Few things have given me greater cause for optimism in recent years than a vegan sausage roll.
Or to be more precise, few things have given me greater cause for optimism in recent years than a vegan sausage roll, the reaction to a vegan sausage roll, a 29 year old freshman congresswoman and a 16 year old Swedish schoolgirl, the backlash against them both, some Super Bowl adverts, a campaigning American footballer, an academic paper on clean tech deployment, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and, inevitably, the news thousands of British students have today taken to the streets as part of the UK’s first ever school strike on behalf of climate change. But it starts with the vegan sausage roll.
In the first week of January fast food outlet Greggs launched a vegan sausage roll with a social media campaign that is already being deployed as a case study in perfection by marketing lecturers everywhere. With a little help from an angry and insecure Piers Morgan (is there another kind) the company gleefully plunged into the culture wars on the side of vegans everywhere, skilfully positioning a clever future-proofing strategy to access an influential and growing market as something much more culturally loaded. Social media hits racked up, sales duly soared, and the company’s share price spiked, as investors spotted what Morgan had wilfully missed: here was a firm willing to move with the times and reap the rewards.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a brief flash of zeitgeist marketing, a playful attempt to tap into a niche, albeit growing audience. Even when you consider the latest figures from Veganuary showing a quarter of a million Brits publicly pledged to go meat and dairy-free for the first month of the year and combine them with the encouraging sales figures reported by various vegan food ranges, it is still a vanishingly small part of the overall food market.
But what elevated the story was the reaction it invoked. Morgan’s attempt to align meat-eating and old school masculinity may have been the act of a skilled provocateur, but the sense of panicked confusion and rank hypocrisy is still palpable. At the corporate level, while retailers pivot to give more shelf space to plant-based products the farming lobby is at a loss as to how to respond, alternating between privately raging at a world of meat-free burgers and trying to present lamb as the correct choice for “environmentally conscious millennials wanting to do the right thing”.
At the same time as Britain was arguing about a vegan sausage roll, the rest of the world was arguing about the fate of human civilisation, although much the same tensions were on display.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was putting the finishing touches to plans for a Green New Deal that would revitalise the climate policy conversation on both sides of the Atlantic and Greta Thunberg was telling the assorted billionaires in Davos that they have singularly failed to tackle the climate crisis and as such it is time to panic. Meanwhile, the usual band of partisan hacks and deeply compromised political operatives were trying to spark a backlash.
Again, the angry reaction was as revealing as the buzz Ocasio-Cortez and Thunberg had generated in the first place. The smears, lies, and accusations of naiveté levelled at both, coupled with the straw man arguments and complete paucity of credible alternative climate strategies from the Very Serious People or VSPs (copyright: Vox’sDavid Roberts) who sought to characterise an emergency response to the climate crisis as too costly or technically unfeasible were all defined by a barely concealed panic. When you are patronising and belittling a schoolgirl without even a flicker of awareness of both the optics of patronising and belittling a schoolgirl and the fact you are being outmanoeuvred by a schoolgirl, then the only rational (and admittedly juvenile) response is to ask, ‘what’s wrong ‘snowflake’, triggered much?’
Many of the self-appointed media gatekeepers of serious public discourse shared a complete inability to understand how and why a millennial generation that all but the most one-eyed climate sceptics accept is facing the very real possibility of environmental and economic breakdown throughout the supposed best years of their lives could be so fired up about this global warming stuff. You teach them about climate change and science and economics and then what? Expect them to sit down, shut up, and wait for 40C summers? Yes, Toby Young, I am genuinely asking.
The polls showing how hugely popular full spectrum climate action could prove — US millennials back a Green New Deal by a 30 point margin — only added to the VSP’s sense of overwhelming confusion.
The unspoken political consensus amongst the ‘realists’ that climate change is a second order issue for voters that is best addressed through steady incremental progress, if at all, was imploding before their eyes and they had no idea what to do about it. And then somewhere, buried deep inside the inevitable backlash was perhaps the faintest trace of self-analysis. ‘Ocasio-Cortez and Thunberg may be preternaturally gifted communicators, but are they pushing against an open door? If they can unlock such wide-ranging support so quickly are they tapping into a pent-up and unmet need? Why are they demanding something so ambitious and unrealistic, why are they positioning deep decarbonisation as a non-negotiable, and why are people flocking to agree with them? Are they on to something? Are we the baddies?’
