Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, who has drawn worldwide attention by regularly walking out of school to protest the failure to address climate change, spoke at a UK parliamentary event last week and endorsed the Extinction Rebellion street protests. She wrung an admission from environment secretary Michael Gove that the country had “not done nearly enough” to tackle climate change. This is my open letter in response.
Congratulations on your campaign to put climate change back on the agenda. I don’t agree with every detail of your analysis. But I endorse without hesitation your view that fundamental changes to the world’s climate represent a very serious threat and that the actions being taken now to avert that threat are insufficient. Your commitment and courage have helped to create a new movement which embarrasses my generation by pointing out our failures.
You said last week that you hoped not to be doing the same thing in five years because that would mean nothing had happened. That is a depressing possibility. The question therefore is what you should do next to ensure that the momentum created is not lost. I would like to offer you a serious suggestion.
A significant change in the global climate can only be averted if the world’s population finds ways to use energy which are safe and sustainable. Some of those possibilities are emerging, but too slowly. More than 80 per cent of global energy demand is still being supplied by hydrocarbons, and emissions continue to rise.
The gains being made in some areas are being outpaced by what is happening in the growing economies of Asia where those emerging from poverty need to use energy in order to enjoy even the basic things we in the west take for granted — heat, light and mobility. There will soon be more than 9bn users of commercial energy supplies. We all need low-cost, low-carbon solutions which can only come by advancing science and technology.
Your next objective should be the creation of a fund to translate what are now just possibilities and experiments into full-scale practical solutions. The fund should be managed by the scientific academies — the Swedish Academy, the Royal Society and many others — that have already done serious work on the reality of climate change and the associated risks.
Such a fund should be devoted to sponsoring the best work they can find — regardless of its national origin — on science which they believe can change the outcome for the planet. The research could be in energy storage, which would make renewable energy more economically competitive, in grid technology to improve access to low-cost supplies, or in the critical issue of energy efficiency and the elimination of waste. Or it could be a technology we can barely imagine at the moment.
There is unlikely to be a magic bullet. The answers have to match the diverse uses of energy — from transport to heating and cooling — and address the needs of different countries across the world, rich and poor. Science has transformed telecommunications over the last 30 years. Now a similar industrial revolution is needed in energy. Low cost and low carbon must go together — technology which people cannot afford will remain unused — but once the options are available they will be taken up across the world. The telecoms revolution has shown us how quickly globalisation can work. The combination of science and economics can be formidable.
Can the money be raised? If nearly €1bn can be raised within a week to rebuild a single church, I can’t imagine that a fund of €5bn or €10bn is beyond reach. It could come from businesses, governments and individuals. Your role would be to make it happen — through encouragement, shame and the example of hope.
The threat of climate change will be averted in the world’s laboratories — not on the streets.
The writer is an energy commentator for the FT and chair of The Policy Institute at King’s College London
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