COP26: All You Need to Know

with Tom Burke 02 December 2021 | Podcast
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Following dense weeks packed with global climate talks in Glasgow, Highgrade brings to you an executive summary of the climate change crisis; a digest of the discussions and all you need to know about COP26. To do this, we have called upon Tom Burke, climate change expert, founding Director of E3G – and an old friend of the hou

Åsa Borssén:
The tale of Icarus in Greek mythology tells the story of a young man who, ignoring his father’s warnings, flew to high and close to the sun, where the heat melted the wax that fastened his wings to the body, tumbling out of the sky and drowning in the sea below.

As COP26 is wrapped up, and the Scottish conference rooms emptied, today, we seek to understand: How close to the sun are we really flying? I’m your host, Åsa Borssén, and this is Highgrade.

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Åsa Borssén:
Following dense weeks, packed with global climate talks in Glasgow, Highgrade brings to you an executive summary of the climate change crisis; a digest of the discussions and all you need to know about COP26. To do this, we’ve called upon Tom Burke, climate change expert, Founding Director of E3G – and an old friend of the house.

Tom, COP26 is now over. Before we get into the details, what is your general feeling about it?

Tom Burke:
I think we did better than I’d expected and nothing like good enough, is my general feeling. I think the tone was interesting, rather than the specifics of the outcome – which everybody’s commentaries focused on – the tone was interesting, because it was a much greater sense of people wanting to get it done. And there were some moments when, in the nature of a UN meeting, people could have held it all up, and they didn’t. And I think that reflects the fact that the urgency has got through to governments. I think the public has had it for some time.

Åsa Borssén:
What about the private sector? Did you feel the same from them, the same sort of fighting spirit?

Tom Burke:
Well, the private sector is not a sector, there are several bits, and they don’t all flow in the same direction. I think the finance community has really got the point. And that stems from Paris and Mark Carney having pointed out that climate change was an existential threat to macroeconomic stability. And what’s flying from that is the idea that carbon climate risk really matters. And I think the financial community is gearing up for that. I think some bits of the corporate sector, particularly the sort of fossil fuel industries, have begun to take this very seriously, in the sense that they see it as a threat to their business model as well as to their revenues.

But I think quite a lot of the corporate sector is still some way from understanding what they’re exposed to if climate policy fails. For instance, if you think about Europe and the tourist industry and how important that is to a lot of European economies, if climate policy fails, by 2040 there could well be a real hit on the tourists, the whole hospitality industry, in southern Europe, as Northern Europeans find the idea of spending two or three weeks in 40 degrees heat not very compelling. You have all the threats of fire and water availability as well. And I don’t think the corporate sector have understood how much they’ve got at risk yet. They’re still a bit focused on whether it will put the price of fuels up.

Åsa Borssén:
We are going to dive deeper into the results and all of that, but do you want to say something quickly on the results? Where was it we fell short?

Tom Burke:
Well, we fell short both in terms of ambition, in other words the rate at which we’re going to drive emissions down, and we fell short in terms of the transfers of money and the releasing of money. So not just the 100 billion dollar-promise that was made in Paris, which we’ve now r-promised to make in 2023, but also the greater mobilization of both private and public finance to help with greening the recovery of after COVID and so on. So, lots of the right words, but there’s still not enough money on the table.

Åsa Borssén:
Fundamentally, the climate is warming because of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere. Let’s establish some basic facts. In order of scale, what human activities release the most CO2?

Tom Burke:
We burn fossil fuels. It’s as simple as that. It’s not just CO2, it’s also methane, a bunch of other gases that we lead into the atmosphere. But the most important in quantity terms is CO2. In impact terms is actually methane. And that’s by a long way the most important. A lot of methane comes from livestock. So it’s not just the fossil fuel industries as such, it’s also quite a lot of the agriculture, the food industry have got a part to play. And so one of the most important things that did come out, a bit of a side agreement to the main Glasgow Åact, but was this commitment by countries to reduce their methane emissions by 30% by 2030. That’s quite significant, because it buys time to do things that are more difficult to do.

Åsa Borssén:
And what countries emit the most CO2?

Tom Burke:
China now is the biggest current emitter. US is up there then, pretty close next to it. Obviously, the US has a much bigger historical impact than China but China’s now the leading country, and India is quite close behind. And again, different arguments about whether you count absolute or whether you count per capita burdens. At the end of the day the climate doesn’t care.