To which AOC responds:
Whose side are you on?
The question for businesses, especially consumer-facing businesses, is where do they want to position themselves in this fast-moving and increasingly ill-tempered culture war? On the side of AOC and Thunberg and vegans and electric cars and solar panels or on the side of Piers Morgan and Toby Young.
It turns out it is not much of a decision. No doubt some firms will seek to align themselves with the backlash and brag about how their steaks are bloodier and their engines are dirtier as they attempt to appeal to an aging and dwindling audience. But for the biggest and most powerful brands it is clear which direction the wind is blowing. This year’s Super Bowl ads were a case in point as Budweiser promoted its wind powered beer, Audi went electric, and Gillette wanted to talk about #MeToo.
It is easy to dismiss all of this as marketing fluff, but as the journalist Marina Hyde noted in an excellent column on Nike’s recent advert with the civil rights campaigner and American footballer Colin Kaepernick, the causes major corporates choose to back reveals something deeper about the cultural currents that shape our society and economy. As Hyde observed:
“Nike’s market research department is larger and more sophisticated than the second Death Star, and if their cost-benefit analysis judges Kaepernick the one to back in a fight where the other side includes the US president, then frankly: I’ll take it… [Nike] do pick winners, and just because it’s all about the money doesn’t mean that the money can’t tell us stuff. If they wade so dramatically into one side of contemporary American politics, they will have satisfied themselves it’s likely to be the winning one.”
Are the companies that are positioning themselves in favour of clean technologies, greener lifestyles, and deep decarbonisation lining up on the winning side? Nothing is certain, but there are more reasons to be hopeful than there were even a few months ago, when the entire green movement seemed punch drunk from the double blow of an underwhelming UN climate summit and the IPCC again spelling out the full Himalayan scale of the climate crisis and the decarbonisation challenge.
Theory of change
For much of this century the broad theory of change embraced by climate hawks and green business leaders has been to reach for the biggest levers, to ally investment muscle and technological ingenuity with some largely under the radar policies and environmental campaigning nous to deliver low carbon infrastructure and hope the public falls in behind it. The idea that a broad coalition could be formed to apply unstoppable public pressure and demand rapid change in the face of vested interests and ruthless wrecking tactics was generally filed under ‘too difficult’.
In fairness, this technocentric approach has worked, up to a point. Through the renewables industry it has delivered one of the fastest industrial revolutions in history, throwing the global energy industry into flux. It helped convince the world’s government to sign up to the epoch-shaping ambition of the Paris Agreement. And the public has indeed fallen in behind, as the popularity of clean technologies has soared and concern over climate change has spiked upwards.
But this rather bloodless approach has also failed to deliver on its critical goals. The hegemony of high carbon interests has barely been dented; governments have consistently refused to move beyond a narrow incremental approach to decarbonisation, if they have moved at all; global greenhouse gas emissions have kept rising.
But what if this theory of change was wrong, or more accurately was right then, but is wrong now? What if it is possible to mobilise a broad and peaceful movement committed to tackling what John Lanchester rightly described recently as the “most radical form of intergenerational inequality the world has ever seen”? As Lanchester describes it, we now face the prospect of “a world in which different generations don’t just have different versions of the social and economic contract, but instead grow up with fundamentally different maps of the world. A world four degrees warmer — the world for which we are heading, in some of the worst-case scenarios — is a world of floods, droughts, drowned cities and coastlines, crop failures, unprecedented levels of mass migration, and all of it arriving in the gap between three or even two generations”. What if the younger of those generations recognised that risk and were willing to do virtually anything to avoid that fate?
What if an entire generation (and their parents and grandparents) understood this historic and burning injustice and like the abolitionists and suffragettes and trade unionists and civil rights campaigners and feminists before them, demand action? What if millennial frustration at the nostalgia and recklessness of Trumpism and Brexit marries with a growing awareness of the climate debt that is being loaded on their shoulders and demands a new green and sustainable settlement? What then?
