Solar success holds key to Paris deal, says UK climate envoy

Governments now believe a clean energy transition is possible and desirable, prime ministerial advisor Greg Barker tells RTCC

Energy and Climate Minister Greg Barker joined David Cameron at the official opening of the London Array (Pic: Twitter/Greg Barker)

Energy and Climate Minister Greg Barker joined David Cameron at the official opening of the London Array (Pic: Twitter/Greg Barker)

By Ed King

The roaring success of solar power has transformed the green economy from “hypothesis to a reality”, and made the prospects of a global climate change deal more likely now than ever before.

That is the view of Greg Barker, the UK prime minister’s special envoy on climate change and former government minister, reflecting on clean energy progress in the past five years.

While governments were nervous about committing to a low carbon future at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, he believes they now trust the alternative cleaner energy sources on offer.

“One of the major reasons Copenhagen wasn’t the success we hoped for in 2009 was that too much was uncertain, particularly around the potential for green energy to provide an alternative to fossil fuels and at a reasonable cost. We’ve now punched through that barrier,” Barker tells RTCC.

The dramatic fall in solar prices in that time has been a major factor in this shift in confidence, he says, meaning world leaders in Brussels, Washington, New Delhi and Beijing believe a UN pact is “viable, possible and desirable.”

Recent Deutsche Bank analysis suggests global solar prices could fall 40% by 2020, with 100 million new customers and US$4 trillion of value added to the sector.

Much has been made of China’s solar ambitions. The country is the world’s leading producer of PV panels, and installed capacity grew 67% in 2014, well on course to top 100 gigawatts by 2020.

But it’s India where Barker – who was given a ministerial brief for the country in 2012 – sees the greatest potential under the leadership of prime minister Narendra Modi, who he described as a “welcome break from the past”.

A developing country with a vast population below the poverty line, Barker argues India’s greenhouse gas emissions are bound to grow, a fact that needs to be accepted he says by other countries.

But despite India’s heavy reliance on coal for electricity, he says its solar ambitions mean that it’s not necessarily stuck on a high carbon trajectory – one that would likely blow global chances of limiting warming to below 2C – a level deemed safe by governments.

“Look at what the Modi government is doing – they have big ambitions for solar,” he said. “100 gigawatts [by 2020] is accepted as the big goal with informal estimates of what is possible much higher.”

Future UK governments will need to work closely with their counterparts in Delhi, he said, offering knowledge and the levels of private sector investment he says the City of London is uniquely suited to delivering.

But climate politics can be a cultural tightrope – and one he says ministers need to acknowledge when dealing with the world’s emerging economies.

“Pressure from developed countries is very counterproductive,” he said. “You have to understand the heritage and cultural baggage that the UK as former colonial power brings.

“What we need to show is we are part of the solution not hammering them for the problem.”

Road to Paris

This type of careful diplomacy will be needed over the next eight months as envoys from over 190 countries craft a climate pact their leaders are scheduled to sign off this December.

Central to this progress will be a series of stage-managed set-piece events between now and the end of the year, calibrated to demonstrate how committed governments are to curbing emissions.

For Barker it is the G7 that will be the litmus test for this ambition. The two-day meeting will be hosted by Germany in June. The official website says it will be a “watershed for cooperation” on climate change and the sustainable development goals.

This will be the moment when the world’s top economies must “get with the programme” and throw their support behind pledges made by China, the US and European Union, he says.

“That’s the point we need leaders to get their heads above the parapet and agree to an ambitious deal and leave it to the negotiators to work out the fine detail – but not to pull a rabbit out of the hat.”

He warns an agreement needs to be settled “well before we get to Paris,” a tough task given the current text stands at over 80 pages, and with only limited negotiating time between now and December.

“I don’t expect we will be able to walk away from Paris and say job done, see you in 2050, but I think it should mark a watershed moment when we put all economies on the same page,” he adds.

“It may be we’ll have to come back and put more flesh on the bones in due course but I hope it will be the end – if not the end of climate negotiations, it will mark the end of the beginning.”

On the vexed question of its legal nature and how countries would be compelled to abide by their commitments, Barker says the US and others who are against a binding pact should not be “let off the hook” but warns against wasting too much time on that issue.

“It is important but the nature of the legal agreement could be slightly esoteric… ultimately it’s the outcome which will deliver and that’s what I’m most interested in,” he says.

“I would rather have an imperfect legal agreement with a strong outcome focus than hold out for something we are not going to get.”

Cash drought

For many observers finance flows from developed to developing countries will be a major sticking point. Funding from public sources has sharply dropped off since 2012.

A UN-backed Green Climate Fund (GCF) is now up and running, but it has a relatively meagre US$10 billion to spend over the next three years.