Åsa Borssén:
There’s also this argument of adjusting for consumption. What is produced in China is consumed in Europe and the US, for example.

Tom Burke:
Well, there’s an argument about where the inventories are counted and yet the climate is not very interested in that accounting process. What you’ve got to avoid is two things. One is the double counting. So, you can’t count the climate both where it’s produced and where it’s consumed. But also you’ve got to think about the reality of thinking how many countries components go into something like a mobile phone, and where do you allocate that. And in a sense, it’s much cleaner and simpler and more manageable to think primarily about where it’s emitted.

Åsa Borssén:
The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Has the world as a whole started to reduce its CO2 emissions since?

Tom Burke:
No, it hasn’t. But it did during COVID, because it was a big reduce in the economic activities. And we’re now back up. We’re not on the kind of decline that we need to be on if we’re to have any chance of retaining a safe climate.

Åsa Borssén:
And that is 1.5. Is that, in your view, the safe zone?

Tom Burke:
Yeah, and I but I think it’s quite interesting to think that through. The original goal of the threshold of dangerous climate change was two degrees increase above pre-industrial temperatures. And that was based on the science we had of the impacts of climate change in about 2008. What happened after the Paris Agreement, which said reduce well below two if you can, what really shifted focus under 1.5 Is that when a major reconsideration of the science of impacts came out a couple of years ago, it made it quite clear that 1.5 was as dangerous as we thought two degrees were 13 years ago. So there’s been a recalibration, if you like, of what the impact of temperatures is. We understand a lot better, just how bad for humanity climate change is.

Åsa Borssén:
The developed world is historically the biggest emitters, they have the resources to deal with this more than the developing world. Has the developed world cut down emissions since the Paris Agreement?

Tom Burke:
I mean, it’s one of the things that said often is that nothing has been done. I mean, Greta Thunberg, has said, you know, we’ve done nothing. That’s not true. We’ve not done enough, but we’ve not done nothing. In fact, if we continued as we were at the end of the last century, both our temperature and our carbon burden in the climate would be a lot higher than it is now. So really significant reductions have taken place in terms of what we might otherwise have done. But in terms of how much carbon there is in the atmosphere that’s still going up. Part of that is because economies are still growing and they’re still growing based on fossil fuels. Very difficult to say economy should stop growing. You can’t really expect to get public consent to an energy transition that does not allow for real incomes to rise. But there is a lot of reason why people in India and Africa, a lot of other countries, why their real incomes should rise. And we’re not going to be able to stop that. So we have to do something about how we meet their requirement for energy.

We have enough technology, we know what we need to do to do that, and the technologies to do it are available now. And we’re going to get a lot more technologies. So the problem isn’t technology, the problem isn’t how do you deliver enough energy to people without burning fossil fuels. We know how to do that. And we know we can afford to do that. But when you make a technology transformation you also make a social transformation. And you change the pattern of winners and losers. And we’re not very good at that. And the politics of that are largely why countries don’t do as much as they should. Because the internal politics in a country like Australia of getting rid of all of your coal, the internal politics is pretty tricky.

Åsa Borssén:
This is something you told me already four years ago when we spoke, you said then to me, as you did today, that the challenge of climate change is not technical, it’s political. Why hasn’t more happened? Haven’t we sort of gotten over the hurdle of politics since then?

Tom Burke:
The short answer to that question is no, we haven’t. And I think it’s quite important to make a distinction here. We think of government, and we forget that there are two parts to government: there’s an administrative part of government, and there’s a political part of government. And by and large, the administrative part of government does what it’s allowed to do and does a reasonable job. The political part of government is very difficult, it’s the bit that’s causing the problems. And that’s because our political leaders are not providing a lead. They’re trying to hang on to a present where they have power, and they know what they’re doing, and not deal with a future, which will be very different from the one they’ve gotten now. So there’s a real absence, not just an action by politicians, but also leadership of telling people what the problem is, and what needs to be done. And what we saw with COVID, was that when people understand what needs to be done, and they get a clear lead from their political leaders, they do what needs to be done. So there’s quite a lot of politicians hiding behind the people, not the other way around.

Åsa Borssén:
One of the burning questions, as you mentioned, is who should pay the cost of reducing the CO2? What will be your answer, who should pay for it?

