Q&A: John Ashton answers your climate change questions

John Ashton was the UK’s chief climate diplomat between 2006-2012.

He’s agreed to partner with RTCC once a month and answer any questions our readers have about climate politics, economics and the UN negotiations.

We asked six regular RTCC correspondents to pose John his first round of queries – you can read his answers below.

Send your own via the comments form at the bottom of the page, on Twitter @RTCCnewswire or by emailing info (at) climatechangenews.com.

Tom Youngman, UK : The Treasury seem to be the constant block on progress on climate action in the UK. How do you think the damaging anti-environmentalism that seems to prevail there can be broken?

JA: This is a key question in relation to climate change and a wider set of dilemmas. I’m not sure anti environmentalism goes to the heart of it. There is an issue to do with the received wisdom or culture in the Treasury. It’s quite hard to understand given of all the departments it has one of the highest turnovers – there’s a constant churn of new people. Some of the brightest civil servants I’ve ever met have been Treasury people. The other thing I’d say for context is I don’t think there’s anyone there who ponders while eating their cornflakes how much damage they can do that day. They set out to run the economy as best they can.

But there is a set of ideas that they cleave to about how the economy can best be run, and what I found was that every time you tried to develop an argument about a low carbon growth model you bumped into a reflex in the Treasury which said ‘if it’s low carbon it must be anti-growth’, at least in the short term. They were not for a moment open to the idea that there might be a set of policies that might be good for the UK’s growth interest in the short term while being essential to drive a transition to a low carbon economy.

Just to give an example – we have what economists call an ‘output gap’ at the moment, which is manifest for example in the building and construction sector, and when the housing bubble burst thousands went on to welfare. When you have that situation and at the same time have some of Europe’s most energy inefficient building stock, one of the really big things you need to do is upgrade that. And when you have an army of people on benefits who could pick up shovels and get on with it, that to me feels like a win-win in terms of aligning multiple objectives – energy efficiency, easing energy bills, reducing welfare burden and also improving growth.

But I think there is a cultural resistance to that among certain parts of the economic policy establishment and certainly from where I sat I felt that most strongly in the case of the Treasury.

How can it be broken? I think in academic growth economics this really is a moment for deep self- examination, and I’m not sure I see that happening to the extent that it should be. It’s interesting – the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) every now and again gets up as part of its job to forecast growth in the next cycle. When it does that it has to explain why the growth in the last cycle turns out to be so different to the growth they said we’d get in their last forecast. For someone like me trained in physics, we need someone asking questions about the theory underpinning the modelling. I don’t think that’s being done – the growth economics compass is far more broken than the establishment will acknowledge.

The most sophisticated climate models now are a lot more rigorous than the economic models on which we take pretty heavy duty decisions. I also think frankly that over the last couple of political generations the Treasury has become too powerful – there’s a sense around government that you can’t go up against the Treasury, so other departments that ought to be more robust have developed a bit of an inferiority complex, partly because the Treasury holds so many of the purse strings, but that’s unhealthy for good order and high quality government.

For instance, there was a recent article in the Financial Times based on Freedom of Information documents, where it appears the Treasury were trying to impose a veto on other departments discussing the implications for growth of resource insecurity. Frankly, that needs to be a society-wide issue – nobody should have a monopoly on that. There’s some pulling down of barriers that needs to go on, and a little bit of humility as well.

You have an elite who are very powerful, but they have a theory that has broken down, which the public understands has broken down. So wrong theory, too much power, and too insulated – they don’t get out that much – Treasury officials – they need to get out more. Since I left government I’ve found there’s a strong perception that when people  talk to the line departments like DECC, they often get the feeling there is the ‘hidden hand’ of the Treasury which they have no access to.

If they don’t get about more the risk is the Treasury will be demonised, and I think it is in quite a vulnerable position, because the perception is it is an Emperor with no clothes. If I were Sir Nick Macpherson, the first Permanent Secretary, I’d be quite concerned about that.

Olga Dobrovidova, Russia: Do you share the Russian sentiment of growing ‘legal nihilism‘ at the talks, ie more tolerance for bogus ‘consensus’ and breaches of diplomatic formalities?

JA: Not really. I think there’s a tendency to conflate the view of climate negotiators who attend the UNFCCC talks with whole countries like Russia, China or Britain. That’s wrong. Because one of the real problems we have is that there is too much disconnect between the world of the negotiations where people are representing their countries and the societies they represent.

The societies have no idea they are being represented in whatever way they are – because we haven’t done the domestic politics that’s necessary to support the kind of outcome we need in the negotiations.

It’s like a kind of bubble happening in a fifth dimension. I would challenge the negotiators – and I’ve been one myself – to put a lot more of their energy into building debates inside their societies. Unless those debates take place the negotiators won’t have the mandates they need for an agreement we need to keep climate change below 2C.

As for legal nihilism – these are frustrating negotiations – it’s the world’s most complex multilateral arena. I would challenge any trade or arms control negotiator to have a debate on whose is more complicated…there is nothing more complicated. You are dealing with dozens of talks going on at the same time. No single human being can fully encompass all of the choices that they are called upon to make, so I can understand when people say ‘slow down’ a bit, we need more due process.

But I think if you are a negotiator there is a real obligation on you to have done as much of your homework as possible before you get there and thought through all of the scenarios you could be involved in so you don’t get taken by surprise. It’s not an impossible task – I think in the last few COPs they have all been easy to identify – even Copenhagen. And you spot the moment and you have to make judgements quickly on the basis of imperfect information.    All negotiators have a responsibility to the process, and that includes not missing those moments when they come.

