Our reply to George Monbiot: there is a system that works - its called corporate lobbying
posted by Bryony on 4th Oct 2010
As long-time trackers of climate change policy at Sandbag we readily acknowledge, like George Monbiot, that the record of governments to date has been dismal. It's not that lots of things haven't been tried, particularly here in the UK where we enjoy an overlapping mishmash of climate policies. It's just there hasn't been the political will to implement anything with genuine ambition. The reason? Lobbying to protect vested interests.
Civil servants and politicians perceive themselves as rational, balanced people, weighing up the pros and cons of different arguments, eventually settling somewhere in the middle, in an attempt to keep everyone happy. Sadly this system breaks down if the forces of influence are imbalanced. Until very recently it was the woefully under-resourced green groups against the powerful industrial titans. So outflanked were the environmentalists that somewhere in the middle was a long way in favour of industry.
This is why we have routinely set weak targets in our emissions trading schemes, and laboured over introducing household and transport energy efficiency targets that have been ludicrously easily to meet.
But if you look around the world today something subtle has shifted. The landscape of the battleground has changed. Take two examples – the fight to save climate legislation in California and the UK's current championing of higher and unilateral emissions cuts for the European Union.
Foreign secretary William Hague reiterated in New York last week that the UK wanted Europe to step up to a 30% emissions reduction target regardless of what everyone else in the world is doing. While it would be nice to imagine that this is the result of years of green campaigning (and this has of course played a part), the reality is that in presenting this policy the UK is representing the interests of big business.
That business is predominantly nuclear since it more than any other sector has the vested interests, connections and resources to run a successful lobbying campaign. This UK government really, really wants new nuclear power stations in the UK. But without a high carbon price across Europe it will be very expensive for the UK to arrange this on its own. The solution is higher targets.
Over in California the vested interests are less hidden. On the one hand you have the oil industry who have been bankrolling a campaign to get rid of climate legislation, that would otherwise begin introducing caps on emissions and challenging targets for renewables in 2012. The infamous Koch brothers, who have no direct interests in California, have also weighed in because this is the new battle ground: what happens in California will ripple out across the States. There is a big fightback from other businesses and fortunately California is home to a burgeoning clean tech industry and to Silicon Valley where, as well as ruling the digital world, companies like Google have been ploughing their millions into trying to solve big problems like climate change.
It feels as if the fight to regulate towards a cleaner future is getting more balanced. For this we can thank the fact that industry is becoming increasingly divided. Increasing numbers of companies now see their current bottom line, and their future, as directly linked to increased ambition to reduce carbon.
For this we can thank multiple factors - the actions of regulators around the world, who have had the foresight to introduce modest measures to put a price on carbon and create an incentive for clean technology have helped. The growing realisation that any economy that is dependent on imported fossil fuels faces an uncertain future has also played its part. And good old human nature has contributed too – the human mind likes a problem to solve and some at least seem to be predisposed towards innovating.
Finally there is nothing like a profit motive to get corporations moving and the nascent carbon market, despite its flaws, has already shown just how effective the market is at sniffing out really cheap solutions.
If we keep moving forward on as many fronts as possible, creating incentives and rewards for low-carbon solutions, there will come a tipping point when new industry outweighs the old guard in terms of lobbying power and resources. We may not have reached that point quite yet but we will, and when we do we just have to hope we've left ourselves enough time the prevent the worst impacts of global warming.