Climate emergency needs shift in economic thinking

Humans are being displaced from uninhabitable areas already

“Lockdown is showing us the misery that Net Zero 2050 will demand.”

In one sense, the headline offered hope. Could this be, finally, a national media journalist outside the Guardian offering us a glittering set of solutions for the climate emergency, to avoid Net Zero in 2050?

Not a bit of it. Charles Moore, in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, offered under the above headline exactly what I feared: fear of changing our ways because it would upset our current economic model. Or, more precisely, the economic model of the rich, individuals or nations, who would trample on those affected by climate change; the refugees already beginning to be displaced by shrivelled up land that has become uninhabitable. 

The rich won’t feel guilty about being rich, argued Moore – a former editor of the paper who has no scientific background – and they’re in charge. So therefore the green agenda will be forgotten by Governments as we emerge from Covid-19 lockdown. He has a point. We have already seen how quickly times change. 

After years of trying to get people onto public transport, last week our Government announced billions for extra funding for cycle and walkway projects, then urged people to return to work if they can’t work at home – but go by cycle or foot and if not, use a car instead of public transport. 

Economics rule. Sod the planet. 

Those five words are the essence of how Naomi Klein shapes the chances that Governments and people in power will do something about climate change, in her book, This Changes Everything. It details how we as a world need to change pretty much everything about our economic models if we are to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C by any sensible mark of the near future. 

Separate reading shows that many ice caps are already melting. Sea levels are rising. As much as droughts are causing climate refugees, half of Sussex, as one example, will be under water in the not too distant future if we continue to use fossil fuels and emit carbon at our current rates.  

Moore’s defence of the status quo, and giving all the reasons not to change, compared the crisis to a possible repeat over climate thirty years from now.

I haven’t finished reading Klein’s riveting insights as yet, but there is no reason that entrepreneurs can’t rethink how to create and make money out of the environmental opportunity, or adjust their business plans accordingly. Some are already doing it. Orsted, a global producer of wind farms based in Denmark and London (many of the windfarms off the British coasts are run by them) has recently been ranked the most sustainable company in the world. A decade ago, by their own admission, they were one of the most fossil fuel intensive companies in Europe. 

Telsa, one of the world’s best known electric vehicle manufacturers, is run by Elon Musk, 21st on Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful people. Perhaps he is in the minority in that list, being interested in inventions which are less harmful to the planet than “gas”-run cars, rather like Dale Vince owns and runs the one among hundreds of thousands of professional football clubs to be vegan. He has done wonders to persuade a local authority to let him build a wooden football stadium, when they seemed to be “stadia non grata” after the Bradford City fire of 1985. 

What will Richard Branson do if his Virgin planes can’t get back off the ground? He’ll move on to another industry. He’ll innovate. It’s the perfect time for him to consider the climate and innovate in an industry that will be less polluting. Like Musk and Vince, he will still be a capitalist, not a socialist, an ideology which many tie hand in hand with sustainability. That’s a part of it, but not an exclusive component.

The latest news that Moore – indeed the Telegraph – failed to note alongside his “business as usual” column, was that coal producer Sasol, the South African mining and chemicals giant labelled the world’s most polluting industrial plant, has suddenly turned to seeking investment for a solar and wind project.

Why the sudden change of direction? Because a $1 trillion dollar Norwegian investment fund said it no longer wished to invest in it, as one of 12 fossil fuel firms. So market forces forced their hand. Money, on a large scale, talked.

The Reserve Bank in Australia has called for investment in renewable energy as we move out of lockdown, too

So there is hope. Hope that influential figures – from Government or industry – are capable of not only thinking differently to help the planet, but are prepared to change their business models.

All we need now is for Australia, whose economy largely relies on selling coal to China, to stop doing so, and for China and India, two of the most industrial polluting nations globally, to start using solar or wind energy. We haven’t got 100 years for them to come out of their Dickensian industrial economies, says Klein. 

Those two nations were wearing masks well before we had even heard of Covid-19, as a combatant against pollution. 

So, we can as a species change our ways. But it requires, as Klein says, a climatic shift in thinking. She is no the first to quote – and won’t be the last – Upton Sinclair, an American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”