RTCC Q&A: UK Special Representative for Climate Change John Ashton

By Ed King

John Ashton is the British Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change, articulating UK  policy on this issue around the world.

FCO's John Ashton and Bolivian President Evo Morales

Ashton has been travelling the world discussing climate change with world leaders like Bolivia's Evo Morales

He will play a key role in UK delegation at COP17, advising ministers and participating in negotiations.

As such his views on the forthcoming summit in Durban are critical, not only from a UK but also from an EU perspective, since Britain works closely with its European partners at international climate change negotiations.

Ashton laid his cards on the table last week. In a strident article for the Guardian newspaper he hit back at critics of the international process, and warned there was no ‘Plan B’ for the climate if agreement over a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol was not reached.

Speaking to RTCC five days before the start of COP17, Ashton explains why he still has faith in the much maligned treaty, and argues that despite the current Eurozone crisis, it is vital the EU shows leadership in Durban.

The interview also touches on the financing mechanisms that could be delivered at COP17, the role of South Africa in the negotiations, and whether the UK is still a relevant player at global climate talks.

RTCC: In last week’s Guardian you wrote a strong article stating that there is ‘No Plan B’ for the climate, and that Kyoto is the deal on the table…broadly speaking many Guardian readers will agree with those sentiments – so who in particular were you aiming the article at?

John Ashton: I wasn’t aiming it at a particular person, but what I’ve noticed is that over the last 2 or 3 years, even before Copenhagen, you do bump into a view that says ‘this attempt to build a legally bound approach to climate change will fail’ – people are never going to have enough political will to sign up to that, and so we should do something different.

I think that that argument needs to be contested – as I don’t think it will lead us towards an effective response to climate change. I think the problem is that in a sense climate change is in a sense unlike any other issue that human beings have ever had to deal with, in that we don’t control the timetable.

You can almost hear the ticking of a clock in the background, which is the way natural systems are responding to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases that we are putting in the atmosphere, and as you’re going up that curve you’re leaving behind every minute of every day the climates that you could have had…had you been able to stabilise at that level. So we have to accept the consequences of that.

That means in a sense it’s not just what we need to do that matters – it’s how quickly we need to do it, and because the ‘it’ is largely to do with private capital allocation decisions – that will determine whether we can keep climate change to within 2 degrees or whether we want to explore what it might be like to live in a 4 degree world or beyond world…

The question for governments is not: ‘do we as governments believe that we mean what we say when we make promises to each other’? Governments by and large usually are sincere when they make promises to each other…but it’s whether the outside world and particularly people in boardrooms making private capital decisions – whether they believe it – and funnily enough they are often more cynical of government’s ability to keep their promises and in the end, even legally binding promises don’t give you a guarantee that they will be kept.

But I think there is a sense that they are more likely to be kept, and that governments will try harder to meet a commitment they have made in an internationally binding way than otherwise…so the vast majority of countries thought – given that in a sense we’re aiming for the impossible, it seemed a good idea to put the other side of that case, which is that there are moments in history where the challenge isn’t to do as much as you can within the limits, but to expand the limits…and that tends to happen at decisive moments on big issues, and this is a decisive moment on a big issue.

RTCC: Although sometimes when you shoot for the stars – and we’ve seen this with many football clubs who pump in money and then don’t quite make it – you end up flat on your face. Is there not an argument that if perhaps all states aimed for a lower target that everyone can agree on then perhaps that’s a better basis for moving forward?

John Ashton: Well….first point – obvious point – you get climate that goes with the level of ambition you set. What we know is that even a 2 degree rise is taking a big risk with our future security, prosperity, prospects for living in a decent world if you like. But if you set a level of ambition that doesn’t give you a chance of staying within 2 degrees you can’t complain if you end up dealing with those consequences – it’s not under our control.

We can analyse it, we do have a pretty good picture of it, but we can’t tell nature to slow down while we get our act together…but there is a tension – and in a sense there are two different narratives that you need to bring together in this negotiation.

You have a narrative of urgency – if you can’t convey this then you’re lost….and a lot of the voices in this conversation are not really communicating this urgency – so how do you push that up a bit. But at the same time you have another narrative – everything we know about diplomacy reinforces it, which is what I call ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’.

