 'thanks for listening to us; now go away and try again'.

Across the aisle, Labour has some impressively ambitious proposals and seems suitably invigorated by the Democrat's Green New Deal debate. And yet, how can we put this delicately, there are some delivery questions, no?

Can a Leaders' Office that seems to spend much of its time bouncing from one race-, Brexit-, or foreign policy-related crisis to the next, all the while maintaining a poll rating that actually makes the government look popular, really be trusted to engineer the biggest and fastest industrial revolution in history?

In characteristically tetchy style (does anyone buy the 'zen master' narrative anymore) Corbyn this weekend insisted corporations won't drive climate action. Faced with a complex, multi-faceted transition in which corporates have played a central and critical role, the Labour leader could not help but reach for the reductive, ossified anti-business rhetoric of the past. Plenty of Labour MPs know a more nuanced approach is needed, but as with much else their hopes of getting progressive and sophisticated climate policy ideas past the command and control centre of the Leaders' Office often feel like a long shot. You still get the impression the Labour leadership has never met a problem where it didn't think the answer was nationalisation.  

In a debate between climate policies centred on nationalisation and innovation the only credible answer is: 'no one is well-served by binary, reductive, and simplistic debates'.

And yet, sometimes it is important to push back against the cynicism. Yes, many of the current proposals are insufficient, but they are significant steps forward and they open up a path for even more rapid progress over the next decade. Businesses and investors need to be cognisant of the fact there is a very real likelihood the pace of decarbonisation over the next decade will be faster than expected. The big question is where do you need to be to stay ahead of the pack?

Meanwhile, the pressure from young people campaigning for a sustainable future they can believe in is only going to be emboldened by politicians' insistence that they are being heard. It is hard to be too cynical about that.

This post first appeared as part of BusinessGreen's exclusive daily Overnight Briefing, which is available to all subscribers

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