Envoys from poorer countries say no cash, no deal. But Barker – long an advocate of the private sector’s role in climate financing – says it will offer an answer to the funding drought.

“The GCF is more iconic than material in terms of the contribution it’s going to make because the requirement of investment – particularly in developing countries – is huge,” he said.

“If you look at the amount of money that is being committed by private institutions to this sector is dwarfs anything that’s going into the GCF.”

As evidence he cites Citi’s recent pledge to invest US$100 billion in climate related projects over the next ten years, as well as the rise of the green bonds market.

But he admits that while the appetite is there, confidence that the private sector will deliver in poorer countries is lacking.

To counter this before Paris he says those countries who have met their funding promises must offer a “show and tell” of what they have delivered to generate confidence that funds are still on tap.

UK ambition

If finance is one of the indicators of ambition ahead of Paris, so too are domestic policies to drive investment in low carbon energy sources, efficiency and cleaner fuels.

The UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act compels the government to abide by a series of five–year carbon budgets, but leaves how they achieve them open.

It is these policies that are under scrutiny as the 2015 UK election approaches, with many sceptical that a Conservative government without the influence of its greener Liberal coalition partner would maintain support for the country’s nascent wind and solar industries.

It is a charge Barker – who quits as an MP in May to pursue a career in private equity – rejects strongly.

He acknowledges there are “half a dozen or eight” vocal climate sceptics within Conservative ranks but insists that the threat of climate change “is not a controversial area” within the Party.

“People have views when there’s an impact on consumer bills or energy security, but this is not something that is being hotly debated,” he says.

“I’m very optimistic. The people who are committed to this agenda are a lot more than perhaps you might think.”

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Nick Herd, Richard Benyon, Matt Hancock, Amber Rudd are all “green” Tories to watch in the next parliament he says – along with maverick MP Zac Goldsmith, who this week secured a government pledge to create one of the world’s largest marine reserves around Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific.

News the Conservatives still have a dash of green running through their veins may surprise some groups who have accused prime minister David Cameron of going lukewarm on climate change, citing his alleged “cut the green crap” comment last year.

Barker says Cameron remains supportive of efforts to address the issue – albeit not as stridently as 2006, when the pair traveled to the Arctic with WWF to highlight melting polar ice.

“It’s not so much that he’s not positive. He is positive. The prime minister is always positive,” Barker says.

“It’s close to his heart and he has long-standing commitments dating right back to when he and I stood on that glacier in the Arctic.

“But be under no doubt the key question at the election will be the economy – who is best suited to take the country forward and secure our economic future.”

That future will be focused on developing the UK’s renewable capacity – Barker proudly says it rose from providing 3% of electricity in 2010 to 16% in 2015.

And if the Conservatives retain power it will also likely include a new and expanded tranche of onshore gas exploration, known as fracking.

It’s a politically toxic issue which has caused ructions across the country – with heated campaigns against gas drilling likely to have some localised effects during the general election.

Some companies have already been scared off. Others, like Cuadrilla, have tried to lower their profile and offer financial incentives to local communities.

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Barker argues opposition to fracking has got out of hand. Just like the righteous right-wing rage against onshore wind farms has stunted that industry, he suggests rhetoric has overtaken facts on the ground.

“In terms of fracking – I think people do get unnecessarily aerated about this… we have the highest environmental standards of almost any major oil and gas producer here in the UK, we have a terrific record of driving innovation in regulations so I am not concerned unduly,” he said.

“I believe in gas being part of the solution, and I think too many of the green groups are having a knee-jerk reaction because it’s a convenient campaign for them to coalesce around. Coal is the enemy… in terms of a renewables-led economy gas is our ally.”

That’s unlikely to be a refrain that wins him too many friends at Greenpeace or WWF, who are vehemently opposed to fracking.

But after five years of defending the UK government’s record on climate change the outgoing MP is keen to leave on the offensive.

Carbon emissions are falling: 9% in 2014. No, he doesn’t think David Cameron’s pledge to be the “greenest government ever” in 2010 was a mistake; yes, he does believe solar has a huge role to play under the UK’s cloudy skies.

If there’s one regret it’s “paying too much attention to the big six energy companies” over plans to roll out a nationwide housing efficiency plan, known as the Green Deal.

The energy giants pretended to be keen but never really tried to sell the government’s vision of using less electricity and gas to consumers, he says.

That’s a problem the next government, be they red, blue or a rainbow coalition will have to contend with.

Whoever is in charge, Barker said he’d like one aspect to improve based on his experiences since 2010.

“We’ve got a great record on green… but perhaps I’d like whoever will be the minister or prime minister after May to shout a little bit louder about our successes.”

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