Tell me this doesn’t suddenly seem at least vaguely plausible. In America the percentage of those alarmed by global warming has risen eight points in less than a year. In the UK thousands of schoolchildren have joined their peers across Europe and taken to the streets today to issue a clarion call for bolder climate action. The Energy and Clean Growth Minister says she is proud of them, even as the Prime Minister condemns them:
Meanwhile, across the world climate impacts become ever more visible, making denial of their import impossible to sustain. For years the list of globally recognised charismatic climate campaigners has started with Al Gore ended with Leonardo DiCaprio and had no one in between. Suddenly a new generation, embodied by AOC and Thunberg, have picked up the baton and run with it. They won’t put it down until the race is run. Countless others will surely join them.
Of course, the Green New Deal, with its demands for 100 per cent renewables and net zero emissions within a decade, is absurdly, unrealistically ambitious. Incorporating demands for universal healthcare and job guarantees is either a brave decision to set out a sweeping vision for 21st century America or a foolishly partisan gambit that muddies the water and only serves to undermine support for decarbonisation.
Reclaiming the Overton Window
But passing a bill is not the point — not yet anyway. For decades the economic Overton Window has been so completely owned by the Right that it has basically been chained to a radiator in a Trump Country Club basement. Incidentally, the Left’s ownership of the cultural Overton Window is so complete it can now be found in Beyonce and Jay-Z’s Manhattan penthouse hanging between a Picasso and a Warhol. It remains the subject of intense debate as to whether this was a fair trade. The Green New Deal and the wider resurgency in climate campaigning is staging a breakout of the economic Overton Window. That is why the VSPs sound so worried — they recognise quite how big a challenge to the status quo this is.
There are plenty of legitimate and reasonable critiques of the fine point detail, but it is much harder to counter the Green New Deal’s central economic premise: climate change is an unprecedented crisis and demands a crisis response; that means pulling on every lever available to mobilise low carbon investment and innovation; and if you can tackle environmental and inter-generational injustice it unlocks an opportunity to tackle wider social injustice. It works on the understanding that there is nothing morally wrong with taxing polluters and borrowing capital to deliver that investment — on the not unreasonable grounds that the polluter should pay and the future generations who will repay the debt have the most to gain from the low carbon infrastructure it paid for. After all you will not find a single Brit who ever complained about the fact we were still repaying our war debt 50 years after the war ended, the consensus was that it was a wise investment.
Is this new narrative and the accompanying corporate engagement and campaigning vigour a blip or a tipping point? Is there really ‘something in the air’, as veteran climate lawyer and campaigner Farhana Yamin observed at this week’s IPPR conference on the age of Environmental Breakdown. After all, we’ve had climate marches before, we’ve had attempts to pass Congressional climate legislation before, we’ve had companies promoting clean technologies before, and it’s all added up to… rising global emissions. What’s different this time?
I’d argue three crucially important things have changed, even in the short time since the Paris Agreement was signed.
Firstly, there has been a change in the weather, literally as well as figuratively. Yes, there is a difference between weather and climate, but in some respects that difference is being eroded. Weather now occurs within a drastically changed climate system and as such all weather now endures the bootprint of climate change. People are living through record temperatures and weather extremes. They can see and feel the evidence each and every day. It is notable that the many students protesting today will do so in 16C temperatures and shirtsleeves in the middle of February. More and more people know something is up and awareness will only grow.
One of many striking passages in David Wallace-Wells traumatically brilliant The Uninhabitable Earth, sums up this new reality brilliantly:
“There is no longer any such thing as a ‘natural disaster’, but not only will things get worse, technically speaking, they have already gotten worse. Even if, miraculously, humans immediately ceased emitting carbon, we’d still be due for some additional from just the stuff we’ve put in the air already. And of course, with global emissions still increasing, we’re very far from zeroing out on carbon, and therefore very far from stalling climate change. The devastation we are now seeing all around us is a beyond-best-case scenario for the future warming and all the climate disasters it will bring.”
Secondly, and much more optimistically, the huge technological strides made over the past two decades and driven by that technocratic approach to climate action means the demands being made by Thunberg, AOC, and co are no longer as unfeasible as they would have seemed even five years ago. Renewables can now undercut fossil fuels on costs in many markets even when balancing costs are included.
