A Masterclass in Climate Geopolitics
Season 3 / Episode 38 / April 14, 2021
“I'm optimistic that there are solutions. But I do think it's going to require a lot of leadership from America, Europe, and the UK to get there”
In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and now Executive Chair for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.
Below is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.
Michael Liebreich: We are hopefully, as we speak, in the second half of this terrible pandemic. If I may, I'd like to take that as a starting point, because you've done an enormous amount of work on COVID. What is the intersection between COVID and climate?
Tony Blair: I think there are two points of intersection. The first is that climate change itself is going to give rise to many more potential pandemics for the future, because it's changing the biodiversity of the planet. In fact, some people identify climate change as the single biggest risk factor in the potential for further pandemics.
The second is, think what we've learned through the absence of global cooperation in the pandemic - we've not cooperated globally nearly to the extent we should and we made it worse for all of ourselves. If there had been the right global cooperation around research and development of vaccines right at the very beginning, better cooperation around the development of rapid testing, we could have probably shaved three months, maybe more, off the course of the pandemic.
That’s a big lesson then when you take it to climate change as to why you need that global coordination and cooperation, and why that is in the enlightened self-interest of all countries.
Michael Liebreich: I find the second of those two sort of touch point more convincing, very convincing. I work on the solutions side of things,- energy, transportation, industry, eventually it's going to have to include things like net-zero aviation and shipping – and had we started in 1980, 1990, or if I could be cheeky and say 1997, maybe this would be an easier path?
Tony Blair: Yeah, sure. I mean, look, you know, for our time we were a government pretty much ahead of the game. We passed the first climate change legislation and set out what, at the time, was quite a bold and ambitious framework. But you're absolutely right. The truth is, if we had, back some years before, incentivized in the right way the development of the science and technology, we would have been a lot further along the path.
But you know, we should learn that lesson, do it even now. Because, you know more than me, if we want to reach our goal for reducing the effect on our climate, the 2030 ambitions that we have at the moment, are a cut of around 2% - whereas we actually need to be cutting about 40 or 45%.
The lesson for me, and I’d be interested to hear what you think about this is, in the end, the only way that we're going to deal with the climate issue is if we accelerate the development of the science and technology that allows us to consume sustainably.
Michael Liebreich: So, there are sort of two schools of thought of how we deal with this. There’s the degrowthers, who say we need to stop the economy. And then the other school of thought - which is very much the one that I subscribe to - which is the only way we'll do this is through innovation.
Tony Blair: I think what's interesting is if you take, for example, solar or wind power. When I was in office, a lot of people said, well, look, this is just crazy, it's never going to be commercially viable, it's never really going to work. You fast forward to today, there are a whole lot of things that the mainstream is saying in politics today that they would have derided 15 years ago.
I think we've at least got a situation today where it's possible to accelerate this development of science and technology. And to your point about the growth issue. I mean, a lot of the work my Institute does is in the developing world, particularly in Africa. The population of Africa will double over the next 30 to 40 years. All of these people need to consume, they need electricity and power generation, they need ports, and rail, and airline links.
If I go to these countries and say to them, well, I'm sorry, but because of climate change you guys have got to hold back economic growth. I mean, they'll chase you out the country.
Michael Liebreich: When you said that you would have been derided for talking about solar and wind back then, I did get derided! I wasn’t quite laughed out of the room, but I got put in a little box, at things like the World Economic Forum. That has totally changed. There are sectors that are absolutely over the tipping point. They will be enough to cap emissions, but they won’t drive them down to zero at the speed we need. For that, there have to be some pretty heavy-handed interventions.
Tony Blair: Does your study of technology lead you to believe - I know it sounds very crude - but if you throw enough money at, for example aviation fuel, that it's likely you will get a solution?
Michael Liebreich: I think you will definitely get one. I have huge faith in engineers and in technologists, and the role of the private sector is to take clever stuff and get it to customers, so yes we will get solutions. But will they be at an affordable cost? And then some things will just remain more expensive for thermodynamic or microeconomic reasons.
Tony Blair: But if you take something, like for example carbon capture and storage, which, you know, we put money into when I was in government and people have always been skeptical about, can you see that advancing significantly?
Michael Liebreich: It will advance because, like anything, if you do more of it, you'll drive the costs down. But you cannot get around the thermodynamics. If you want people to take the same power station and do CCS, versus just letting it run, then there has to be a policy framework around that.
Tony Blair: Right. Presumably, though, things like battery capabilities and storage, those things are going to accelerate significantly.
Michael Liebreich: Yes, those are manufacturing and material science technologies, they go down these incredible experience curves. But batteries will never get us through two or three weeks of a wind lull in the North Sea. You can’t just say well, we broke the speed of sound and now we're going to break the speed of light, there are some physical constraints.
Tony Blair: In the work we do in Africa, we do a lot of work around the energy sector. For many of the countries we work in, you know, maybe 30%, 40%, sometimes 50% of the country has electricity, the others don't. And that causes enormous problems, not just to people's daily lives, but things like health and education.
So, you know, we're developing off-grid solutions, mini-grid solutions, and so on. But just to take two projects that we’re involved with, two mega projects - one of which is the Inga Dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the other of which is the African Development Bank's solar project for the Sahel – it’s all to do with financing, laying the grid, getting the political conditions right, and so on.