Tom Burke:
Well, we’ve all got to pay the cost, because we all get the benefit of a climate in which it’s possible for civilization, and the economy and prosperity to continue. So we’ve all got to pay. Now, who pays and how much they pay depends on the political decisions that governments make. If they make very stupid decisions, everybody, and especially people who are less well equipped, will pay a lot. If they make smart decisions…there’s no free lunch. But if they make smart decisions, then the cost actually will go down a lot over time, though it will go up a bit initially. So for instance, major focus in most countries, in the developed world is on it should be on energy efficiency. It’s not what attracts the most effort, or the biggest headlines. But it does several things at once: it reduces your emissions, it reduces your bills, because it relieves you of exposure to the volatility of commodity prices. And it also improves your as it were national security, because it reduces your dependence on global markets and supply chains. So it’s very hard to understand why politicians aren’t investing more in that than anything else.

Åsa Borssén:
But it’s changing those big systems, that’s where the big cost is, isn’t it?

Tom Burke:
Yeah, it is. And that’s where the big problems are, because they are big systems, and humanity has never had to do anything of this scale before. The prospects of failing don’t bear thinking about. So we’ve got to figure out how to do it. I’m not troubled by figuring out how, as I said, to do the technology, or even the economics. I am troubled by how we deal with the politics and getting the politics to support what we know we can do technologically and economically.

Åsa Borssén:
So, for example, the UK, they committed to net zero by 2050. How much is this going to hurt consumers? And you mean then that it depends on how they do it?

Tom Burke:
Yeah. I mean, first of all, when you’re looking at a 30-year time frame, asking what’s the cost of anything got to be an impossible question. The only honest answer is I don’t know. Clearly it will, if you do it badly, it will put bills up a lot. If you do it sensibly it might put bills up a bit at first. But for instance, if you deliver heat which is the biggest issue in most of the northern countries, if you deliver heat in a smart way, then actually people’s bills will evaporate quite quickly. But you’ve got to, for instance, if you’re going to use heat pumps, then what really matters, and the deterrent to people putting heat pumps into their homes is the capital cost is large. Well, government policy can lower the price of capital quite a lot. By borrowing publicly and lending, as it were to private people. So it’s not giving people money. It’s just using a sensible policy tool, that would increase the likelihood of people taking up that option. If you try to do it by driving the price of carbon up, you end up with ‘Gilet Jaune’ not just in France, but all over the northern countries. So it really does make a difference what policy choice you make.

Åsa Borssén:
We mentioned developing countries and the tricky situation they are in because they are going to be heavily affected by climate change, but they need fossil fuels for economic growth, reduce poverty, etc. Should developing countries get an extra CO2 allowance?

Tom Burke:
I don’t think that’s the way to do it. The fact of the matter is, it’s more efficient in most countries in the world, more economically efficient now to use renewables and is to build for instance, new coal fired power. Now, that’s not the view expect the coal fire lobby and the electricity utility to take. But that’s the actual factual base at the moment. The question is, how do you help those countries make that transition, particularly in the light of the enormous impact that they’ve had because of COVID. And that’s where I think it’s really important that the multilateral development institutions play their part. Partly by being clearer in their goal to green the recovery, not just have a recovery of anything, but also partly moving money faster than they’ve currently moved. That’s not a magic wand. But if you combine that piece of private sector investment with opportunity seeking by private investors, then you can move a lot more capital than you might think, if you just think of things being saying, as they say, but somehow dealing with a very different world.

Åsa Borssén:
So, you think we don’t need anything but renewables?

Tom Burke:
I’m sure we can do it by 100% renewables as long as we do energy efficiency. Now, there are other technical issues about how do you balance the grid. We’ve got a lot more technology to help us do that than we had in the past. A lot of that is data sensing technology, digitalization, which allows us to manage our resource bases more efficiently.

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Åsa Borssén:
Today, we have for you a true feast of information to digest all you need to know about COP26. Our guests, Tom Burke, was there at COP1. So, 25 meetings later, he really knows everything that goes on behind those doors.

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Åsa Borssén:
I want to go back to the consumer and the question of what the consumer can do. Some people condemn the fear mongering around this agenda, but there is a real and growing social anxiety. So ultimately, what should individuals do? Change consumption habits, etc? Or is it the governments that should be fixing this?

