Former oil consultant turned clean energy pioneer Jeremy Leggett discusses where we go from the Paris climate talks and why a future based on renewable energy is inevitable
You had a lucrative career consulting for the oil industry up until 1989. What made you change course?
When I encountered what climate scientists were saying about greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and combined that with my research on the history of the oceans, I thought: ‘this is a disaster’. I became worried about climate change before it was fashionable, and so I quit.
Since that personal transition nearly 30 years ago, has the world done more or less to combat climate change than you would have expected?
I hoped for and expected much more when the Convention on Climate Change was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit. Over the last three years I think we’re beginning to win the carbon war, but we’re yet to prove we can finally win. Even then, there’s this ghastly possibility that it could be a hollow victory.
Will the agreement reached in Paris prove different to the previous, failed global agreements despite the nonbinding targets?
I’m full of cautious optimism that there will be real progress, mainly due to the ratchet mechanism [guaranteeing actions become progressively more ambitious]. Most of the world’s governments signed up, which shows people realise we’re in deep trouble.
Secondly, people increasingly think this could be fixable; there’s an energy transition under way and at one level all we have to do is accelerate it.
Is keeping the global temperature rise below 2C, and if possible to 1.5C, ambitious enough?
We thought governments would stick to 2C, the 1.5C surprised everybody. Now, with the G7 considering as much as 70 per cent decarbonisation by 2050, the smell of opportunity is thick in the air. While 1.5C will be very difficult, we have to try. I think the disruptive effects of clean energy technologies mean the transition could happen faster than we realise. Consider Apple’s plans to produce solar-charged electric cars in four years, then multiply that by many times with innovation in other companies.
There’s an energy transition under way – all we have to do is accelerate it
Could low oil prices deter investment in clean energy, or could it actually speed up the switch to renewables?
Clean energy is resilient. A record £230bn was invested in it last year in the face of low oil prices. Much of the US shale industry is going bankrupt and we’re watching [oil and gas] assets being stranded in high-cost drilling environments like the tar sands and the Arctic. More and more leaders in financial institutions are saying there’s
a real risk of stranded assets. Global oil production is falling as of August 2015, so it’s possible we’ve already passed the peak.
How could energy storage solutions change the industry and the way we consume energy?
There’s potential for a huge compounding effect to transform electricity in transport and buildings very quickly. We could turn our cars and homes into personal power plants with the potent combination of a solar roof, an electric vehicle and a battery bank.
What’s the outlook like for renewables in the UK following cuts in subsidies for solar and onshore wind?
Ultimately, very rosy because these are global markets and costs will continue to fall. But the blindness of government in opting for nuclear and shale gas means the short-term will be rocky. I predict the government will have to do a massive U-turn. I think that will happen during this government’s tenure and they’ll have to go back to what they once professed to believe in – the green industrial revolution.
Are we sufficiently aware of the threat of climate change to human health?
No. The medical profession’s engagement at Paris was very striking and there are big problems if we keep going as we are [organisations including the World Medical Association called for strong, binding action against climate change during the talks] . The Chinese government is responding strongly to the air pollution threat. Arguably, this is one reason why many analysts think coal is in structural decline globally – and it’s just as bad in Indian cities.
You have celebrated the Pope’s stance on climate action, but are heads of state showing enough leadership?
Thankfully, in the run-up to Paris, President Obama, President Xi and President Hollande were all driving forces. But we live in an age where political leaders are pushed as much as they pull. This brings me back to the strong movement in civil society, including religious groups. Political leaders feel obligated to act, whether or not they’re fully paid up emotionally. We also have some visionary business leaders doing a terrific job – companies like Ikea and Unilever – but it’s a very mixed bag.
Jeremy Leggett is the founder of Solarcentury and the charity SolarAid and chairman of Carbon Tracker, an independent thinktank. His latest book, The Winning Of The Carbon War, is available as a free ebook from www.jeremyleggett.net
Photography by Alexander Walker