Durban climate change conference: ‘Sideline the UN’ says leading academic (The Ecologist)

Matilda Lee

7th November, 2011

Ahead of the latest UN climate conference, leading academic Anthony Giddens explains why it’s time to switch to smaller agreements between major world powers

Lord Anthony Giddens

Lord Anthony Giddens, a Labour peer and former director of the London School of Economics

Ecologist: In your book the Politics of Climate Change, you give credit to the green movement for challenging orthodox politics on climate change, yet you say that it’s flawed at source. Why?

Anthony Giddens: I call myself a non-green green because I support a lot of the objectives of some elements of the green movement – globally and locally – but I am not ideologically opposed to nuclear power like many greens, although I am reserved about it. I believe in the primacy of science in trying to resolve these issues, especially around climate change. Although I am interested in protecting the forests in terms of CO2 and so forth, I think what we are trying to save is really a decent future civilisation for us. There are aspects of the development of the green movement that I am not very comfortable with, including not all conservation measures, because while some are worthwhile, sometimes you have got to take risks in the interests of controlling greater risks. Climate change, to me, being one of the primary risks we face in this century.

As far as this country is concerned, I was pleased that the coalition sustained most of the framework that Labour had put into place and I think that is important because as you know, in the US the complete polarisation of climate change issues is really unfortunate for not just the US, but the rest of the world. Here, at the moment, we don’t have that. Of course you can carp about what the government is doing now, whether it’s going back on some of its initial presumptions, and to some degree this is true. Nevertheless, there is a pretty large cross-party consensus. Ideally, I’d like every country to have that. Climate change is not a left-right issue, it concerns everybody. You’ll need all sorts of coalitions to support climate change progressive policies. But there is this tendency to polarise around left or right, especially in the US.

You need long-term policies, you don’t want parties coming in that reverse the positions of the parties before them. My feeling about the UK is that we’ve got a reasonable framework but we don’t have results from that framework. The UK is still way down the league in terms of proportion of energy taken from renewables, if you exclude nuclear. It’s more the framework than a set of substantive achievements. You have to be a bit reserved about British position or other positions where it’s all ends and objectives rather than the substantive achievements, which are in short supply across the world.

Ecologist: You mention renewable energy. Do you think the government has shot itself in the foot with backtracking on the feed-in tariff?

AG: Yes, I do. Unfortunately this has happened in other countries too. Some of the most impressive achievements in introducing renewables happened in Portugal and Spain. They introduced feed-in tariffs and one or two other subsidies and they achieved results which no one could quite believe because they introduced a high proportion of renewables within five or six-year period. We used to think, like in the case of Denmark or Sweden, it took about 25 years to do this. Now with new technology, and if you organise things right, you can do it quickly. I read an account saying that there was one day last year when Portugal met 100 per cent of its energy needs from renewables.

Even though I’m worried about the experiments in Germany, I think it was also quite interesting, the commitment to phase out nuclear power and see if you could achieve 20 per cent of renewables by 2020. I think that could be a very useful experiment for the rest of the world because Germany does have a lot of technological know-how.

Ecologist: How much value do you put on reaching an international post-Kyoto agreement?

AG: I think the UN is an indispensable organisation in global terms, but I think we need to judge in terms of substance and achievement. So far, it’s been pretty limited. I don’t think one could say in spite of 20 years next June since Rio and 17-18 years since climate change negotiations started that those negotiations have had much impact really, in terms of reducing carbon emissions, which is the only feasible measure. I think we have to keep them going, but I think we have to recognise that you’ll need more substantial agreements alongside them that would be bilateral or regional.

I think we are already seeing a change in the pattern of leadership globally, in respect of climate change issues, as a result of what happened in Copenhagen and in Cancun in which some of the large developing countries assumed much more of a leadership position, even as compared to the industrial countries. I think Brazil, under Lula has made important developments. It’s a country which has very unusually energy patterns, since about 80 per cent of its energy comes from non-fossil fuel sources. Latin America is a region that could have a leadership position, hopefully China will. I think the Chinese over the last 6-7 years have really woken up to the dangers of the glaciers melting, the threat of climate change which to me is so real and frightening in its outer edges in terms of risks.

The main joker in terms of international arena is the United States. I was hoping that there’d be important bilateral agreements between China and the US, which would lead to substantial programmes of energy transformation. So far they’ve had talks but these haven’t led to much. Lack of American leadership I find deeply disappointing. When I wrote the first edition of the book, I had high hopes that President Obama would be an inspirational leader for climate change policy. Partly because I think they put the Health Care bill ahead of everything else, it served to polarise the country and now federal leadership is more or less stymied in the US.

Ecologist: Should policy makers be focusing more on adaptation?

