Life after the Paris agreement on global warming

Sir David King

Sir David King

The Paris Agreement was a draft treaty negotiated by 195 countries at the 21st Conference of Parties and adopted by consensus on the 12 of December 2015. Later this month, the agreement will be open for more signatures. Will this mark a historic turning point for the goal to reduce global warming? Forbes Africa’s Managing Editor, Chris Bishop spoke to Sir David King, the UK Foreign Secretary’s Permanent Special Representative for Climate Change, on the opportunities in a post-COP 21 world.

You are revisiting Africa. You mentioned you were born and bred here in Africa; and at some stage, you were involved in some form of activism, when you were at college, just tell us a little bit about that.

KING: I was born in Durban, lived in Pretoria until I was three and then schooled in Johannesburg, went to the University and then the rest of my career has been in Britain. During my years at the university, I became politically active. I used to write letters in the newspaper and I was picked up and people suggested to me that I might do better to lead the country
Then you ended up studying and leading in a number of places including Cambridge University.

KING: Yes, I was professor of physics and chemistry at Cambridge, Head of the chemistry department, and Master of gynecology in Cambridge and then I was pulled into government as a chief scientific adviser. This is a post that was invented by Sir Winston Churchill, at the beginning of the 2nd world war; he decided he needed a chief scientist.

When it comes to climate change, you have advised several governments, Tony Blair’s government, Gordon Brown’s government, and also, you are on the advisory capacity here with the present government.

KING: I am a survivor, I have survived the labour government, the coalition government and now the conservative government and my appointment by first the coalition government and then the conservative government, was to underline that we have all parties agreement on this issue of climate change. The biggest agreement was reached in 2008 when we had a climate change active parliament. I worked on this for seven years, it was not an easy step, we tried different things and finally we got something that really worked. All parties’ agreement on the climate change issue at the parliament commits us to reduce our air machines by 80 percent by 2015 and also to curb budgets to make sure we stop delivering.

So we have reduced our machine by 20 percent today compared to 1990, and by 2028, we would have reduced our machines by 52 percent.
How serious do you think it is really, you returning to the continent of your birth, I can tell you the weather in the last two months has been nothing I have seen in many years. It’s been sweaty rain, how difficult do you think things will become for Africa and the future?

KING: Let me just start, globally, the last ten months in a row, each month of the year, for the whole planet is hotter than, where are now in April and I am going to bet you, that this month of April for the whole planet is hotter than any other previous April. So what is happening is that we’ve got climate change driving the climate up all the time.
BISHOP: Some part of this continent already, some others get 45, and I have been in 50 degrees in Bantu, Sudan, how much worse is it likely to get?

KING: A person who is outdoors with a temperature nexus of 40 degrees for three days without an air conditioner cannot survive. Possibly, if the humidity is relatively high, you can’t get rid of your body heat fast enough and you die. This is not the planet we want to see. The risks of climate change are consequently the biggest risk civilization has ever has to face.  And when I say civilization, It is because we are all in the same boat, whether we are living in England or South Africa or anywhere else, we are all a cause of the problem. We all need to deal with the problem. This is the message I am bringing to the government, it is the tremendous sense of excitement I have around the innovation and wealth creation opportunities that lie in de-carbonizing the economy. Looking at all of the new energy installed around the whole world last year, 90% of it was clean energy.  Zero carbon dioxide and machine energy, so we already have achieved the breakthrough point.

But as you probably know, South Africa alone had made quite a move towards wind energy, solar, something like I think 6,000 megawatts that is coming to air, if you put that up against 42, 000 megawatts installed capacity, in this country, it’s not bad at all, but one of the problems that everybody complains is that the Tariffs are still expensive for mass production to put a whole grade over to renewable energy.

