12 JAN 2017
Practical steps towards decarbonisation
Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director of Forum for the Future and Selection Committee Member of the Zayed Future Energy Prize
The simplest way of capturing today’s overarching imperative on climate change is this: radical decarbonisation. In other words, securing dramatic reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, per unit of GDP generated across the global economy. There are many, many low-carbon initiatives that feed into that growing wave of decarbonisation efforts, but none matters more than reducing the use of fossil fuels as rapidly and cost-effectively as possible – in energy, transportation, infrastructure, chemicals and so on.
Essentially, this is all about technology, investment and political will. Which, as it happens, is what I’m most looking forward to about attending this year’s Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week: aligning innovation, investment and political leadership.
On the whole, the technology side of things looks more and more encouraging every year, with tumbling prices and increased efficiencies in most renewables and storage technologies, in demand management and grid optimisation.
Nowhere does one see that more clearly than through the lens of the Zayed Future Energy Prize, which I’ve been associated with as a member of its Selection Committee since its inception. It’s now the world’s leading celebration of clean energy endeavour, in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, and a huge inspiration to all those countries trying to work out how best to transition from today’s dependence on fossil fuels to a world driven primarily by renewable energy sources of one kind or another.
The ‘storage story’ is particularly exciting as breakthroughs here (in both cost – down by around 75% since 2008 – and flexibility) are equally significant in energy and transportation. Demand for electric vehicles is rising fast all over the world. China, for example, is offering generous incentives to increase overall market penetration for both electric vehicles and hybrids, and investing in a huge new charging infrastructure.
There will of course be plenty of bumps along that road! Two thousand sixteen, for instance, was a disappointing year in terms of clean energy investment, down from the 2015 high of around $350bn to something closer to $280bn. There are all sorts of reasons for that, but it is now almost universally accepted that the direction of travel towards renewables is irreversible. Investors have really begun to see this – both from a ‘transition risk’ perspective and through burgeoning opportunities to drive new financial value.
We’re dealing here with what the Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, called the ‘Tragedy of the Horizons’ back in a speech in 2015: “The catastrophic impacts of climate change will be felt far beyond the traditional horizons of most actors – imposing a cost on future generations that the current generation has no direct incentive to fix. Once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.”
And that’s a massive political challenge, where chronic short-termism still reigns supreme. In that regard, things have just gotten a whole lot harder in 2016. As the next President of the United States, Donald Trump has made it very clear that he will reverse the Obama Administration’s commitment to low-carbon prosperity, and promote again the interests of fossil fuel companies at every turn. Worse yet, he continues to characterise the science of climate change as ‘unproven’, and has appointed a number of very prominent ‘climate change denialists’ to his interim Administration.
This raises all sorts of question marks over the agreement struck by 196 governments in Paris at the end of 2015 – and will be hugely disappointing to the vast majority of young people around the world. In celebration of its 10th anniversary, Masdar commissioned an extraordinary online Sustainability Survey of around 4,500 post-millennials (18- to 25-year-olds) in 20 countries, including the UAE, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Forty per cent of those surveyed named climate change amongst the biggest challenges facing the world over the next decade, ahead of the state of the global economy (34%), terrorism (32%) and inequality (29%).
The UAE’s rulers have recognised that passionate concern amongst its young people for many years – with the UAE now the highest-rated MENA country amongst clean-tech leaders, just outside the top ten globally. Nobody imagines that the transition from a global economy driven by fossil fuels to one where clean-tech rules is going to be easy – but that transition will happen, one way or another, and the real test of any nation’s leaders today is the insight and vision they bring to bear on that all-important challenge.