Tom Burke:
The dominant part is going to be played by governments and the private sector, there’s no doubt about it. If you’re going to change your energy system, a very small number of decision makers are going to make a very small number of very big decisions. And by and large, the public is not going to have much of a say. Now, we know for instance, if you move to electric vehicles are very popular with the public, provided you can provide the infrastructure so that people can be sure they can refuel when they need to, and provided you drive the cost down which as we’ve seen. That’s simply a function of how many you produce. Then I don’t see there’s a problem with consumer choice there. I think when you move to the more difficult bits of agriculture, and land use issues, or when you look at heat, for instance, which are the more difficult things to make the change, then you’ve got to look at consumers playing a more active role making decisions, marginal decisions in their own lives, which add up to the aggregate, which adds up to something very significant. So you’re not going to address those two very different situations with the same policy tool. But I don’t think it’s a moral piece. I don’t think you we can shame people into doing the right thing. And therefore, why I put this emphasis of the role of political leaders not just governments. Political leaders create the narrative that brings out the best in people. And people understand what they’re being asked to do the willingness of most people everywhere, is to do something, and particularly in a context in which you’re right about and that is the level of public anxiety. And that was very evident at COP in terms of the demonstrations on the street, the way that COP reflected into the actual negotiations. And that simply because events have validated the science in the public mind; the droughts, fires, floods, extreme weather events, extreme heat, that people have experienced, or seen other people experience in their daily lives over the last few years, has just validated what the scientists have been saying for 30 or 40 years. So I think that wave of anxiety is going to drive policy continuously.

Åsa Borssén:
COP26, it stands for Conference of Parties, if I remember correctly. Yeah. And so Tom, tell me, what is the purpose of these global meetings?

Tom Burke:
Well, I was at COP1 so I’ve one way or another followed them for 25 years. This is this is a basically building a global regime by which countries try to manage a path to a safe climate. And just to give you a sense of how difficult that task is, essentially, you’ve got to align the energy policies of probably not all 200 countries, but quite a large proportion of them, maybe 60 to 80 of the bigger economies. You’ve got to align their energy policies. Well, the EU has had a single market for 40 years, and never managed to create a common energy policy, because it’s so politically difficult to do that. So even inside the constraints of building a common market, it’s very, very difficult to get this done. So nobody should underestimate the difficulty of the task. It’s really hard. That’s why it’s taken so long. I think we’ve got now to a position where people realize they’ve got to do something very broadly. And that was one of the signals that came out in a sense from Glasgow not so much in the formal text, but in the fact that nobody objected to the agreements, which were quite in terms of their rhetoric, far reaching and unusual. And the UN system works on consensus, nothing is agreed until everybody agrees. So one of the things that was in the final text, the Glasgow Climate Pact, was an agreement that we’ve got to get rid of fossil fuels. And that’s the first time that’s ever appeared in as it were the face of an agreement. Now, none of the fossil fuel dependent countries objected to that. Now, you can ask why you speculate why, but clearly, none of them felt that the advantage they got from pulling the whole process down, outweighed the disadvantages that would come both in terms of their internal opinion, but also in terms of external opinion. And that was a very important signal, the balance of advantage, even in very fossil fuel dependent countries – everybody always talks about China, but even more so Saudi Arabia or Russia – even in those countries, the judgment was the benefit from at least saying, you thought this is what we should do outweigh the disbenefits of pulling down the whole regime. And what that does is it keeps everybody pointing in the same direction, it creates a direction of travel. That’s very important for the private sector, investors to get that sense. And I think that was in many ways, from my point of view, one of the most hopeful things that came out of the Glasgow meeting.

Åsa Borssén:
More specifically, what was agreed at the COP26?

Tom Burke:
Well, there’s a list actually, we’d be here much longer than your listeners would enjoy if we were going to go through all of them. Some of them were not the ones that got the headlines. One that got their headline was a recommitment to the 100 billion dollars of transfers from the rich world to the south. To help finance mitigation. There was another thing that was politically important was to actually pay much more serious attention to loss and damage and creating a mechanism to allow for financial flows and loss of mechanism. And there was a commitment to increase, but double in fact, the amount of money available for adaptation in those countries already being affected by a changing climate. So there are quite a lot of sort of steps forward. They’re not heroic and they’re only promises but they were there on finance. I think that was quite good. There wasn’t really enough on ambition, there were some increases in country’s commitments. But it wasn’t enough to really sort of start solving the problem, though it did keep, and I think the conclusion was, the prospect of getting to 1.5 remains alive. It’s in an intensive care unit, but it’s still alive. And I think that was important.

