Today I'm bringing you an interview with James Murray, editor-in-chief of Business Green, https://www.businessgreen.com/, the website for green business news and analysis. He had the idea of Business Green about the same time as I had the idea for the Sustainable Futures Report, so we've both been going for about 16 years.
I set out to talk to James about mandatory net zero transition policies, but in the event we had a wide-ranging discussion which included the role of China, carbon capture and storage, the resignation of the CEO of Verra, the offset certification body, and even the sponsorship by Drax Powerof the upcoming Net Zero Festival. There's more detail of that during the interview and links to the Net Zero Festival on the SFR website, which you will remember is http://www.sustainablefutures.report
Here’s what we discussed.
Anthony: Well, today my guest is James Murray. He's editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, which is a website which specialises in green business news and analysis and also stages events. More about that a bit later on. He's been in that role since the beginning, 16 years ago nearly. So welcome to The Sustainable Futures Report, James.
James: Thanks, Anthony. Thanks for having me.
Mandatory Net Zero Transition policy
Anthony: Let's start, first of all, talking about a mandatory net zero transition policy. That sounds, well, that sounds quite challenging, both for governments and for the organisations that have got to be brought in line. Tell us a bit more about the situation as far as that's concerned, James.
James: It's a really interesting one actually, so for a long time there's been this progress around net zero climate risk reporting and the task force on climate-related financial disclosures. This kind of global push to get companies to talk more and provide investors with information on the climate-related risks that they face. And then the next step from that is, okay, well, you've reported on your climate risks and you've told your investors where there's risk exposure and where there's opportunities. And the question then is what do you do about it? How do you respond to that? So the UK government, around the time of COP26, came up with this proposal they'd been knocking around for a long time that companies should have to come up with net zero transition plans and they should have to tell their investors and their other stakeholders how they're planning to transition to net zero, how they're planning to respond to the sort of legally binding targets that we have.
And there's a real logic to it. The central promise is the UK and now many other countries have legally binding targets to get to net zero emissions within less than 30 years. And if you're a corporate, you should have a plan to be contributing to that and dealing with that because if you don't, you're going to have huge kind of risk exposure as carbon taxes get bigger and other regulations come into play. And obviously if you manage it effectively, you could get a significant competitive edge. So this proposal came forward that we should say to listed companies, as part of your kind of corporate reporting requirement, you should be providing these plans, you should be providing investors with details as to how you're going to transition. And it is slowly, quietly, a little bit under the radar, starting to happen. These plans are starting to come forward and there is talk of the regulations getting more robust to ensure that companies do produce them.
Anthony: Well, that can only be good news, although it seems quite clear that some high profile companies notably shall at its annual meeting this week, and BP and its publicity, are absolutely determined to continue with fossil fuels as a major part of their transition plan. But what about looking at this from an international point of view? We just had the G7, and at the G7 they were talking about artificial intelligence and saying that they really ought to consider that as a potentially existential problem. They did talk about climate change because that is also an existential problem, but there's been a lot of criticism and a lot of people saying they've not moved on from Carbis Bay, which was the G7, which was held two years ago.
James: Yeah, I mean I think that a lot of the response to the G7 Summit this week was that it was a bit underwhelming, that there should have been bolder moves. I mean, obviously the NGOs have been pushing for kind of a clearer commitment and clearer target dates on phasing out unabated coal and phasing out fossil fuels altogether, and of course, none of that was forthcoming. I mean, I'm a little bit more optimistic on it than I think your question suggests is that they did in the final communique once again sort of absolutely reiterate their commitment to the Paris Agreement, to halting biodiversity loss, to massive increases in clean energy and clean technologies, keeping the target at 1.5 degrees. And they kind of really did sort of tie in their response to Russia's war on Ukraine with their pursuit of net zero emissions. They stress that their goal to deliver net zero by 2050 at the latest remains unchanged despite the turmoil in the energy markets.
And they're increasingly sort of seeing clean energy as the way of eventually sort of defanging the aggression of petrostates like Russia. So I think it didn't get as much coverage and as much sort of media focus as some of the other elements, and obviously AI is a very live issue at the moment, but there's still a lot in there around this clean energy economy action plan that they're working on and the targets within that that suggest we are on the cusp of, or we're already deep within this sort of rapid investment boom in these green technologies globally. And the net zero transition is often not getting as much attention as it deserves, but it is quietly ticking forward, albeit never at the pace that we want.
Not Just Talk?
Anthony: So it's not just all talk because that's a criticism of all the COP conferences which come every year. And when you look at making it domestic, you look at the British government. The British government is still licensing more oil and gas exploration. The British government has also authorised the opening of a new coal mine. Now these are projects which will have a life of at least 40 years if the investors are to get their money back. And throughout those 40 years they will be creating fossil fuel pollution. And some say that 2050 is far too late. So how is that consistent with what they were saying at G7?
