At the North West Development Agency‘s third annual Climate Change Conference, one speaker painted a picture of the post-Copenhagen negotiators as dazed and confused soldiers, decimated by machine guns, stumbling around the battlefield rallying to this standard, and that bugle call, lost and despairing. Whisper it, but that same metaphor applied to the serried ranks of men in suits who made up the most part of the audience. The thing about the international negotiators, is at least they KNOW where they are at.
No such public insight at the North West Development Agency, which can, with a straight face, create glossy booklets and videos about a Climate Change Action Plan (“Risible to the Challenge”) that stretches two whole… years… into the future. Seriously; Two. Years. Why. Did. They. Bother?
The conference opened with ex –Peel senior management figure Robert Hough (and current Chairman of the NWDA) making the usual noises that get made at these events; “we led Industrial Revolution, lead as low carbon leader, opportunities, commercial and economic prospects, nuclear sector, tough targets, ‘the plan is working’ (no evidence that MCFly heard for this assertion, btw), interruption of supply chains, clean and secure energy, lead by example”. He also gave a shout out to MCFly’s favourite off-setters, “Foundation”. [Chair of the meeting Kevin Boucquet gave the latter body the backhandedest of compliments in saying that they run a ‘horrendously complex carbon exchange’ when mentioning they will be offsetting people’s travel to and from the conference.]
Chris Davies, Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament and all round climate expert (shepherding Carbon Capture and Storage through to pilot project stage) was the man with the metaphor mentioned in the opening paragraph. He gave a clear exposition of the UNFCCC’s history, and said “by any standards, Copenhagen was a failure. No targets, no timetable, no framework that could be improved.” He emphasised how sidelined the EU- who fancied themselves as leaders on this topic- were by the Copenhagen Accord, how having European leaders turning up had lead to grandstanding and disunity.
His prescription was more of the same- onward to Mexico with raised ambitions for Jo’burg in 2011. He advocated addressing climate denial, (come on Weds 17th then!), keeping the Kyoto Protocol for another five years, carbon capture and storage, nuclear etc.
We then had two “practical” presentations, Matthew Wright of United Utilities talking about the challenges of providing a solid presentation on what his company can and will be doing on adaptation and mitigation, with an intriguing final thought on how decentralised water provision will be by 2050.
Richard Ellis, Group Head of CSR for Alliance Boots, conscious of the over-run on time, said he’d ‘whip through’ quickly, but then, erm, didn’t. His explanation of why Boots did what it did (commercial imperatives, building trust with consumers etc) was robust and interesting. He at least had the guts to say that a 30% cut by 2020 was doable but that an 80% carbon dioxide reduction by 2050 was- with current intellectual tools- not.
We went to the first break 25 minutes over time, (i.e. after 90 minutes instead of the scheduled 65.) It makes you wonder- if they can’t even bring their own event, with 4 speakers, in on time, what hope have they for the slightly more complex task of, erm, decarbonising the North West’s economy and creating proper resilience against a backdrop of less money and more stressors.
After the break we heard from the CEO of the Energy Savings Trust. Far be it from me to tell people several pay brackets higher up the greasy pole than me how to do their jobs, but surely the behaviour change model the EST uses could be a bit more sophisticated than “it all starts with the individual”. Erm, social learning? Erm, behavioural economics? Sociology has come on a bit since Hobbes, Locke and Roussow, youkneau.
Next came the Renewables Development Manager for Centrica (think British Gas, only that’s not all they do) talking about the challenges of off-shore and the need for financial incentives for companies to invest.
Ed Crooks, Energy Editor of the pink ‘un had the last slot, and used it to talk about how the finance follows the politics and the politics follows (ideally) the science.
He looked at the recent controversies around the science (the hacked emails, the IPCC process).
He related that he’d spent an evening recently with “a senior female climate expert” [BL?] swapping war stories. She said that what she hated was people telling her what Copenhagen meant. “If they think they know, they don’t get it”. Crooks thinks that the Copenhagen Accord, if implemented, would be important.
On finance, he had little good news. Energy bills will have to go up (more on this later). He cited the example of the Spanish cutting their solar subsidy at the end of 2009 and causing havoc in that industry
The question and answer session let in a little much-needed light and the usual heat. The first question, around fuel poverty, was only semi-answered with the EST guy pointing out that the government no longer boasts about how many people it has lifted out of fuel poverty, since so many have sunk back into it.
The next question was perhaps the most interesting. Since Crooks had said energy bills would have to rise, would utility companies accept that profits would need to go down? This actually got a bit of a clap/loud murmur of approval from the audience. Crooks and other panellists disagreed: for there to be the necessary investment in ‘green energy’ then energy company profits would have to increase radically. That will be an interesting sell to consumers.
There were other questions, but if you’re that interested you can always watch the video. The final question was on peak oil. Ed Crooks was of the opinion that it couldn’t run out fast enough, since with prices going through the roof, we would be forced to look at alternatives. Mark Atherton, standing in for Robert Hough, defended the conference/Action Plan saying it was looking at things they could control. This, I think, was missing the point somewhat! I suspect the NWDA doesn’t want to plan around Peak Oil because it would be too disruptive and scare away inward investors.
The conference was ably chaired by Kevin Bocquet (whose 16 year old daughter is right- flying to France on holiday is “killing the planet”, regardless of the smug laughter from the audience).
Ultimately though, you don’t go to these things for any examination of the difficulties, the failures, the contradictions. These bodies, wedded to a version of growth through ever more international trade, are not able to challenge their own pre-suppositions. Thus there was no mention of aviation and the expanding of the region’s airports, nothing about the need for localised food production, nothing about peak oil, virtually nothing on behavior change, nothing on the model of growth itself. But accusing the conference of being intellectually vacuous and smug is a bit like complaining about the lack of car chases in Proust. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s on offer. These jamborees are for patting selves on the back, creating a rhetorical defence for if/when the incoming Tory regime swings an axe (that may not happen, it seems), and swapping a few business cards. That was what was done, that is how it is.