Speech to The Global Engineering Congress at the Institute of Civil Engineers – 24 October 18

REMARKS BY TOM BURKE CBE TO THE GLOBAL ENGINEERING CONGRESS
INSTITUTE OF CIVIL ENGINEERS, LONDON
WEDNESDAY 24TH OCTOBER 2018

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today at such an important and timely event.

I am particularly pleased to be asked to speak about financing decarbonisation. When I began my career as an environmentalist in the seventies, I set out, as a member of Friends of the Earth, to make the world go round differently.

It took me a while, but I did eventually learn that there was a considerable amount of truth in the old saying that ‘Money makes the world go round’.

This lesson reshaped a lot of my subsequent work into an effort to make the money go round differently.

If we are to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change by decarbonising our economy, then we really do have to make the money go round differently.

And, we must do so very quickly.

And, we must decarbonise the whole of our economy, not simply the energy system.

I was also greatly encouraged by the theme of this Congress on delivering the Sustainable Development Goals.

This cannot be done without a substantial contribution from engineers. So focussing their attention on most urgent of the challenges facing humanity is crucial to making the transition.

There will soon be eight billion of us sharing this planet. All of us looking to live prosperous and secure lives in which to enjoy the extraordinary benefits that knowledge and technology are making possible.

And could make even more possible in the future.

But we have become increasingly aware over the past four decades that these benefits are not fairly shared among us.

We now also know that they are being bought at the price of growing stress on the biogeochemical systems that support all of life on earth.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a remarkable instance of the capability of our species to grasp the nature of the challenges we face and to devise innovative and, perhaps more importantly, cooperative, ways to tackle them.

‘Sustainable’ and ‘development’, particularly when put together, are words with an exceptional capacity to induce definitional constipation.

We learnt the hard way in the 19th Century that if you wanted to economy to grow you had to invest in maintaining social cohesion as a system condition for prosperity.

By the late 20th Century we had begun to grasp that you must also maintain the productivity of the natural resource base of the economy. Another system condition for prosperity.

Sustainable Development is simply economic development which maintains the social and environmental conditions necessary for it to continue.

The world’s current model of development is manifestly unsustainable.

The UN’s 17 goals chart a high level course to put us on track to sustainable development.

Of all of those goals it is SG 7, ‘affordable clean energy’ which is the most urgent.

If we cannot deliver energy that is affordable we will not be able to maintain social cohesion.

If we cannot deliver energy which is clean we will not be able to avoid dangerous climate change.

If the only way to deliver affordable energy services to 8 billion people is too burn fossil fuels, then we cannot avoid dangerous climate change.

This is a true dilemma. Which ever of its horns you choose, you lose. If, like many governments and large institutions, you try to avoid making a choice, you lose twice.

The only way to deal with a true dilemma is to step out from between the horns. That requires imagination, innovation and investment.

Engineers understand systemic risk. Most people do not.

Systemic risk is a consequence of a high level of interdependence in the components of a system.

In such systems the failure of a single component not itself critical can trigger a cascade of subsequent failures that lead to the failure of a whole system – an aeroplane in flight for example.

Bankers did not understand systemic financial risk until 2008. By then the level of interdependence between banks had become so great that the failure of just one bank – Lehmann Brothers – triggered a near collapse of the whole global banking system.

When you Google ‘systemic risk’ today the most searched for entries are about financial risk not engineering risk.

The financial community is now beginning to understand systemic risk. This may help to explain why it is now playing such a leading role in responding to climate change.

We all understand now that the whole global economy nests within the global financial system. Money, especially in the form of capital for investment, really does make the global economy go round.

If the money stops going round, the global economy grinds to a halt. But political stability is system condition for the global financial system to work. Nothing stops investment more completely than political instability.

What is now becoming clear, especially in the light of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that political instability is an inevitable consequence of dangerous climate change.

This makes a stable, or at least manageable, climate a system condition for political stability, which is itself a system condition for a functioning global financial system which is in turn a system condition for the global economy.

Climate change is no longer just another environmental problem.

Decarbonising the economy, rapidly, is a strategic imperative for ensuring prosperity and security for all of us.

Over the past three decades the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has produced six reports on the state of the global climate. Each one has found that we are changing the climate faster than we first thought and that the consequences for humanity, indeed, all life on earth, are worse than we first thought.

Its latest report, published this month, makes clear that if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we need to fully decarbonise our economy by the middle of the century.

We already know what we must do to have a chance of getting there. Simply, we must stop burning fossil fuels.

On its own this is not enough. It will decarbonise the energy system but not the whole of the economy.

But it will buy us some time to tackle the more difficult challenges of non-energy emissions and those from agriculture and de-forestation.

So, let me concentrate my remarks today on what we need to do to decarbonise the energy system by mid-century.

At first sight this looks impossible: too big a change of technology and too expensive.

Looked at more closely, it remains very difficult but not impossible and the biggest obstacles are neither engineering nor money.

We can make a good start by being less intellectually lazy in the way we forecast future energy demand growth.

You will all have seen the typical projections made by the IEA, the EIA and all the fossil fuel companies. They all show something like a doubling of global energy demand by mid-century.

Fossil fuels are projected to meet most of this demand. Renewables will play a bigger but still relatively small part. Not meeting this demand would deprive millions of people of modern energy services and be immoral.

But, these forecasts conceal more than they reveal about the future. Demand in all of them is projected as primary energy demand.

This may be very reassuring to oil company executives but to digital entrepreneurs this looks like a massive opportunity for disruption.

Up to 70% of that primary energy demand is waste heat which we do not have to replace with something else. We have a far wider range of options for meeting future energy demand than these simplistic projections imply.

In the real world, as opposed to our models, the task of keeping the climate safe, if difficult, is much less demanding than we often believe.