A friend of mine – Tom Burke – talks about how we treat every single annual UN climate conference as the cup final, so it’s either ultimate victory or desperate despair, and actually that’s not how diplomacy works. All of the big pieces of diplomatic architecture that we have succeeded in constructing take time – and not surprisingly, because you’re getting a lot of mis-aligned people and interests and constituencies together….so somehow, as we do this year by year, month by month, we have to find a way to reconcile those two stories.

I think there is a reconciliation, but to find it we must look forward, think of a situation where you are steadily building more confidence in the outcome you are trying to achieve, recognising that you can’t achieve it in a big bang – in a sense that was one of the lessons of Copenhagen…that was an attempt to do it in a big bang, and looking back now not surprisingly it failed, we hadn’t built the political foundation strong enough for it to stand on at that point.

The more we can build confidence the more people will start to act as if we have achieved our objective…so they will start to discount it in a market sense, and that’s what you need….because then you’re bringing the future into the present.

It’s tricky – we’ve never done it before on this kind of scale – this is a deep restructuring of the global economy – how we produce and consume electricity, how we achieve mobility, how we use land…you couldn’t have more fundamental cross sections through the global economy – it’s an economic and political challenge, because there are some people with an interest in going faster, and some people with an interest in the status quo.

On top of that you’re trying to do all of this in a situation of crisis, particularly in Europe with the sovereign debt Eurozone problem…it’s like playing billiards on the deck of ship that is sailing through a force 12 hurricane. But at the same time I think we will only succeed with the climate project if we see how that fits into the wider crisis…what I find on my travels is that more and more people are coming to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with the business as usual growth model, where growth, jobs and competitiveness come from.

2008 showed a flaw was that it attached too little importance to resilience, and exposed itself too much to risk. We need a growth model that is more resilient….also looking back to 2008 – remember we had oil at $147 a barrel and food at unprecedented prices – not unrelated to the oil spike but also related to climatic extremes.

Part of that is connected to the rising demand that has come along with the success of globalisation in creating structural upward pressure on prices of basic commodities, which is putting us into intensified competition for energy and other commodities…and so another thing you need to do with the business as usual model is to make it much more resource efficient than it is…it’s very resource intensive – and then the carbon piece fits into that – because actually low carbon and resource efficiency go together quite well.

So when you look at it from that point of view you’re seeing that there is quite a heavy weight on the climate negotiations to act as a global driver towards that fundamental change. That’s why you do need this ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ steadiness of hand, as well as the urgency.

RTCC: And in saying that – from a UK point of view – it has traditionally been a leader in pushing negotiations forward…but many now suggest this is beyond Britain…and you should let other states with bigger emissions deal with the problem….as FCO Special Representative how would you counter that argument?

John Ashton: Well – I think it’s interesting when you look at the opinion polling from the UK and around Europe over the years, what you see is a generational signal. The under 30s are asking for more ambition on climate change than the over 50s, and it’s not surprising because the under 30s will pick up the tab, for whatever climate costs are passed on by the over 50s.

I’ve always thought that generational politics is more important than it was often understood to be. If you want to have healthy politics in any society you have to attend to differences in expectations and demands across generations. I would find it hard to justify to younger people who were engaging me why I thought it was remotely acceptable that they should have to spend some of their lives dealing with more than 4 degrees of climate change….given what we know…there are some things we don’t know – but we know enough to realise that’s a pretty scary place to be.

On the question of Britain’s influence – what I would say is, I think we do have a strong political foundation for being a voice of high ambition for climate change – it’s no secret that there is a degree of political consensus across all political parties in this country. The main political parties want to see a high level of ambition rather than a low level of ambition.

That’s not in my view because of a desire to dictate to the rest of the world, or a desire to be somehow more altruistic than anyone else. It’s because of a hard-edged understanding that a world that is failing to deal with climate change is a world where British people will not have decent prospects of security and prosperity.

What do taxpayers in the end pay for in return for government? They expect government to maintain the conditions for security and prosperity. So that’s why having reached that conclusion, I don’t think there’s a debate to be had – I think we then just say, how can we act as effectively as possible as a force for effective high ambition on climate change.

