Tony Juniper: Climate negotiations stuck in deadlock

By Tierney Smith

Tony Juniper

(Source: Malachi Chadwick/10:10)

Former Friends of the Earth UK chief Tony Juniper has called for a shift of focus if UN climate talks in Durban remain deadlocked.

Speaking to RTCC Juniper said that it is now time for groups of countries, businesses, communities and individuals to take on the challenge as the international process continues to let us down.

In a wide-ranging interview the veteran envrionmental campaigner called the backlash against renewables in the UK ‘insane’, urged the green movement to sell an economic story and said the world will need to look radically different in 2050.

RTCC: What would you hope to see achieved at Durban and how does this compare to what you expect to be achieved?

TJ: I suppose like everyone else I am hoping that there will be some kind of a breakthrough to the point where the world actually does finish up with a treaty, trying to limit temperature rise within the kind of targets that have been set out by the governments, whether that is 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees. Then you can plot the pathways back from there and you can divide up that cake by various formulae. It needs to be comprehensive in the sense of looking at land use and agriculture as well as looking at emissions from fossil fuels directly through power and transport.

I don’t think anyone seriously expects that we are going to get anywhere near that. Since Copenhagen we have been in this period of almost limbo. That was the great hope in 2009 for such a treaty to be at least set out and we still don’t have it.

We are going into negotiations with governments having remained in deadlock since Cancun and even having gone backwards a bit again. The big historic problem that lies at the centre of this treaty remains there. That is the extent to which the developing countries feel developed nations have a historic responsibility to take action now and the extent to which the developed countries feel the emerging economies should be signing up to emissions reductions.

So we need the Kyoto Protocol plus something else going forward. What the plus something else might look like in terms of voluntary targets for China and India I don’t know but those countries do need to start getting on a low carbon path very quickly.

RTCC: Do you think there are any deals which can be made at Durban?

TJ: I think a huge amount could be achieved there, whether or not it is achieved is a different matter. It’s great that there are some conversations going on around aviation and maybe some progress could be made there. It’s absolutely wonderful that there are some further refinements in what has been talked about in relation to deforestation but I wonder how far we can go with either of these without fixing the deeper problem.

It’s worth reflecting that we have been at this now for 20 years. The UNFCCC was originally adopted in 1992 and 20 years ago we were preparing for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and a treaty was going to be one of the things that the world was going to sign up to. It did but ever since then we have been locked into debates that in some ways have moved on but in some ways seem a little familiar to the ones which were happening then. I don’t know what might actually break this deadlock.

I suppose in one way its money, but then one starts to look at the global financial picture and you start to map across some of the numbers that were put there in Copenhagen – $100 billion a year – and you wonder where that is going to be coming from, as you find countries pretty much in meltdown in a financial sense – some of the western countries at least.

I wonder whether there are some other strategies which we need to think about and collectively put in place. People have been saying this for years. We have got to the point where some of the energy could be going towards groups of countries that might do things together, towards the private sector, towards things which mobilise citizens to get on with it, because the politicians really are letting us down and its hard to see how they can stop letting us down. When you look at the politics of this process there is quite good reason why this is so difficult in the extent to which you’ve got these groups of countries with utterly divergent interests.

So what do we do in the next five years? Do we keep shuffling backwards and forewords to governmental summits which are mired with complexity and deadlock or do we start to run some other horses with the last bit of time that we’ve got? I don’t have the answer to that but I think it is a fair question.

RTCC: What role do you see for renewables moving forward?

TJ: You don’t have to be a genius to know that we are going to have to go to a totally renewable economy at some point. And the question is how long, how do we get there and what are the pathways?

In the end this may mean accepting a little bit of uranium – there isn’t too much of that around. Other than that basically we have solar radiation which is fuelling this planet and it comes in different manifestations. It comes in wind and the moving of the atmosphere, it comes through direct solar heating and light which you can convert into heat and electricity and then you’ve got the photosynthesis of the plants which you can burn and turn into biofuels. In the end basically that is going to have to be our energy sources, with a little bit of gravitational stuff in the form of geothermal and a little bit of tidal and wave power.

Various people have done the numbers on these and with a super efficient economy and a redesigning of infrastructure, all that stuff could be fuelling a world of nine billion people by mid century, if we mobilise the resources to get it going.