James: Well, I mean, it's not. There is a fundamental and there is, and all governments are guilty of it, there is a sort of fundamental hypocrisy and inconsistency there. I mean, there's a few ways in which we can start to pick it and hopefully move forward from here. I mean the first thing to say about those projects is, interestingly, labor have said they wouldn't support them. So if there were to be a change of government, there is a not insignificant chance, it'll be very interesting to see if labor holds the line on this, but there's a not insignificant chance those projects will be rolled back and the approvals that have been granted will be rescinded, which would be a fascinating and very bold move from the government. The other way in which you can potentially start to square the circle is around carbon capture and storage technology. And there are projects around the world, there are plans in the UK to develop a pipeline of these projects.
Carbon Capture and Storage
My frustration with this has always been that when they say we can use CCS to kind of square the circle, the answer is well go on then, could you please actually do it and hurry along because you've been talking about it for a very long time. There is now a lot of projects in the pipeline that could start to demonstrate that at scale and maybe ease slightly those concerns about why are we drilling for more stuff that will only create more pollution. However, that would only work at the margins. You're never going to have sufficient CCS scale to justify these investments going forward. And some of them will have to become stranded assets if we are to meet our climate targets. And I always go back to this, it is ridiculous that government's doing this, but if you put yourself in the shoes of the government, they always have the short-term and the long-term fear about the lights going off, about energy security.
And they're not quite, despite the huge investment in clean technology and the fact that they are committed to it and we are mobilising huge changes in our energy system, they're not quite a hundred percent certain yet that it'll work. So I often think these what seem like insane investments in fossil fuels are almost this sort of safety net that they're putting in place there to ensure that they can maintain that energy security, if the clean tech transition doesn't come off at quite the pace that's expected. And ultimately they are essentially justifying prioritising that energy security over the climate considerations, which you can argue is wrong, but that's the sort of rationale that they're taking. And the only way to sort of unlock that is to demonstrate as quickly as possible that the clean technologies do work and that these projects are going to become stranded assets and therefore that the investors would then back away from them very quickly, and the energy companies would pivot as quickly as they can or die out along the world because they haven't transitioned quickly enough.
And I think that's where the next 10 years is really exciting because this is sort of the crunch point which we'll start to see, oh, hold on, be like, a fully decarbonised power grid does work, maybe we don't need as much gas and therefore are those projects making sense. Or similarly, oh, hang on, electric vehicles for everyone can work and the grid hasn't collapsed and this is demonstrable and suddenly the oil demand just falls through the floor because no one's driving petrol cars anymore. So we are on the cusp of something really exciting but also really sketchy. And I have very little sympathy for politicians because I think they've made so many dreadful decisions on this front, but I do have a smidgen of sympathy in just how difficult this is, how difficult and how many moving parts there are, and of course how crunchy the consequences are if you get it wrong.
Anthony: Absolutely. Just staying on the political theme, shall we look across the Atlantic to what the Biden administration did towards the end of last year with the inflation reduction act, which brought in what, $350 billion towards boosting renewable and clean technologies? And that's been echoed to some extent in Europe. Do you see that spreading across the rest of the world? Do you think it's a good idea or is it just business as usual in disguise?
James: I don't think it's business as usual in disguise or is it? It depends on how you're defining business as usual. But I think it is very significant. And I think there was a piece just in the FT this morning about how labor's perception now of how the economic model is working is that there is a sort of new global consensus, you can call it biodynamics or whatever you want to call it, but a more active state to solve the infrastructure problems that we have and obviously climate change is absolutely core within that, and also solve the economic slowdown and stagnation and impact on quality of life that all that is having. And then that feeds into geopolitics and trying to tackle our reliance on fossil fuels and our increasingly uncompetitive position against emerging economies. So this biodynamics model I think is quite a fundamental shift and it is transformative and we're already seeing that with the scale of clean tech investment that is unleashed in the US and appears to be doing so in the EU as well.
So it's a really big moment. I mean it's far too late, in many ways it's almost the last roll of the dice, but if you were looking at sources for optimism that suggest we might meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, it would look something like this. It would require governments to go out and deliver an awful lot of low carbon infrastructure at the kind of pace and scale that the IRA envisages. I mean, the crucial argument is that actually it's too slow. But that's where we're at currently. I mean it's just enormously significant and transformative and it throws down the gauntlet to everyone else. And it's also worth pointing out that all the focus, I mean, our slightly Western focus has been on what the US and EU are doing, but this is very much a response to what China's been doing now for the best part of five, 10 years. And you look at their absolute dominance of the electric vehicle market, of the battery market, of the solar market, increasingly of the winter by market.