How much could be done if the world came together and put some infrastructure financing, real political focus around getting some of these mega projects done, that would obviously hugely relieve the pressure on these countries otherwise to be burning not just natural gas, but coal and heavy fuel oil, because they're desperate for electricity?
Michael Liebreich: The work you're doing is incredibly important. We know how to do this stuff, but as you said, the challenge is that you've got to work at the same time on everything: the political governance, the technical solutions and the financial infrastructure.
Tony Blair: But when you go back to the pandemic, if you go back two years and you said to people, right, we're going to have to produce billions of doses of a vaccine, we're going to have to do the development phase, the tests, the trials, production of the vaccine, the distribution, we have to do the whole thing in 18 months - people would have said, well that just can't be done. And now I'm talking about doing all of that in three to four months.
So, politically, the challenge is, it depends what you mean by emergency. Because the truth is, we have decided the pandemic is an emergency. If you decide politically that climate is this type of emergency, what is it you need to do? If you mean what you say, and it's urgent, it requires a different political attitude.
And this is where, you know, politically it's very challenging, because you've got the America-China relationship. Without these two countries working in some sort of cooperation together it’s very hard to see how it works.
Michael Liebreich: I think you've put your finger exactly on the dilemma. For all the people declaring that climate is an emergency, the fact is they're not behaving like it is truly an emergency. And I hate to say it, but that may be correct. We've seen the failure of things like collectivization in the Soviet Union, the Great Leap Forward, top down command and control. Climate action isn't just over taking the production facilities of a few pharma companies, it involves absolutely everything.
Tony Blair: Yeah. But here's what I would say. The Third Way is a bit out of fashion nowadays, but let's bring it back for this purpose!
You've got two different traditional models. One is, it’s up to the market to develop the solutions. The other is, look, government has got to take over industry and do it. But if you actually look at what's happened in the pandemic, what happened is governments set a framework, provided incentives, but the vaccines were developed by private sector companies.
So, I think there is a way in which government can set a framework, can put the political structures in place that are necessary to provide the stability and predictability that people require for investment.
Michael Liebreich: I can't go as far as to say that I'm now a big fan of the Third Way. But I am a regulated markets guy, so I can agree with you.
I think we can hold global warming to 2 degrees, but I don't think that that approach is going to get to 1.5 degrees. To get to 1.5 degrees, at some point, you have to knock on somebody's door and say you now have to move out for three weeks because we are going to insulate your home, because you haven't. And that's where a lot of people probably check out of the process. There's a level of coercion that would be needed if you really wanted to get to 1.5.
Tony Blair: I see that. The difference between climate and the pandemic is that when people think their actual health is going to be affected, they're prepared to accept restrictions they would never accept in normal circumstances.
With climate, I think for most people, their actual lived experience is that the climate has changed in some degree or other, but their daily life is not affected by climate change. And what that means is, there is a greater reluctance to take national measures, unless it's part of a global picture.
So, this is where I think the global politics of this will be very, very important and are going to be very challenging, particularly given the position that America and China have with each other today.
I think the challenge will be not just to get the key countries to agree it's an important issue. One really important thing for the government to do with this COP26 summit in Glasgow is to take certain areas of activity and have something quite specific that's going to happen around it. If it's all at these very high level targets, the political traction for a politician that's way beyond their time in office is limited.
Michael Liebreich: By Glasgow, countries representing around 80% of global GDP will have pledged net zero. I want to hear your thoughts on the other 20% - India, Africa and so on. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol failed because it didn’t anticipate China’s growth. In the next two decades I hope Africa becomes enormously wealthy, and India. But how do we ensure that's not at the expense of the climate?
Tony Blair: This is the absolute challenge. There's no country that’s saying, no, we don't think it's a problem. There's no one in the climate denying space, of any significance. So that is a big step forward.
The problem is, if you're the president of Nigeria, and you've got a population that's over 200 million at the moment, with an average age of less than 30, rising maybe to 300 million by 2030, you can't say to your people, we're not going to develop, you're not going to have access to electricity.
One of the things I've been saying to people about this COP process is you've got to bring these developing countries into the dialogue. And you've got to be offering them the solutions that allow them to consume sustainably.
Now, there are such solutions, because they've got, for example, an immense amount of capacity for renewables, but you've got to help them. And I think you probably need to look again at things like nuclear power as well. You can't exclude any of these things from the mix.
Michael Liebreich: You've also got oil-dependent nations, many of them concentrated around the Gulf, a rough neighborhood. These are countries that are likely to be among the losers from climate action. How do you keep them on board?
Tony Blair: It’s a very interesting point because I do a lot of work out in the Gulf.
Here's what's interesting. If you take the UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example, both of them are now moving into the climate space. Both of them are wanting to diversify their economies, recognizing that if they remain dependent on oil, they're dependent on a declining industry.
So, the UAE, for example, has got a huge push into technology. One of the things that was part of their thinking on the rapprochement with Israel, which is something I worked on, one of the reasons why that is such an extraordinary development, is that it wasn’t just about security and the threat of Iran, and so on and so forth. It was also a desire to work with Israel in developing some of the technology of the future.
70% of the population of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 30. You know, these people are aware of what's happening in the world. There are a whole set of challenges here that we need to look at together.
I'm optimistic that there are solutions. But I do think it's going to require a lot of leadership from America and from Europe, the UK, in order to get there.
This transcript has been shortened and edited for clarity