The question is of course the politics embedded in all of those choices and the extent to which there are vested interests and to which in democracies there is always a push back against anything big and major. We have seen it in this country over the period since the last general election, with the backlash against renewable energy at almost every level – it is insane but it has been effective. That has slowed us down.

RTCC: What role will business play?

TJ: We have to have business mobilised in a much more meaningful, joined up and ambitious way. Whether it is governments collectively (i.e. Durban) or individually if you look at the coalition we can’t really rely on them to do this so I do think we do need other forces – not saying they should be let off the hook for a second. I think the private sector does need to start to step up. I do a lot of work with Cambridge University and we have a lot of companies saying we need more frameworks, more incentives, and more direction from government to solve this problem and then you have people like George Osborne turning up and saying environmental rues are red tapes for wrecking our economy. He is completely out of touch with where the businesses are which he claims to be speaking for.

I think in the end the way we are going to able to do this is not through environmental arguments it’s economic ones and I don’t think it is even economics in the spirit of the Stern Review which is the economics of inaction compared to action. I think this is about how much benefit you get in terms of jobs and economic recovery and I think we have got to start winning that argument.

RTCC: How can the Green Movement help move the debate on?

TJ: My experience over a long period of working in that world is to see success or failure in having some kind of influence on policy and the direction of travel in terms of debate and in terms of what people are thinking and what’s in the media.

It is no longer should we talk about adaptation or should we talk about renewables or is it more important now to think about Carbon Capture and Storage and all those kinds of discussions. I think the job now is how we change the context of the debate.

If you go back to 2004, the context of the debate changed. It was driven then by some science, a bit of activism, people like Tony Blair standing up and giving big speeches and putting it on the front pages. That changed the context from being a marginal green issue to it being a central political issue and that led to all sorts of discussions about percentages and everything else.

What is the right way of changing the context to get this back to the political centre once more and back on the front pages?

One of the things which struck me is we need a narrative now of putting the climate issue – and we may not call it the climate issue – into the centre of the discussion around economic recovery. How does that narrative start to form and how do we get it going again? That’s what I think the green groups need to talk about on the climate issue. I think now we have to change the way the world looks at it and talks about it because things have moved on compared to four or five years ago.

RTCC: What would you like the world to look like in 2050?

TJ: The world will need to be radically different from now. That is possible. If you think back to the 1970s, that doesn’t seem like an awful long time ago and the world was quite different then. I think we can have ambition and think big. The main thing is that we are living in a way that is ecological basically – that there is public and political recognition by then and practice within the business community that we do live on one earth that has finite capacities and we are going to be needing to work within those. That is a massive wrench of mindset which is required and I think and that again is what the green groups and others should be working on at the moment. How we are going to be able to change this kind of world view that the earth is infinite and you can do whatever you like to it and there are no consequences – that is the basic assumption that drives behaviour.

I was appalled last night when I was driving home late and I saw a woman throw a plastic bottle into the street and I thought how is it possible that people think that is alright – that is just one tiny symbol of a very deep problem that we have got.

That is probably where some of the green organisations need to be focusing some of their energy – rather than all the energy going into whether wind power is better than nuclear, I just don’t know if this is the best way to endlessly spend our time. Although we can’t ignore that obviously and we have to fight those battles too. Maybe this is through new resources and different organisations.

I was quite encouraged last week to spend some times with a bunch of religious leaders in Italy talking about the setting up of the green pilgrimage network, which is about brining ecological thinking to the followers of different faiths who go on pilgrimages. I thought this was interesting – not least because these people speak to four fifths of humanity where the environmentalists probably speak to one per cent. Is there a spiritual dimension to this and if their might be is their some common cause that we could be finding between different actors to start brining this together? And that is probably quite a good way for the green groups to begin building a connection with bigger groups of people in a more profound way, by thinking about the possible different alliances and ways to have conversations which is not the places we are doing it now. We really need to think big.

In 2050 we need people living as if there is one earth and then we can have all the discussions around the food system and the energy and the water and the biodiversity. We’re not going to get there through the way we are carrying on at the moment.


Tony Juniper currently works as a sustainability advisor. He is also Chair of the Board at 10:10 and Action for Renewables and was the Green Party Candidate for Cambridge in the 2010 general election.

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