Bright but bleak: futurism and the climate
It’s a bright summer’s day in February, and though I’m loving the sunshine I’m aware of what it might signify. I say might: you can’t draw a hard link between a week’s weather and global climate change. But the pattern says it all: the last 10 Februaries have been the hottest on record.
If you’re reading this then the chances are that I don’t need to convince you that climate change is coming. In fact, it’s already here. The effects for us so far haven’t been that dramatic, but they will be. A worldwide Brexit on steroids. We have 10, maybe 12 years to take drastic action to avoid the worst of the effects, according to the IPCC. There’s no evidence that we will do any such thing.
Recognising this puts my daily work into perspective. Most of my job is about helping large corporations to avoid disruption or to disrupt themselves in order to secure longer term success. I’m frank with them about the threat of climate change but I don’t preach to them about what they should do. They know. They’re mostly trying to balance the imperatives of a future risk they clearly recognise with the less consequential but more immediate threats of market performance failure. The executives I speak to are responsible people trying to navigate a narrow path. Could some do more? Sure. But very few are wilfully ignorant or unwilling to try.
The Lumbering State
The general perception is that private enterprise is more agile than government, but it’s not true when it comes to issues like climate change. Governments can take big, bold measures. Even extreme ones. They can, if they’re not labouring under huge debt burdens, or if they haven’t driven their own economies into an unnecessary dead end, borrow large amounts of money to fund those measures. They are under constraints, in terms of their power, and the impact of their moves on markets, international relations, and the economy. But if they need, and want, to take action they can find a way.
Large corporations, by contrast, are much more tightly bound by their core purpose and the expectations placed upon them. Those with good, long-term stewardship, such as that demonstrated by Paul Polman at Unilever, can make great strides. But it takes time, trust and an established store of confidence. Without that, leaders that fail to perform can be transferred as quickly as football managers.
You might argue that this is a failure of the system, and I might be inclined to agree. But it’s the system in which we operate. This doesn’t absolve corporate leaders of responsibility for tackling climate change, but I think it does place the onus squarely on governments to take more radical action in decarbonising the economy.
Frustratingly all the studies suggest that this would be a net benefit for the economy in the long run. But for one reason or another, lots of the difficult choices are seen as unpalatable, so action is put off for tomorrow, or the right conclusions are just reached too late.
The solutions really aren’t that complex, at least from a headline perspective. Many hundreds of people could give you a more detailed breakdown of what needs to happen, but taking a near-term futurism approach and starting with the pressure points gives you a pretty big clue. What are the biggest sources of UK carbon emissions? The most visible targets are transport (34%), energy supply (29%), business (18%) and residential (17%). Then there’s the hidden costs: when we import goods, we don’t import their carbon cost. According to The Independent: “30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced through the process of converting metal ores and fossil fuels into the cars, washing machines and electronic devices that help prop up the economy and make life a little more comfortable.”
- Shift people away from cars to public transport, and ideally cycling. Ensure the public transport is electrically powered and regulate & subsidise to accelerate the transition to electric cars for those who are still driving.
- Invest government money to decarbonise energy supply through a mixture of clean central generation (yes, that probably means some nuclear for now, but mostly renewables) and storage (recycling means even problematic Lithium Ion batteries can be ‘cleaner’ than you might expect), and distributed generation & storage in homes and businesses.
- Start building council houses at scale again to high environmental standards. This will release carbon in the construction phase but save dramatically on energy consumption in the long run. It will bring down the cost and raise the standards of building in the private sector. It will upset some landlords losing tenants but it’s unlikely to collapse the overheated property market.
- Regulate for the longevity of products. Invest in a repair culture, rather than replacement, as Sweden has done.
None of this is original. It’s not rocket science: rockets are dreadful for the environment. It’s just common sense, but it’s very expensive – at least in the short term. Doing all this would require the investment of billions. But think about what it would create.
The costs of climate change to us will be astronomical in the future. Obviously, it will save money in the long term to invest now. But actually, I think this would have very immediate benefits. Poor public transport is a limiting factor on our productivity: we can fix that. Air pollution is a massive drain on our health service: we can fix that. We have a huge housing crisis: we can fix that. Across just about every measure, huge government investment in the green economy now would be positive. It would create real, well-paying jobs.
We may, or may not, be leaving the EU this year. Inside our outside, there’s nothing to stop us doing all of the things above. Inside it would be easier to raise the money. Outside it would be easier to silence those who believe state aid rules would prevent us from doing it (they don’t).
We might be the only ones to take quite such radical measures. If no-one else does, our contribution might have limited impact on the effects of climate change. But it doesn’t matter. We would be living in a better country. And that’s worth every penny.
Note: investing government money doesn’t necessarily mean the state doing everything. I’m quite comfortable with a mix of public and private when the projects are run well and the returns are equitably distributed. It’s only in cases where there is no competition, or the competition is largely artificial, that I think it makes sense for the state rather than private enterprise to be the monopoly provider.