“What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”
Would that it were the case, that ‘the earth remains forever’. More than ever today, the actions of one generation impact on the next: so perhaps we should turn instead to chapter 11, verse 2, where we read ‘Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.’ Climate Change is perhaps the archetypal case of why we should love our neighbour of tomorrow, not just our neighbour of today.
There are some changes of direction of such huge magnitude that we resort to phrases like ‘turning round an oil tanker’. However it’s hard to think of anything of a scale to compare with the literal meaning of that phrase - to wean the world’s economy, and our individual lifestyles, off burning fossil fuels for energy.
It was a colossal achievement for so many countries to approve the Paris agreement on Climate Change in December 2015, and that resolve is at the heart of a change in direction that not even the United States can reverse. Change is now deeply embedded in some of the countries - e.g. Saudi Arabia - and some of the companies - e.g. Royal Dutch Shell - that one would least expect.
I’ve been involved in the ethical investment movement for much of the past twenty years, and made the initial call for a wholesale review of climate change policy in the Church of England’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group. It’s right at the core of the Church’s approach to socially responsible investing.
The ethical investment team in the Church of England has been remarkable in its persistence, courage and patience in achieving real change: for example, in the position of oil majors such as Exxon, where it led a successful Shareholders’ Resolution which now requires regular progress reports on compliance with the Paris Agreement. There are still some in the Church who think that disinvestment is the answer: we expect to hear more from them during its July Synod. But those who are serious about achieving real change know that you do it by staying inside the tent making your presence felt, not by walking out.
So we can, thank goodness, welcome a change now happening which will lead to our children and grandchildren being able to live in much the same beautiful world that we enjoy. Here’s some examples of real change reported last week:
- Saudi Arabia has made a deal with Japan’s Softbank to invest $200 billion in the world’s most ambitious solar power project, the development of a series of solar parks across the kingdom capable of powering 150 million homes by 2030: more than triple the United Kingdom’s total installed power capacity. There will, of course, be many challenges in harnessing the 200 Gigawatt of power that will be produced, and no doubt hydrogen will play a key role in transporting stored electricity. Speaking of which, last Tuesday also marked the installation of a new hydrogen filling station at Beaconsfield services on the M40 motorway: in due course we’ll welcome hydrogen as the answer to long-range, carbon-free motoring. It was great to see a fully electric Mini rolled out last week, but its range is only 65 miles.
- Royal Dutch Shell: in case you missed, it’s well worth reading the full page update in the Sunday Times Business section on Sunday 25th March, on how this fossil fuel giant is looking ahead to a world powered by alternative fuels. It will undoubtedly use gas as a stepping stone, but the article sets out in detail some of the substantial steps they’re taking to modernise.
All radical new technologies go through an investment cycle before producing substantial returns for mainstream investors. Whether you think of the railways in the 19th and early 20th century or the tech boom in the late 20th/early 21st, it’s not hard to see how just a few of the early pioneers made it through to the mainstream stage.
Alternative fuels have likewise been through their pioneering stage, but with the commitment of players such as Saudi Arabia and Royal Dutch Shell they’re now entering the mainstream.
So don’t despair of change: it’s happening, and it will change the world. But we all need to make the change - insulate our homes, change our transport habits. And there may be an additional push in that respect arising from the current stand-off with Russia.
The European Union is heavily reliant on Russian gas, and we should therefore salute the courage of those European countries which have stood alongside the United Kingdom in sending diplomats home following the Salisbury attack. In the United Kingdom we’re relatively immune from this energy source - indeed on one day in March 37% of our energy was delivered from wind power. However Europe is not in the same fortunate position, and could face a cold winter in 2018/19.
But of course climate change is first and foremost a generational concern. Before the Industrial Revolution, there was little that one generation could do to impact future generations other than war and slavery. But as technology marches forward at an ever-accelerating pace, the inter-generational impact becomes ever greater: and so also does our awareness of it.
During winter 2003/4 I was a contributor to the BBC’s ‘Thought for the Day’ on its Radio 4 Today programme, and here’s the link to my text on this subject of inter-generational responsibility, which was broadcast in March 2004.
So, just as last week this commentary dwelt on the economic legacy that the Babyboomer generation are leaving for the Millennials (Investing in the next generation - are we?), so we must also focus on the natural world that our descendants will inherit. That’s why the second great commandment, to ‘love our neighbour as ourself’, must increasingly be interpreted as referring not just to our neighbour of today, but also to our neighbour of tomorrow.