Ep33: Rt Hon Amber Rudd 'Leading the way from Westminster to Paris'

“We have to think of climate justice, what is fair and right...”: Amber Rudd on climate change and international development.

In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Amber Rudd, who is currently serving as the Chair of the International Advisory Group for Equinor, a major Norwegian energy company. 

Amber’s political career, during which time she served as the Home Secretary (2016-2018) and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (2015-2016), took her to the centre of debates and decision-making on the future of the planet. Michael asks Amber about her most memorable moments during Paris COP. Amber also argues that the Global North needs to recognize that economically developing countries will need to balance societal improvements alongside the curbing of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Below is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.

Michael Liebreich: Amber, welcome to Cleaning Up. You are now the Chair of the International Advisory Group for Equinor, former Statoil, the majority state owned oil and gas company in Norway. They are making the most of their cash flow from oil and gas, but are also really working hard to think about what an energy company of the future look like.

In the last year, the global focus has shifted to net zero. European oil and gas companies, in a sense, they're finishing an era where it was good enough just to be better than the other players. Does that mean a company like Equinor walks away from its core business? Does it mean a transition to renewables? What happens if the consumer doesn’t agree and there's still a demand for oil and gas? 

Amber Rudd: It is very challenging. The sort of people who lobby a company like Equinor on reducing oil and gas are aware of that. I think we must make the case all the time. If we're going to go slowly on reducing oil and gas than the campaigners would like, we have to continually explain why we're doing it. I think the fact that civil society is so engaged now in a way that it wasn't five years ago, in what oil and gas companies do, makes it easier because there's nowhere to hide. 

I was listening to Bill Gates on the news. Not surprisingly, he thinks it's all about tech. Tech has done extraordinary things because of the advances that it's made over the past 10 years in various renewables. If it carries on like that, we have cake cause to be optimistic, but there is an unknown.

ML: If the markets aren't there and the demand stays strong, you'll end up with a bunch of non-Northern European, non-US companies saying they will just meet that demand. By the way, they come from countries, in many cases, which have no alternatives, there is no other source of wealth than oil and gas. So, you'll end up with just the developed world abdicating or resiling from that industry, which will then be simply served by others. That's a big worry, I think. 

AR: It is a big worry. We all know about hydrogen, but the scale of investment coming in is going to make hydrogen competitive in some areas at some pace. The other side of what you've been describing is that once you have a carbon border tax, everything changes because you then start to have a meeting potentially of equal pricing for products that have the carbon inside them. So, I think that buying power will start to move the price.

That is part of the whole challenge, is it not? It's reasonable to say to industrialized countries, “you caused this, now we're going to industrialize whatever's left of the carbon budget and grow our middle class.” It's up to us in the industrialized world to help them do that in a way that we hope doesn't pollute. But there is basically a leap of faith going on here as well, which is to try to get the rest of the world to say we are all in this together. 

ML: We have to make the changes to our industry that will avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but we have to do it whilst continuing the economic and social progress of the developing world. Bringing women into the workforce, for example. Do the economies of the developing world have the resilience to withstand this type of transition? 

AR: We must be aware that if we get it wrong, there will be a backlash. So, we must think about our own communities, which is why I think that the whole concept of citizens' assemblies is very compelling. We must think in terms of climate justice, what is fair and right, and for that we need money. I recall at Paris, one of the key decisions was how much money the non-industrialized countries were going to get to industrialize in a way that uses as little coal as possible. We need as much money as the West can pull together to help them do that. Because of course, they want to save their people from poverty. We also need to work hard in the UK, as every country does, to make sure that they bring everybody with them. Again, I think the idea of climate assembly has been interesting. People, I'm afraid, don’t hold politicians in the highest of esteem at the moment, so I think getting people involved in types of climate assemblies is an effective way of making sure people feel this has been done with their consent.


ML: I worry that we will end up with a sort of two speed global economy. The West will be virtuous, both on the supply side, the demand side, and we'll have our carbon border adjustments. But big parts of the developing world will both produce and consume in the cheapest way and that will cause pollution and emissions.


AR: It's very reasonable for non-industrialized countries to say “you caused this, now we're going to industrialize whatever's left of the carbon budget, we'll have it thanks and we'll grow our middle class.” It's up to us in the industrialized world to help them do that in a way which we hope doesn't pollute. There is basically, I think, a leap of faith going on here as well, which is to try to get the rest of the world to say that we are all in this together; you're going to feel the consequences as much as we are.


ML:  You were leading the UK delegation during COP in Paris. What is your most abiding memory of the process and agreements?


AR: Well, I think the moment we were all in the amphitheatre for the final day and each country was there with its two representatives. Laurent Fabius was there at the high table with Christiana Figueres and François Hollande. The gavel was raised, and just before it came down, the man from Nicaragua said, “no.” Generally, Fabius was going to ignore anybody who said “no”, but it was difficult to ignore him. It was a rather large man shouting rather loudly. So, everything was paused for a moment. I asked, “what's going on?” Apparently, the man from Nicaragua didn't agree with such a capitalist approach to climate change reduction. The rumour was the Pope was on the phone and was put in touch with the man from Nicaragua. Al Gore was passing the phone across as the rest of us were paused. Then the man sat down. We tried again, and it went through. So that was a fairly dramatic end to the two weeks of negotiations.


ML: What do you think about those who complained the Paris Accords were not binding? With five years of hindsight, what is your response to them now?


AR: First, the Americans would never have got anything binding through. It’s a case of not making perfect the enemy of the good. Anyway, if you get people to commit, hopefully, they can move to binding like the EU is moving to binding. But if you can't get it, the next best thing is a commitment. Nobody's going to invade another country because they're not meeting their Paris climate change commitments. So, before you push too much for having it in law, you've got to think about what the consequences are if people break the law. It's got to be supported by your own civil society. 


ML: On this show, we've had Christiana Figueres. We've also had Rachel Kyte who was not a negotiator but was very involved as the World Bank Climate Representative. We’ve had Clare Perry O’Neill, too. They've talked about the “climate sisterhood.” Were you aware of a climate sisterhood? Or am I kind of overinterpreting and being far too woke for my own good?


AR: I would say there were more women involved in the senior conference at a senior level than you normally see in international conferences. But I expect it's still substantially less than half. It was notable that there were some very senior women, as you say, like Christiana and Laurence Tubiana. Women tend to get on with women, there is a kind of easy relationship like there are a lot of senior men at ease with other men. What we need is 50/50 representation. But it's good to see that in climate change there are more senior women than one might expect.