AG: We have to focus on adaptation anyway, because it’s close to certain as one could be that fairly high levels of climate change is embedded in the system. I think a lot of lay people hearing that world temperatures increased by 1.4 degrees think that doesn’t sound like very much. But when you think that in the Arctic it has increased several degrees and the main consequence will be extreme weather of all kinds – a combination of droughts and flooding – then you see the thin envelope that we live within, certainly in the poorer countries, we should be spending a lot on what I call “pre-emptive adaption”. But we are not. All the promises of billions flowing from the developed to developing countries – where’s the money? It would surprise me a lot if it was forthcoming in Durban given the economic situation in Europe, which is supposedly one of the main sources of this money. Again you have this distance between ambition and reality.

Ecologist: To what extent do you think developed countries can dictate the terms of development to less industrialised countries?

AG: I don’t think they can dictate terms at all. Whether we like it or not we are in a more multi-polar international environment. Many people wanted that but it is proving to be very difficult to exert systematic governance when you’ve got a more multipolar system. No one is going to be able to tell China or India or Brazil what to do. We hope they will emerge as more important leaders than in the industrial countries, but industrial countries must reform because they’ve created most of the greenhouse gases historically anyway.

I think the main thing is to focus on substance everywhere. It seems to me very important that we concentrate attention on areas where you can really make substantial progress and don’t just talk in terms of endless frameworks and negotiation.

Ecologist: Which areas are you referring to?

AG: I don’t think we are anywhere near resolving the issues without a fairly heavy dose of innovation. Both globally and nationally we should be spending to try and produce such innovation and even though you can’t predict the future, you can certainly see some areas where it would be very valuable. For example, if we could find some way of storing electricity on the large scale, it would be very valuable in terms of promoting the spread of renewable energy. I think we have to start spending now on geo-engineering. At the moment we are just miles away from being able to control carbon emissions. The most effective form of geo-engineering, if someone could make a breakthrough would be finding some way of taking greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere on a large scale. We don’t know whether it will ever be possible to do that but I think we have to invest and investigate to try and find some projects that wouldn’t be counter-productive. As you know, they could be very dangerous as people may interpret this to mean we don’t need to do anything because they’ll be some fix at the end, which is in no sense guaranteed.

I think we need to support hundreds of bottom-up innovations that are going on around the world – whether they are social, political or economic. My view is that we’ve also got to have what I call “utopian realism”. We are living through the end of industrial civilisation as it existed for the past 150 years driven by fossil fuels. This will involve changes in the way people live, which could in principle be very profound over a 20 or 30-year period. I think we’ve got to experiment on how we produce these changes and make them converge with desirable critical outcomes.

One concrete place I try to think about is transportation, which is still driven 95 per cent by oil. Look what the car has done to city centres. I’m sure we could construct more creative cities, more creative transport systems. I quote the MIT study on the future of automobiles – where they envisage a “mobility internet” and big differences from how we organise transport now – bringing down private and public distinctions, organising Smart Cars to enter in transit in different parts of transport systems. Having a fair proportion of driver-less cars on the roads, trying to reintegrate that with designing more effective communities within cities. All of us have got to explore different development models. If we have, after the recession, several years of 1 per cent growth, surely in the West there is a new invitation to discuss the nature of growth and its relationship to prosperity and wider political goals like Tim Jackson suggests in his book Prosperity without Growth.

Ecologist: Why do you suggest we need to do away with the term ‘sustainable development’?

AG: It became a popular term ever since the Bruntland report. Now there are similar terms like “green growth” and the “green economy”. To me, if you examine them they fall apart a bit. Let’s get something more substantial, something that’s not just an empty phrase. Let’s work out what it actually means on the ground and how you might achieve that. If you take the green economy, I’m in favour of it, I might prefer low-carbon economy but the point is we don’t know what a green economy is like. We haven’t done enough intellectual or practical work on it. It’s not going to be an economy where you simply have a few more renewables in it and everyone lives the same way.

Let’s say Denmark has successfully reduced its emissions to zero. It’s going to change lots of things all across the economy: job creation, job structures, transportation systems, lots of things about how people live. We need to work on this some more, and not just make empty claims. The same thing goes about green growth. We know you can create jobs through renewable technologies in some contexts, but they’ve got to be net new jobs and we’ve got to look at what happens when people lose their jobs in sectors that become less prominent.

I think we will get most growth through lifestyle change rather than the introduction of renewable technologies. When people invented the idea of the coffee shop 15 years ago, no one really thought we wanted better coffee because we lived, in the US and UK with bad coffee for hundreds of years. What people who set these things up did was to anticipate emerging trends – it wasn’t just having a dozen new kinds of coffee it was that it intersected with the information technology revolution, with people having more flexibility with where they work and therefore using computers in new places. If you generalise that, there will be many changes produced by a movement towards a more sustainable society.

The Politics of Climate Change, second edition by Anthony Giddens (Polity Press, Sept 2011, £14.24)

[Original article here]