Esther Agbarakwe, Nigeria: When the UK Govt gives support to governments of the Global South, do they give with specific criteria? If yes, does it include active participation by civil society and youth in all process of design and implementation?

JA: I don’t work for the British Government anymore – so here’s my personal view. I think it’s essential that we do more to open this process up, so negotiators can’t get away with speaking to each other in a language only they understand, without putting in the hard yards to engage the societies where they come from. The one part of those societies that matters most is young people – they have more of their futures ahead of them than anyone else and have massive moral authority – and that’s why I have been working closely with the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC).

It’s certainly in the spirit of the UK approach to facilitate engagement with and participation by young people. The UK does fund civil society engagement on climate change including in relation to the UNFCCC in a number of countries – I don’t know about Nigeria – but in principle there’s no reason why it shouldn’t as far as I know.

Chuan Zhao, China: Climate policy is to some extent an economic policy. In terms of UK climate policy specifically, how do the government balance the relationship between climate change and economic growth? Do you think it works well so far?

JA: If we see this as a question of balancing, on the one hand if we do more for growth there’s a cost for climate and vice versa – that is going to lead us to failure both on climate and on growth. The point is you can’t grow the economy if you’re not getting to grips with climate change, and that’s not a problem for 20-50 years ahead. You’re already seeing economic damage arising from climatic extremes consistent with what we expect to be happening from climate change.

Look at the numbers that are coming out about the damage. The sum of money US Congress had to vote – tens of billions of dollars to repair after Hurricane Sandy. The cost to the Australian economy of the various droughts and floods they have had, the cost to the Pakistan economy of the floods a couple of years ago that wiped away decades’ worth of infrastructure investment. I could go on – these are hits to the economy.

There is also growing insecurity over resources – food, energy, water – often reflected in price volatility. These are coming to be seen as part of a nexus. If you don’t deal with them together, you can’t deal with any one of them separately. This is at the heart of the economy. You have to find a policy that is aligned between the traditional economic perspective and the climate perspective.

That’s available – it’s about investing in innovation, infrastructure, new industries – which China has been very successful at. The unit costs of solar PV over the last five years have gone down  as a result of the rapid research , investment and market growth in China. It’s about getting away from that false choice that it’s a balance and a trade-off into a more realistic view about building a new growth model.

David Marshall, Malta: Is it time for the Annex II category at the UN climate talks to be fundamentally reformed. It seems absurd that countries like Qatar are still classed as developing?

JA: There’s a lot that is absurd in the world. I understand why so many people agonise over the architecture of this process, and everybody has their own plans. But fundamentally, those are red herrings. They sidestep the real obstacle which is we have not done the domestic politics. We have not built a political consensus in the major economies that can drive a transition in a generation or so from a high carbon to a carbon neutral economy. That’s a dramatic transformation – and it will be a social transformation and a political change.

There are few countries where people are offered a clear choice between the low carbon economy and business and usual. Unless you can express the will of the people it’s hard to effect a real transformation – that’s what we need to do, and everything else is displacement and draws imagination, energy and effort away.

There are a number of things that can be done to improve the process and some do need to be done soon. But actually a lot of those things I think would probably happen naturally if you built the political foundation. There’s no task more Sisyphean than trying to reconfigure parts of diplomatic geometry in the United Nations. The risk is you put huge energy into an unproductive effort to move the deckchairs rather than focusing on what really needs to be done.

Alok Gupta, India: Countries such as Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in COP 18. What is the biggest cause for these countries to change their course at a later stage after initial ratification?

JA: If you haven’t got a strong consensus in any country to do what it takes to be part of the solution rather than the problem, then that country will behave as part of the problem. Countries whose economies depend on fossil fuel production have a particular challenge there, because this is about shutting down demand for their product, give or take some carbon, capture and storage.

If you detach yourself from the process, and if you walk away as Canada did from the Kyoto Protocol, you’re saying to the world: ‘you may think I’m part of the problem but I don’t mind’, and you can’t then complain when people say ‘that is how we see you’. Canada is unashamedly part of the problem, because of the decision that it has taken. Canadian politicians might argue with what I have just said, but they can’t change the perception.

What they did in pulling out of Kyoto was a big thing. They will say they signalled it, but that doesn’t make it any less provocative a move. They will say the previous government shouldn’t have taken those commitments – well – they did. Clearly it is contested whether they could have done them or not. There’s also a question over Tar Sands – there’s a big effort in Alberta to dissuade you from calling them Tar Sands, and that’s a bit Orwellian.

I understand if you are Albertan the feeling of sitting under a tree if there’s a ripe fruit and reaching for that fruit – and then the oil price goes higher, the technology improves and you can suddenly touch the fruit. Nobody is saying they have to turn the taps off immediately, but at the same time I think the reason we have a global discourse on climate change is a recognition that if you have an interest in carbon intensive economy then you have to be honest about the consequences.

If look at the carbon arithmetic, you cannot see how you can have a prayer of keeping climate change within 2C while exploiting to the full the unconventional resources that are in Alberta, Venezuela and around the world. If Canada wants to be seen as part of the solution again, the first step is to recognize that.

Send your own questions via the comments form below, on Twitter @RTCCnewswire or by emailing info (at) climatechangenews.com.

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