And there's just this, they are, for a long time they have been the world's sort of manufacturing base, but they are increasing the world's clean tech manufacturing base. And they're turbocharging their decarbonisation efforts at a truly rapid pace, which in some ways is obviously fantastic news as they're the world's biggest polluter and they desperately need to decarbonise very rapidly, but also from that kind of economic competitive perspective and geopolitical perspective, it presents huge challenges. So the US and EU are sort of very slightly belatedly responding to that move from China, and others as well who are starting to recognise that this is the global growth story and they are willing to intervene as governments and mobilise investment and direct projects to catalyse that growth and catalyse that development in a way that hopefully can finally be made compatible with the emissions limits that we've set ourselves.
Anthony: I don't think China is getting the credit for that in the media.
James: No, they're absolutely not. I mean, it's very difficult because obviously it is a complex story because they're also still building out fossil fuel assets, they're still massive polluters, and obviously immense concerns about human rights and how they're using this newfound power. But equally, the idea that is often put about what about China? They're doing nothing, is just a complete myth. They're absolutely not doing nothing. They are the world's biggest renewables market, the world's biggest EV market, and they're investing massively in turbocharging that from this point.
Anthony: Right. Turning to offsets, which a lot of people have been relying on in order to substantiate claims of having net zero or close to net zero operations. But there's been a lot of skepticism and that culminated in a report in the Guardian and other organisations claiming that there was no substance to a lot of the offsets which were certified by an organisation called Verra and others. Now that the CEO of Verra has resigned today, I think, the announcement came out, does that have any implications?
James: I mean, I'm absolutely not across the detail. I mean, we reported the story that he had stepped down after a long time with the business and that we had change at the top. I mean, he's still staying on in a advisory role. And their response to those stories was very robust. They sort of insisted that a lot of their projects are still, or the vast majority or if not all their projects are still sort of form in line with the standards that they've set. And they're kind of reviewing their processes and looking at how to make them more robust still. It's such a sort of complex area and it's always, and it's still relatively youthful, so I think there are always going to be these concerns. But it's just not an easy one to unpick, is it? On one side, it's clearly true that we do need to invest in forest protection, we do need to invest in carbon removals.
We do need to invest in finding a way to enable those kind of negative emissions projects. On the other hand, that inherently comes with immensely difficult questions about how you verify that those projects are delivering in the long term. And the slight problem here, again, it does all come back to government, government hasn't really stepped in and provided the regulatory framework to enable the market to work with real confidence. And as a net result you're, whenever you have that, you are going to get some bad actors who come in and try and pull a bit of a fast one. And people like Verra and others have been trying to resolve that. They've been trying to come in and say, okay, now we will put in place more robust standards, we will make this more credible, but they're fighting a bit of an uphill battle because there's not the regulatory underpinnings and the necessary funding to make that happen at the scale that you'd like to see.
So I think it's an issue that will run and run. My slight concern with it is the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater is that there is now significant investment flowing into a lot of projects that are really good and we are going to need carbon removals to hit our net sero emissions targets. So while you absolutely want to continue to scrutinise these projects and these schemes as much as possible, you don't want to sort of detonate confidence in them all together because we are still going to need that investment and we need to find a way to do it well and with confidence, not just turn around and go, this is inherently flawed and wrong and it can never work, because I think that would potentially sort of undermine progress.
Net Zero Festival
Anthony: Right, yeah. When we started this conversation, I mentioned that BusinessGreen stages events and coming up in October we have the Net Zero Festival. You've got about 60 speakers, some big names. Ones I picked out was Sir David King, Matt Winning the climate comedian who's been on the Sustainable Futures report, and Sarah Mukherjee, who is the head of IEMA, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment of which I'm a member, and several others as well.
James: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we're really pleased with the lineup. We've got Alastair Campbell of podcasting fame now.
Anthony: Oh, yeah.
James: He's going to be there talking about sort of strategy and communications, which obviously has a huge role to play in the climate transition. We've also got Joanna Lumley of all people, who is obviously a longstanding activist and a vegan, I believe, and does a lot of work around sustainability alongside the roles that she's more famous for. And then loads of representatives from business in the business community. And the hope is that we are, it's called the Net Zero Festival, we want to celebrate and showcase what is this really vibrant story, this really exciting, slightly scary, but hugely impactful transition that we're all on. And that's the goal over those two days.
Anthony: You've got a wide range of sponsors, but I was surprised to see that Drax power is amongst them.
James: Yeah, I mean they are part of the net zero community in some ways, and their plans are based around negative emissions, around biomass with carbon capture and storage. And that's obviously-
Anthony: But they don't do carbon capture and storage, and a lot of people criticise the fact that they bring their biomass across the Atlantic and there are questions about whether they're actually using new growth rather than scrap timber as is suggested.