I do not mean to minimise the difficulty of the overall task, only to suggest that the engineering and technology aspects of dealing with climate change are not the hardest part.

Nor is affording the transition.

Whenever the cost of preventing dangerous climate change is raised it is accompanied by very large numbers of dollars: so large, they look impossible to find.

The models used to estimate these costs are nothing like as reliable a guide to public policy as the models we use to understand the climate. Their outputs, as their authors often recognise, are hugely dependent on the socio-economic assumptions made.

They ask a rather academic question. ‘How much bigger or smaller would the global economy be if we took carbon out of the energy system and would this be a price worth paying for the avoided damage.’

Leaving aside the highly speculative nature of any estimate of the cost of the damage climate change might do, this is not hugely useful to policy makers and others faced with the existential challenge of preventing climate change.

Climate policy makers have to answer a much more prosaic question: ‘How can we mobilise enough bankable investment at a sufficient scale to keep the climate safe in the time we have available?’

Four main tasks are central to decarbonising the global energy system: energy efficiency, power, transport and heating and cooling. The policy regimes and the required blend of public and private finance to go to scale are different for each task and will differ from place to place.

Of these, improving energy efficiency is the fastest and highest value way to decarbonise energy use. It is a direct assault on the vast untapped resource of waste heat that accompanies the burning of fossil fuels.

This is a task in which, combined with regulatory reform, relatively small amounts of public finance can leverage very much larger private investments.

For power and transport the very rapid and largely unforeseen fall in technology costs is already attracting very significant private investment into making the transition to carbon neutrality.

The challenge for a successful climate policy is to accelerate the rate at which this transition is occurring.

In both these sectors, a relatively small number of decisions makers are making capital intensive decisions where the price of capital is a far more significant influence on the rate of deployment than the price of carbon.

Dealing with heat and cooling is among the more difficult parts of the energy system to decarbonise. This is chiefly because it requires the alignment of decisions by a disaggregated set of decision makers.

Here, it is the aggregation of a host of individual decisions that is important not each decision in itself. Price alone will not achieve this goal. It will require an integrated package of measures including regulation, standard setting and some public investment.

Last year the world invested $1.7 trillion dollars in energy – the majority of it into renewables and batteries. This is less than 2% of the world’s GDP for 2017. Clearly the world can well afford the meet existing energy demand with its current expensive and inefficient predominantly fossil fuel resources.

Successful climate policy will simply divert an increasing proportion of that spend into building a carbon neutral energy system.

As we decarbonise the energy system we increasingly decouple the demand for modern energy services from primary energy demand. There is no a priori reason to suppose that a more efficient climate safe energy system would require more annual investment than we already know we can afford.

Furthermore, there are growing signs that the financial institutions, both public and private have begun to grasp the full significance of climate change for financial stability.

President Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement attracted a torrent of critical headlines. Few people noticed a far more significant announcement three days earlier.

Three of the world’s largest asset managers – Blackrock, State Street and Vanguard – announced that they were voting against the Board of Exxon because it had not disclosed sufficient information about its exposure to climate risk.

When Larry Fink and his peers want to send a message to the Board of Exxon they invite the Chairman to come to their offices for a meeting. They do not communicate through the media.

This public vote was intended more as a signal to the wider financial markets of how they saw the impact of climate change on the risk landscape. One of its immediate effects was to boost the internal status of sustainable investment units throughout the capital markets.

Risk is always accompanied by opportunity. As investor concern about the risks of a changing climate grows so, too, does their appetite for the opportunities that decarbonisation will generate.

As their experience of both the risks and opportunities presented by climate change matures so too will their ability to make better judgements on the price of capital for decarbonisation and where best to allocate it to generate reliable returns.

The leading managers of private capital flows are not alone in recognising the potential risks of climate change. They are adding their voices to the central bankers who began to engage seriously with climate change just before the meeting of the Climate Convention in Paris in 2015.

In a now famous speech Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, spoke of the ‘tragedy of the horizon’ that climate change presents: the prospect that by the time it is obvious to all that we must decarbonise the economy it will too late to avoid dangerous climate change.

His concern was that climate change poses a significant, and under recognised threat to macro-economic stability. His intervention led to the establishment of the Taskforce on Climate Related Financial Disclosures.

This has now established global guidelines on how companies should report on the risk climate change poses to their business. They will enable investors to make better informed judgements of how to minimise their exposure to climate risk and how to identify better returns from decarbonisation.

These guidelines are currently voluntary but there are already signs that they may become mandatory. Recently the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority both issued reports discussing how financial regulators will take climate change into account.

These measures to redirect the flow of private capital in response to climate change are being complemented by the Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs). These government owned bodies deploy large sums of public capital to promote economic development around the world.

They play a significant role in advising countries on their economic pathways and leveraging private capital. The six largest MDBs have committed to align their financial flows to help deliver the outcome of the Paris Agreement.

They are already coming under pressure to do more to fulfil this commitment. An index of their performance relative to each other in creating this alignment was recently published by a think tank.

These developments on climate change within the financial community have occurred with remarkable speed for a traditionally conservative sector. They mark a striking depth of understanding of the potential for dangerous climate change to disrupt the economy and a surprising willingness to redirect financial flows to meet this challenge.

If climate policy fails – by which I mean if we fail to keep the eventual rise in global average temperatures below 2°C – it will not be because we lack either the technology or the capital to succeed.

It will be because we lack the political will to deliver the technology and capital on time.

Decarbonising the energy system will create a great number of jobs and opportunities for businesses. But they will not be jobs and opportunities for the same people, in the same places, with the same skills as fossil fuels.

To get the politics of climate change right we must also think through the social adjustment that will accompany the technology and investment changes.

That will also have to be paid for.