As Professor Chris Rapley observed at this week’s IPPR conference, wind, solar, and energy storage appear to be subject to some form of Moore’s Law, as costs keep on plummeting. Electric vehicles are on track to undercut conventional cars within a few years, even as ranges and charge times improve dramatically. R&D efforts to tackle hard to decarbonise sectors such as heat, aviation, shipping, and heavy industry are advancing faster than at any point in recent history.
Across the interlocking spheres of infrastructure, technology, and economics there are grounds for what Nobel Prize winning economist and author of endogenous growth theory Paul Romer describes as “conditional optimism”:
“Complacent optimism is the feeling of a child waiting for presents. Conditional optimism is the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse. ‘If I get some wood and nails and persuade some other kids to help do the work, we can end up with something really cool’.”
This conditional optimism is further fuelled by growing evidence that clean technologies can be deployed far faster than the VSPs anticipate. BP’s annual Energy Outlook was released yesterday and once again downgraded its projections for emissions growth and upgraded its clean energy expectations under what is widely regarded as the report’s central scenario. As leading analyst Michael Liebreich noted this week the low-balling of projections for clean energy deployment remains entrenched across much of the industry. Every year the VSPs are surprised by how rapidly clean tech is being adopted, and yet they never seem to adjust their projections accordingly.
The acceleration in clean tech deployment was brilliantly explained last year in a paper by Professor Michael Grubb, which makes the case for an “historical future” analysis of how the energy transition could play out. It is an inspiring and optimistic approach that suggests “we are not slaves to the past” and pays more attention to the countries and technologies that are leading the transition than the broadly depressing historic macro trends for emissions and fossil fuel development.
As Grubb notes in the 1990s the UK was reliant on coal for around 80 per cent of its power generation. It is now down to less than 10 per cent and falling and the UK’s power sector emissions have halved. “Before declaring that history has set limits on what is possible, we need to be extremely careful,” he concludes. “The future has already started, though its beginnings may be modest… My central argument though is simpler: following Romer, that we are not slaves of the past, in the sense that econometric and historical studies suggest. We have already gathered many of the materials we need, and with a right guidebook, we can still be the builders of our future.”
This optimism is further fuelled by the growing number of corporate giants and multi-billion dollar investors who increasingly adhere to this vision, and not just through their advertising budgets. As every BusinessGreen reader will be aware energy companies are pivoting fast to beef up their clean energy portfolios. In so doing they are converging with technology and auto companies that see the integration of electric vehicles, ultra-energy efficient smart homes, and renewables as the defining growth opportunity of the century. Even some of the oil majors are pivoting, with Shell this week following its latest investment in floating wind with the acquisition of a battery company designed to complement its position as the provider of Europe’s largest EV charging network. Shell and its peers may not be moving nearly fast enough and remain largely wedded to carbon intensive strategies, but investor demands for them to accelerate their embryonic clean tech transitions grow more vocal every year.
Which brings us to the third big cause for optimism, alongside the increasingly impressive technological progress we are also ever more confident that we know what works from a policy perspective. David Roberts over at Vox (him again) recently highlighted a new book by veteran energy analyst Hal Harvey entitled Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy. Yes, perhaps it could have done with a more captivating title, but its central conclusion is of huge importance: we now have over 20 years of climate policy experience to draw on and we can be increasingly confident about what works. It is inherently complicated, but generally speaking ratcheting performance standards work, learning curves are really important, carbon pricing is helpful, and acting early is really helpful.
The New York Times backed up many of these points this week with an interactive analysis showing how US emissions could be slashed simply by adopting seven climate policies that are already proving highly effective in other parts of the world.
At this week’s IPPR conference, Farhana Yamin delivered a visibly emotional address where she admitted to sometimes feeling that the years she spent participating in international climate negotiations — the years away from home, away from children — had been ‘time wasted’. I’ll admit to having been a little visibly emotional myself (Gillette would be proud) in responding that ‘no time was wasted’. The generation that spent decades trying to force climate action into the mainstream will admit to having made plenty of mis-steps along the way, but they have ultimately built the foundations on which AOC, Thunberg, today’s striking school children and their millions of allies around the world can now build. The veteran climate hawks built the climate action Overton Window, today’s campaigners are now installing it in Passivhaus-standard, solar-powered schools and universities everywhere — all that is left is for it to be opened.
Too little, too late
Is this vision too optimistic? Almost certainly.
