John Ashton: a winning climate coalition is waiting to be forged

Former UK climate envoy says low carbon industry and progressive politicians need to develop new alliance

By John Ashton

I sometimes think we overcomplicate the question of climate change.

We need to deal with climate change because if we don’t the stresses it unleashes could easily overwhelm our ability to manage them.

Stresses in the systems we rely on for food, water and energy form a single nexus, locked together and amplified by climate stress. If we cannot offer a prospect of food security, water security and energy security to the 10 billion or so people with whom we will soon be sharing our world, then it is likely to become an uncomfortable place for all of us.

As a diplomat I find it hard to see how in such circumstances we could maintain the impulse for cooperation in the face of common problems that has characterized much of the postwar period and that is now more than ever essential. If we lose it, retreat will beckon, towards competition, fragmentation and ultimately chronic conflict.

The spirit of Hobbes is certainly stirring at the moment.

I remember even before the beginning of the Arab Spring sitting in the Foreign Office being warned by colleagues based in Damascus that the drought that started to affect Syria as early as 2006 was devastating rural livelihoods, destabilizing the social foundations of the Alawite regime, and taking the country even then towards a potentially horrific precipice.

So it would be a good idea to deal effectively with climate change: as John Holdren has put it to avoid what we cannot manage and manage what we cannot avoid.

The managing and the avoiding are different, though connected. Tonight I’m going to focus on the avoiding.

It is not difficult to set out what we need to do.

We need, within not much more than a generation, to build an energy system that is pretty much carbon neutral. Think of that as a “4+1” prospectus.

One: a carbon neutral electricity system. No more coal or gas for electricity, unless we lock away the resulting carbon emissions through carbon capture and storage.

Two: carbon neutral transport. No more liquid hydrocarbon fuels, at least of mineral origin, for vehicles, trains, ships and eventually planes.

Three: no more gas to heat our homes and buildings.

Four: carbon capture and storage with all those processes that are inherently carbon intensive: steel and other metals, petrochemicals and plastics, cement and so on.

That’s all on the supply side of the economy. In addition – the “+1” – we will find this transition much easier if we act just as decisively on the demand side, by using energy in whatever form less wastefully than we do now.

What a remarkable prospect of industrial and economic renewal! As it proceeds we will be ushering in a new golden age of electricity, as we electrify transport and heating while generating, transmitting, storing and using electricity in smarter, more efficient ways. At other moments in history such a prospect would have unleashed a tidal wave of investment and innovation. It would have made the future look so bright.

But as Bob, and Corinne, and Kevin and many others in this room have long been pointing out, no economy has yet embarked on this transition at anything like the necessary scale and pace.  It is certainly a daunting task. But just because we haven’t done it, aren’t doing it, does that mean we can’t do it?

If we fail, it won’t be through lack of knowledge. The community of which you are part has done an incredible job in assembling accessible knowledge across dozens of disciplines about the nature of this problem and the responses that are available. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is about to unleash the next instalment.

I can’t incidentally mention the IPCC without paying tribute to Bob and his contribution to the understanding about climate change now available to anyone who has an appetite for it.

When I was just beginning my explorations, before I knew how climate diplomacy would take over my life, Bob more than once opened his door to me at the World Bank and answered my very basic questions with patience and generosity beyond the call of duty. I’m sure he had better things to do. I’ll always be grateful for that and I know that many others have had the same experience.

What about technology? Is that where the blockage lies?

Actually if we fail it won’t be because we lack technology either. On each of the 4+1 fronts, the technology we need in order to take the next steps is available or within reach.

If not technology what about capital? This will be an infrastructure transition and there is no shortage of capital to invest in the infrastructure we need. Yes, it will require a surge of new investment, but as Martin Wolf and many others have pointed out, here and in many other economies there could not be a better time, with interest rates at historic lows, to mobilize private capital for such a purpose.

Is there a shortage of policy? We know what policies can help us. Around the world we are experimenting with most of them, and they are in some places beginning to bring the low carbon economy to life. Here in the UK, while the economy as a whole has been in the doldrums the low carbon economy has been growing for several years now at close to 4% a year.

The failure we need to confront is not a failure of knowledge, technology, capital or policy. It is a failure of politics. Politics is the means by which societies make choices together. Climate change is about politics before it is abut anything else.

This is an excerpt from a lecture the UK’s former climate change envoy John Ashton gave at the University of East Anglia on September 11. You can download the full text below.

John Ashton Tyndall Centre Lecture

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