And to the extent that I have been part of that in recent years, what I observe is that a lot more people want to listen to us around the world than some of the more cynical commentators in this country might allow – and that does give us influence. Not in the sense of dictating – I don’t think you can do this by having one country impose its will on another….the choices that we make about the big things all come out of our domestic politics, what do we think if we’re Chinese, Norwegian or Argentinian – where I was at the end of last week – what do we think are the essential pre-conditions for security and prosperity?

But I think we can have a diplomacy which is trying to build a degree of alignment across different societies, about the importance of climate change in that picture, and also about how you can build an effective response which is not an excessive cost or burden on anyone.

Nobody is going to say, if in order to deal with climate change I need to take a massive hit on jobs and growth, nobody’s going to say I’ll deal with climate change as opposed to jobs and growth…so you have to show that the two can be aligned, which is not impossible. There are enormous opportunities to build a low carbon growth story around the world, there are some costs but we know they are absorbable costs, but there are also enormous benefits in terms of less exposure to volatile oil prices for example.

I think if we had found it was a waste of time we would have stopped pouring more effort into it, but it’s not – and it feels like we’re getting a return on the investment we’re making

RTCC: Away from the UK – you mentioned in your article in the Guardian the importance that the Kyoto Protocol holds for the EU….the Union’s ‘greatest ever diplomatic achievement…’ How united do you feel the EU is ahead of Durban?

John Ashton: I think Kyoto is enormously important…it’s hard to find any other diplomatic accomplishment to which the EU has committed so much. It’s only partial, needs development and it has flaws that need to be attended to – but nevertheless it embodies the idea that you can build a legally binding response to climate change.

I think that a lot of the critics of Kyoto are well wide of the mark…you often hear the argument that Kyoto only accounts for a small proportion of global emissions, well that’s true in terms of the arithmetic tonnes of carbon coverage that you get from the aggregate of all the commitments under Kyoto.

Nevertheless Kyoto has driven much of what has happened in the EU, and the EU really is on the pathway to become one of the world’s first genuinely low-carbon economies – and that’s a dynamic process still in its early days.

I’m struck by how much momentum the EU has been able to build despite the enormous distractions and the crises we have been beset by since 2008 and Lehman brothers….as with everything in the EU it’s a complex picture and you see different views from different countries.

But take Germany – the largest economy in the EU, look at the progress they have made on efficiency and renewables – and the understanding that is crystallising in Germany is that this is not fundamentally a threat to most major economic interests. Yes you have to address the legitimate concerns of some of the high-carbon intensive industries around Europe, but we’ve learnt a little on the way how to do that as well.

The EU clearly has a lot on its plate, but I think if it stands back and says what have we achieved and what can we achieve, I think the climate and carbon story is quite an important part of that discussion….and I also think that EU member states acting individually would be a lot less than the sum of their parts, in trying to shape the global response.

Whereas the EU acting coherently, not necessarily in a unanimous, ‘speak your weight machine’ kind of way – not because of what it’s asking of other countries but from what they see the EU doing itself. That’s enormously powerful…there’s no way of replicating that without the EU – we’d have to reinvent the EU in order to exert that imprint on the global economy – we’re the world’s largest single market.

The decisions we take about our technology standards – and what are the technology standards for a low carbon world – are widely copied because a lot of other people feel the EU already has good institutions for setting technology standards, why should we reinvent the wheel. That gives the EU weight in the global economy beyond its direct imprint.

RTCC: Finance mechanisms and funding will clearly be a big issue in Durban along with discussions about Kyoto…what funding can the UK and EU offer after 2012…?

John Ashton: Well…one thing we need to get much better at is turning this from a technical conversation among experts from the climate negotiations and reaching out so that a wider range of interests can connect and understand. You need that in order to maintain the legitimacy of the framework. What we’re trying to build is on such a scale we need to invest a lot in maintaining legitimacy, but you also need it in order to make it effective.