James: Yeah, and I mean, they're obviously not without controversy and they've been criticised a lot for exactly what you've just set out. I mean, their argument is they absolutely are using sustainable feed stocks. They maintain that the feed stocks they're using are kind of the off cuts after the timber has been felled for use in other things, and it would otherwise just be being burnt without any use whatsoever. So they're insistent that they have kind of verified their supply chain to prove that these are delivering emission reductions. I fully appreciate that as a point that's very much contested by activists and others, and I think that is obviously a debate that will continue to run and run and run. I mean, our perspective from the companies that we work with is that if they are, any company that is committed to the net zero transition, we're keen to talk to and be involved with because this is a transition that is evolving all the time.
There's obviously going to be missteps along the way, but there's also huge opportunities in areas that people don't necessarily think that there might be. And we do need everyone to come together to make this transition. I mean, the tagline for our festival is faster together. And there is a sort of perception sometimes in environmentalism of, well, we're not going to talk to airlines or we're not going to talk to energy companies. And I completely understand that, and I think there's some value in that. There's some value in trying to take away organisations' moral license, as it's called. But from a media perspective, we write for and want to serve the entirety of the green economy, people who are committed to net zero. And there are lots of carbon-intensive businesses that are trying to transition and that are evolving how they work and are investing in cutting edge new technologies.
Some of the world's biggest oil companies might have terrible records in one part of their business, but they also operate the UK's largest EV charging network, for example. So it's a very messy space and it's very difficult. But our view that is if you take a degree of absolutism to this and you're reporting on how you'd like the world to be rather than how it actually is, you do risk almost undermining the transition because you're just saying, well, you can't be involved in it. And what those companies will do if you say you can't be involved in it, is they'll just carry on with business as usual. And it will probably take a lot longer to then make that pivot if you are excluding all of them from any involvement in these discussions. I also completely appreciate that is a very delicate and difficult balancing act because you do have to be aware that some of these organisations aren't always acting in bad faith and they are trying to, in good faith, and they are trying to delay.
And there's obviously been a long dishonourable record of organisations doing that as we're all too aware. So it's a very tricky balancing act and it's not one we necessarily get right all the time, but we do feel that it's important to have a big tent and as long as you're facilitating the debate and the discussion from the first principles of this transition needs to happen, it needs to happen a lot faster because climate change is real and these technologies are better, then you can hopefully have a kind of constructive debate for all and bring people together in a way that does catalyse faster progress.
Anthony: James, I think you're the most optimistic guest I've had on the podcast.
James: Oh, believe me, I'm not most of the time, not a lot of the time. I mean, I'm perpetually angry on Twitter and despairing that we're not going faster and I'm deeply worried about the decades ahead. I think we are in a very scary place where things will get worse before they get better. But I do think sort of despondency in the face of that threat becomes self-perpetuating. And we do have the technologies, and we do know what policies work, and we do have the engineering and humanity to accelerate the progress that is needed. And increasingly we have evidence that that progress delivers benefits for all, that it can drive. It's not we're asking people to put on a hair shirt and curl up in the cold. We can do this in a way that reduces costs, improves security, improves health, improves quality of life for everyone globally.
And we're not necessarily asking for the immense trade-offs that maybe 20, 30 years ago the environmental movement had to ask for. That's not the pitch anymore. The pitch is for a better world, not one in which we sort of have to trade off the things we've become used to. So I mean, again, that's really complicated. We could go into a whole debate about green degrowth, couldn't we? But I just think there has to be a sort of sense of this is what we're aiming for and what we're aiming for will be good and positive, and there are ways to get there and while there'll be setbacks along the way, we can do it. And I think if you kind of lose sight of that, then the worst-case scenarios just become almost inevitable. And those worst-case scenarios, again, I think are absolutely terrifying.
I mean, I have a line that I do when I talk publicly, I always think about the net zero transition is that we're under reporting the excitement and the vibrancy of what's happening, and we're also under reporting the truly terrifying consequences if we don't deliver this. We don't understand how bad it could get, and we also don't understand how good and big and positive it could get. And we're just sort of bumbling along in the middle here thinking, oh, everything will be okay and business as usual can continue and that's just not true. And we're going to get, what we are getting a sort of very stark wake up call.
Anthony: Well, some deep thoughts to take away from that. And thank you very much, James. James Murray, editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, thank you for talking to The Sustainable Futures report.
James: Thanks for having me on. Thanks Anthony.
The Net Zero Festival takes place in London from 31st October to 1st November. The website is here:
I'm planning to go. The content looks interesting and I hope I shall meet some people who will agree to talk to the Sustainable Futures Report.
That's it for this week. Thanks once again for listening. Thanks as always for being a loyal patron - details at patreon.com/sfr - and I'll be back next Thursday with more news about sustainable futures.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.
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