But some of the more important things, in a sense, were less noticed. The agreement on Article Six, which is about defining how carbon markets would work, and how offset markets would work, and an agreement in the same article on transparency. These things that are wrapped up in a thing called the rulebook. Now that’s been under negotiation since Paris without any agreement, and we got agreement in Glasgow. So there were some things that got headlines. And there were some things that people didn’t really notice.

Åsa Borssén:
Now, after COP26, what do you say, what’s the future of coal?

Tom Burke:
Oh, don’t invest. I mean, nobody, I don’t I think it’ll got harder and harder. There was a debate at the very end, almost one of those critical moments when it could have fallen down, about the difference between phasing down and phasing out. And there was agreement not to phase out but to phase down. But hang on. If you’re going to phase out, you have to phase down. It seemed to me, that was an indication of the unwillingness of anybody to pull the whole thing down. That was the good signal.

You raised earlier, you know, a bit about fear mongering – there isn’t any. I promise you. Not at all, I promise you, most of the descriptions of what climate change are likely to do that are in the public realm are far less frightful than the realities that I understand. We tend to think in terms of what’s happening to ice sheets, or even to floods and fires and stuff. But we don’t then translate that into what does that do, for instance, to food prices. Now, quite a lot of those impacts are going to hit much earlier than, say, a sea level rise. We don’t think of it in terms of what it does to water availability. And we’re gonna see big changes quite soon, in the hydrology system globally. And that’s going to make water availability a much more difficult issue for people. We’re already very stressed on water in many parts of the world, that’s going to get worse. So I don’t think people have really got their heads completely around just how impossible it is to live with a world which is going to be two degrees or more warmer.

Åsa Borssén:
But there are those who say that, for example, the media showcasing London underwater, those things are just creating fear unnecessarily.

Tom Burke:
I completely agree that there are people in the media who exaggerate and there are some people in the sort of climate activists who exaggerate. Even in the worst case is not going to lead to the extinction of the human race. It might lead to the extinction of an enormous number of species. But humans are particularly adaptable. It will, however, destroy civilization. And frankly, I like civilization. So I’m pretty keen that it’s not destroyed. And that’s the important piece. But is there some exaggeration? Yes, that’s a media problem. There is nothing coming out of the scientists that’s fear mongering. There’s nothing coming out of governments that is fear mongering. If anything, governments are underplaying the seriousness of the threat.

Åsa Borssén:
So what do you say, will the Glasgow Pact succeed?

Tom Burke:
I don’t know is the honest answer to that. I mean, one of the most important things they agreed. And again, one of those things that didn’t attract a lot of headlines was instead of meeting every five years to review progress, there’s going to be a review in a year, about whether we need to do more. And that agreement was very significant that we’ll look again in the year. So my real world thing is, well, let’s see what happens next year, and the year after. And then if by the time we get to 2025, you can’t say whether it succeeded or not, it’s definitely failed.

Åsa Borssén:
Last time we spoke about this, I asked how optimistic you felt. Four years later, let me end with the same question. Will humanity sort this out?

Tom Burke:
I don’t know is again the honest answer. I’m more hopeful than I was before the COP. Optimism as I say to people, because I get asked the question quite a lot, not just by you. Optimism is a function of your temperament, not your analysis. My grasp of human beings is actually that you engage in optimism better if you have a really clear sense of what you’re trying to do. So that old phrase, I can’t remember who it’s by of, “pessimism of the mind, optimism of the heart”: I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe human beings wanted to solve the problem. Wherever you look around the world ordinary people want to solve this problem, understand the need to solve this problem, and are up for doing it. So if I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t carry on doing what I’m doing. That identifies the task as the one I’ve already said, you got to get governments and business and others to play their part.

Åsa Borssén:
Tom, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Tom Burke:
Thank you.

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Åsa Borssén:
And thank you for joining us. The challenge of climate change is not technical, it’s political. And we are ultimately lacking political leadership, says Tom Burke as he reflects on the outcomes of COP26. Don’t be deceived, though, he’s more optimistic than these words may suggest. But we will report back next year as the world gathers again to assess what progress, if any, has been made.

As always, many thanks to our sponsors, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through BGR. We will be back very soon. Until next time, so long!