We talk about climate finance, but if you look closely there are a number of different strands:

The financing arrangements associated with helping the poorest and most vulnerable countries, which have contributed least to the fact there is a problem in the first place, but are also least equipped to deal with its consequences. It would be a moral dereliction if those countries which are richer and had contributed more were simply to turn their backs on it, and the UK has not. Out of – I think it’s the £2.9 Billion we have allocated post Copenhagen, we’ve said we’re aiming to spend 50% of that on adaptation…

Then you have the forest issues – reversing deforestation because of the consequences associated with that – that requires a tailor-made approach to financing which is different from adaptation, and then you have the mitigation…the financing that will accelerate the low-carbon transition. Each of those are different, the sources of funds and the balance between public and private, and I’m rather critical of climate finance negotiators for not having done more to communicate what this is about.

If we do it in our own little bubble, the bubble will burst at some point, because not enough of our stakeholders will have understood it. I think it’s early days…we need to be focused on the short-term and longer-term – what we said on the long-term in Cancun was that this is trying to mobilise additional financial flows of up to 100 Billion dollars a year – that’s by 2020 – it’s a major challenge.

Again, there’s a tension between it’s urgent, and Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s particularly difficult to untangle the knots that beset that debate at a time when finance ministers in Europe and each way are focused on financial and monetary stability, and also how are we going to generate the growth that will liberate the resources that we can use to invest in this. It will require patience but it is important to keep the promises we have made so far and again I think Durban is a step on the way. We agreed in Cancun to set up a Green Climate Fund – we now need to put some flesh on those bones at Durban…that’s a very important piece of the overall architecture, including short-term credibility.

RTCC: How significant is it that this conference is in Africa…?

John Ashton: I think it is significant that it is in Africa – although as soon as people start talking about a region as a homogenous group of identical countries it’s worth adding that that’s never the case. A few weeks ago I was in Ethiopia and then in Angola. There are some similarities but also some fundamental differences between those two countries, and both are very different from South Africa, and so on. So you have to make the effort to understand the texture, diversity and richness across regions.

But I do think there is a disproportionate group of countries in Africa that are on the front line of climate change, and if having the conference in Africa helps to focus the world on their predicament and to sharpen our response to that predicament then I think that would be a worthwhile thing to have done. But at the same time – these are not one-way things – I came away from Angola and Ethiopia thinking we have much to learn.

Both have so many problems and levels of poverty that are just impossible to compare with the UK, but take Ethiopia – it has existed for thousands of years on the climatic margin…and what that means is you can have much more valuable conversations about the value of resilience in a country like Ethiopia than in modern and industrialised countries where decision-makers live in cities, separated from the natural world around.

We will only have a productive engagement with Africa if we open our minds to the fact we have a lot to learn, give and share….and that’s a better kind of relationship.

RTCC: And what role would you like to see from the South African Presidency of COP17…?

John Ashton: Well – this is not an easy responsibility to discharge, it was a big step – it always is. I think they should expect as much help as like-minded parties can possibly give them…in trying to bring everyone onto common ground – they have an able set of ministers and officials who are in charge there. I think we need to help them and give them help and political space to arrive at a useful outcome…

RTCC: And what outcome would that be…?

John Ashton: We must avoid a collapse in confidence – as I mentioned in my Guardian article – in the idea of a legally binding response to climate change. It’s evolving over time and more countries are coming in as they become more prosperous to the realm of legally binding commitments, including carbon commitments. You could get a complete and definitive failure in confidence in any one of these meetings.

In a sense breakdown is always possible – and actually having had that once in Copenhagen it would potentially be terminal to have it again, so that really has to be avoided. On the other hand, a once and for all breakthrough, because this isn’t a cup final, is not available.

What’s available is a useful step towards a higher level of confidence. What is that like? There are lots of ingredients – progress on Green Climate Fund and other Cancun issues – but the heart of it is a question over the legal nature of the regime we are trying to build, and I think that really has two parts.

It has a 2nd Kyoto commitment period but it also has a ‘commitment to commit’ from those countries who are not taking on Kyoto commitments…in the form of some kind if initiating of a negotiation of about what happens at the end of the Kyoto 2nd commitment period – how will we broaden this regime.

We know now that already it needs to be broader, you can’t deliver 2 degrees simply on the basis of the commitments made by the Kyoto parties with binding emission caps. Albeit we have to do it in an equitable way, and respect the principle which has always been part of this negotiation known as ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.

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