Each of these three reasons for optimism can be countered by three reasons for pessimism. First, this moment has come at least a decade too late. Emissions are still rising, fossil fuels remain dominant, there is too much to do in too little time to have any confidence we can keep temperature increases below 2C, let alone 1.5C. I am still scared for my darling boys, and for myself. Every evening this week my wife and I have talked about how unnerving this mid-February warmth has become. We worry. How can we not?
The likeliest outcome for the coming decades remains an inspiring clean tech revolution coupled with ever more terrifying climate impacts and the insecurity they bring. Clean tech utopia and climate-ravaged dystopia are not mutually exclusive.
Secondly, it is hard to underestimate the scale of the backlash the combination of youthful protest, charismatic climate-conscious politicians, and green business action will unleash. If you think the columnists fulminating at today’s school strike are angry now just wait until those kids grow up and vote for governments that demand more wind farms, more solar panels, and more pollution taxes. Try this thought experiment: write a list of the things the Trump administration and GOP establishment would not do to win the 2020 election? Have you got anything at all on that list? Really?
The idealism of those who want to build a decarbonised, sustainable global economy — be they investors, executives, politicians, or schoolchildren — is both their biggest strength and their biggest weakness. While they work to build democratic support and convince people with the rigour of their arguments and the compelling nature of their evidence, their opponents are engaged in a raw power battle. They have little interest in convincing anyone about anything, their main goal is to clear the way to simply do what they think is best. And what they think is best is a growth model built on pollution and utterly blind to potentially catastrophic climate risk. They will fight tooth and nail to protect that vision.
Third, do not underestimate the ability of the climate movement and political leaders to squander this moment. The reaction to the Green New Deal from those who are broadly supportive of its goals has been predictable, revealing, and dispiriting. It is possible to disagree with the policy prescriptions it puts forward, oppose the political tribe from which it originates, and still recognise and welcome the value and importance of a serious conversation about climate action at this pace and scale.
Worse still, so much of the well-meaning criticism of an emergency response to climate change is characterised by the narcissism of small differences. Is there really that much of a difference between a climate policy framework centred on carbon prices and early stage R&D funding with some state support in designated sectors on the side, and a climate policy framework centred on a higher level of state support for slightly different designated sectors, with some carbon prices and R&D funding on the side.
Note to centrist and right-leaning climate hawks: be it a market-based carbon tax or a full blown nationalisation programme the climate sceptic libertarians are going to call it ‘socialism’ whatever you do; they are the opposition that needs to be tackled. Note to left-wing climate hawks: you can attack big business all you like, but where is your credible 20 year deep decarbonisation plan that does not lean heavily on corporate wallets and innovation? Note to everyone: whisper it, but there might be more than one way to decarbonise an economy. In fact, there may be no single perfect policy regime for achieving a transition that will inevitably vary massively from country to country and over time. No one has all the answers. Most people are trying their best. Give each other a break.
There is a very real risk that if the right attacks every state-led green intervention as one way ticket to Venezuela and the left slams every market-led approach or business investment as exploitative greenwash, then the necessary good faith attempts to deliver effective decarbonisation programmes will be undermined at every turn.
Change is in the air
And yet, for all these very real risks it is hard to deny that something is definitely changing along with the climate. As schoolchildren march through Parliament Square in the warm winter sunshine, as polls shift in favour of bold climate action, and as energy giants pivot to embrace cutting edge clean technologies it is clear this moment feels different.
And it is equally clear that savvy businesses and investors will recognise the huge potential for a genuine tipping point. If climate change can generate this much momentum and interest more than 18 months out from the crucial US presidential election and the late 2020 enactment of the Paris Agreement, imagine what the cultural and political landscape could look like by then. The opportunities for green and sustainable businesses are obvious. The risks for carbon intensive businesses and opponents of climate action are equally apparent. Licenses to operate could quickly burn up as fiercely as those inevitable future wildfires.
Thousands of schoolchildren missed school today, so let’s close with a memory from a 1990s English Literature lesson. In his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway sums up the theory of change that has ultimately governed every great social, economic, and technological movement in the history of humanity better than anyone before or since:
“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
He could almost have been writing about the launch of a vegan sausage roll.
First published by Business Green, 15 February 2019