UK leaders are behind the curve on carbon

Matthew Farrow, EIC

Short term horizons in the UK mean other parts of the world are taking the lead on emissions, writes Matthew Farrow.

OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria was in London recently to give a speech promoting a new OECD report on the need to embed low carbon objectives into all areas of government policy making. 

The speech wasn’t a grand affair, perhaps 60-80 people in the audience in a smallish room in the City near the Bank of England, but it was hardhitting stuff: a passionate call to arms aimed at business people and politicians everywhere. 

Don't miss

EIC Annual Conference 2015, 19 November, London.

Includes former Number 10 chief adviser on energy and environment Michael Jacobs on what to expect from climate talks in Paris. Find out more at www.eic-conference.co.uk

There were some striking turns of phrase – he spoke of the ‘cheerful recklessness’ with which we are  burning through the earth’s carbon budget, described the fossil fuel/carbon intensive elements of many investment portfolios as ‘carbon entanglements’ and (in a phrase he attributed to Bank of England Governor Mark Carney) referred to the ‘tragedy of horizons’ – the unwitting damage done by political and business leaders whose goals and incentives are shaped by the short term, unable to see the environmental calamities being wrought in a future just beyond the metaphorical horizon.

Of course there are other speakers who are passionate on our environment challenges, and who (or whose speech writers) can conjure up a sparkling phrase or two when needed. 

But these tend to be green campaigners or those who have spent their careers working on environmental issues. Gurria is an economist and banker who was Mexican Finance Minister before taking up the reins at the hard-headed OECD.

Gurria’s speech made me wonder whether there isn’t a risk of the UK, so long a leader in climate policy, ending up behind the curve.  Certainly it’s hard to imagine say, George Osborne, or indeed any member of the Cabinet, making a speech like this. 

And debates such as those over airport expansion seem to revolve more around local impacts than climate change considerations.

Yet if the Paris climate talks in December do make real progress, mainstream businesses, whether in infrastructure or elsewhere, will need to ensure they have factored a renewed focus on carbon constraint into their planning.  

“If the Paris climate talks in December do make real progress, mainstream businesses, will need to ensure they have factored a renewed focus on carbon constraint into their planning. ”

Gurria said he was increasingly optimistic about the prospects for real progress at the December Paris climate talks and gave three reasons for this: the announcement by the Chinese government that Chinese emissions are expected to peak in 2025, the fact that in many developing countries air pollution is now such a concern that burning coal is seen as unacceptable on public health as much as climate change grounds, and the emergence of what he called ‘waves of innovation’ in low carbon technology.  

It’s certainly true that optimism seems fairly widespread at the moment among other seasoned observers of the international climate negotiation saga. 

EIC’s Annual Conference this year is on 19 November, just a few days before the Paris talks commence.  Michael Jacobs, formerly Gordon Brown’s Chief Adviser in No 10 on energy/environment issues and now advising the French Government in the run up to Paris, will be briefing attendees on what to expect from the talks.

Matthew Farrow is director general of the Environmental Industries Commission, the leading trade body for environmental firms. www.eic-uk.co.uk


I like the "tragedy of horizons" I think we have a severe case of this with regard to the Government's attitude to the reducing support for renewable energy. It's simply not good enough for Government to flip flop policy to repair "damage" created by their own past policy errors.