KING: I think what is least expensive for any country is, has your power station come up for retirement? You retire them and introduce clean energy to replace. I am saying that will be cheaper than installing a profiled power station today. You know, that’s life. We’ve already started it. The governor of the bank of England made probably the most impactful speech in Paris during the speech negotiation. He said “now that we have agreed to decarbonize the global economy, my big worry is that the big banks are still giving triple A ratings to the Fossil fuel Industries”, so they are still investing in new fossil fuel ventures and these ventures will not yield the return on that investment, because they will have to be shut down as we move forward. So we are talking about what the economy calls stranded assets. The risk in those assets is that in 15 years’ time, South Africa will have to shut it down. The big investment will not yield the return. And he warned that if the banks keep doing this, we will face the next global financial debt crisis because if you create investment by borrowing money on an investment that has to be returned and it isn’t, it becomes a bad debt so we have crisis on our hand, the avoidance of that crisis is to give triple A ratings to clean energy sector.

BISHOP: Now, the big date in the story is April 22nd where nations of the world are going to line up, sign up with the Paris agreement and COP21, what’s the feeling at this moment, how many countries are you certain of their support at the moment?

KING: I would say about 195.
BISHOP: I know you are pretty happy about that, But also, it means that you need 55% of admitters, is it not?
KING: I have to rectify that.
BISHOP: What is the attitude of China and the US seeing that 36% of all the world emissions come from there.

KING: China I believe is doing more than almost any other countries in the world to switch away from its dependence on fossil fuel. I think there are two drivers for this and it is very important to recognise it. The first is climate change; but the second is what Coal burning is doing to the atmosphere in China and also in India.  If you live in Beijing or Delhi, you will find that your life span is probably short by 10-15 years just by breathing in the air filled with sulphur from burning coal. Moving to clean energy has many advantages, one of it is, you don’t have to keep buying oil from other countries if you are not an oil producer and I believe South Africa is a non-oil producer; there is a very big advantage of moving into clean energy using what the Solar and Wind provides for you, I think those nations will sign up, the ratification will come later. I think China is very likely to sign. I think president Obama is very keen to ratify. Now, the question for President Obama is whether this agreement is distinct from a chaotic protocol which requires senate and congress approval, we don’t think it is, in which case, United states will be on the side line. United States is making what is now a good commitment to reducing its emission, I think the United States is going to be one of the winners of the new low COP technology that will emerge and that is a very key part of the process.

BISHOP: What about the money? We are talking about 100 billion dollars from developed nations to get behind all these and some people will say it’s not enough, how is the gathering of that money going?

KING: The estimate is 62 billion dollars, that’s what we have spent now. So the stretch to 100 billion is not relatively too much. What is the British government doing? We have our own international climate fund which we have not put in the international box and that is standing at 15 billion dollars. The green climate fund set up by the United Nations seating in Soho, we have also contributed 1.2 billion into that and that stands at about 10.2 billion dollars. So the British government alone has its own international climate fund which is bigger than the global fund sitting in Soho. Many nations are doing that. We want to use our money carefully, we like to see how it is managed, and I think frankly, we are managing it extraordinarily well.
BISHOP: A lot of people have criticised the COP21, what do you say?

KING: I am going to say just the opposite. I think that everything we got in Paris, produced for me, everything I have been hoping for and remember that I have been working on this climate issue with the British government for 16 years. We have for example; the bottom up process with each country is producing what it can. We have the review process, and that review process is absolutely critical because you can’t review your contribution to make it worse, you can only review to make it better. So I think, if we look at the different elements, the agreement on 100 billion dollars, the agreement on the nationally determined contributions and the review ability, we have key elements in place to manage this problem but we are coming at this programme about ten years too late. We need to speed up the process of managing this; now what I have been pushing for is a big surge of publicly funded research and development into clean energy technology, that was also launched at the side of the Paris meeting on the first day and we have 20 countries that have joined this, we are committed already with this countries in spending 20 billion dollars a year on this programme and we want South Africa to join.

BISHOP: Thank you very much for the insight and best of luck with your work on climate change.

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