Transcript: Simon Upton

  • 21/11/2015
Simon Upton
Simon Upton

Patrick Gower: Now, former cabinet minister, Simon Upton, is the OECD environment director. I spoke to him earlier and started out by asking him, 'What are the chances of success in Paris?'

Simon Upton: Well, the chances of the talks achieving something are very high. It's a question of what's in that 'something'. In a sense, they've already achieved a lot because we've got 140 out of 167-odd countries already saying, 'Well, this is what we'll do in putting numbers around it.' We didn't go into the Copenhagen talks in anything like that sort of position. So you can say for sure that there will be an outcome. The question is really about how strong it will be and the momentum there will be to go beyond that.

So you're sure it will achieve something? I mean, you've got hope there? I mean, what are the reasons for this hope?

Well, as I say, you've got countries with commitments they've made on the table. The whole logic of this process — and it's taken five years to get to this point — is a bottom-up process of pledging. Countries say, 'Well, this is what we will do.' Now, we know in advance that all those pledges don't add up to enough, but they add up to more than nothing. And when you've had countries like the United States and China reaching understandings between one and another about both taking significant action, that gives some momentum to the talks that simply weren't there.

Yes, but on that 2-degree pledge... I mean, on the current targets, we'll only get to 2.7 by the end of this century — a 2.7 degree rise.

That's right. They only get us halfway there, but for the first time, countries are confronted with the reality of what they've said they want to do, which is to limit it to 2 degrees. They've put numbers on the table that don't add up so the negotiation then becomes about, 'OK, how do we revisit this?' What we really need is an ongoing process whereby those commitments can be steadily increased. Every country needs to do more. Everyone going there knows that. And I think that we're living in a world now where we can see for the first time, how you might actually get there. I mean, the scale of the challenge is enormous. We need to completely decarbonise our economies. We need to move to a position sometime towards the end of the century where there are net zero emissions to the atmosphere. So that means a total transformation in our power-generation systems, in transport and a range of other areas. Now, frankly, five years ago even, certainly 10 years ago, we did not really know how that could occur. The sheer collapse in costs for a number of renewable energy sources means that we can now seriously envisage, for instance, a decarbonised electricity generation system. My feeling is that politicians will do things that they can do, and now they can see how they can do them.

Yeah. I just want to pick up on that because one thing you've talked about is technology. You think that technology can help us get there, but will technology be enough for people watching at home? Are they going to have to make sacrifices, be it higher taxes, taking in more climate migrants or reducing their consumption?

Technology alone won't do the trick. It's always going to be a question of policies which enable new technologies to break through. Now, some countries, like Germany, have done a lot of heavy lifting over the last decade. And it wasn't the government there, it was consumers. The price of electricity in Germany went up because people were, effectively, having to fund new photovoltaic and wind energy coming into the system. China then picked those technologies up, collapsed the cost of them. They are now competitive or very close to competitive in many markets. So it's technology and declining cost which make the transformation possible, but it won't happen without supportive government policies.

Sure, because this week in New Zealand, we've had the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment say that 9000 Kiwi homes are at risk from rising sea levels. It's an indicator, isn't it, of how serious this is. In your mind — I want to ask you this — do you think New Zealand is doing enough?

New Zealand is like every other country in the world, and that is, it's doing something but it's not doing enough. It's going to have to increase its game here. That applies to every country. Every country has some things it can do easily. Every country has some difficult things. Now, in New Zealand's case, the more difficult things are probably on the agricultural side, but on the power-generation side, it's a country with huge renewal resources. So you can see how you could decarbonise the electricity system relatively quickly. And if you can do that, then it becomes possible to decarbonise quite a lot of your transport, because if electrical vehicles start to break through, and they are, then a country with renewable energy can switch in that direction. So I think for all countries, it's a question of doing the things that you can do most easily upfront, and then working on the difficult issues in a slightly slower track.

I want to pick up on that because New Zealand's climate change minster, Tim Groser, he says the targets that we've got at the moment are ambitious and fair. You obviously think that he and many other climate-change ministers are wrong, do you?

No. I just make the point that we know that none of these pledges add up to being on a track to get to where we need to be in the second half of the century.

OK, so coming back to the New Zealand argument, and that is from this government, that we only commit 0.2 percent of world emissions, most of that is for producing food and efficiently doing it and that it's not up to New Zealand to do more — that's the government's argument — what do you make of that?

The small emissions argument could be run by most countries in the world. Even quite big economies can point to the fact that their emissions are only 1 percent or 1.5 percent. That argument doesn't really cut it. It's a global problem. It's a per capita problem. Every country has to take measures which will reduce their emissions. Now, it's certainly true that, as I say, every country will have difficult areas. Agriculture is a more difficult area for New Zealand. In fact, if you look at New Zealand's emissions profile, it looks rather more like a developing country profile because of the weight of agricultural emissions, and, of course, New Zealand is an efficient producer of agricultural products, but still, you would expect it, therefore, to be taking the lead on that. And it is in terms of research. There's a global greenhouse-gas alliance in agriculture. But New Zealand has to keep on leading on that one, but, as I say, it's not just a question of that. You've got to look at all your emissions, and there are things that are probably going to be easier to do. So when you have an emissions trading scheme, as New Zealand does, and an increasing number of jurisdictions do, you have to have a carbon price that actually has an impact. And to date, in most countries in the world, these emissions trading schemes have been set up but the price has been so low, it hasn't really affected the behaviour. So that's an obvious place for everyone to start.

And just quickly before we go, what, and in particular who, do you believe are the potential sticking points in these talks?

Well, the sticking points are probably going to be around just how constraining some future agreement on updating the pledges goes. There's been a lot of debate about whether things are legally binding or not. I personally don't think that's the big issue. But certainly there are going to be countries that are very wary about taking on new commitments. So how we go forward and how we monitor countries, how countries bind themselves. And also money, but ongoing there's going to be a need for assistance, particularly with adaptation. There are countries that do not have the resources to cope with what's likely to come their way, so that could be a very important issue.

And finally, one quick question. These talks are obviously being held in Paris in the shadow of the attacks. What impact will this have on the talks? Will it be harder to get a deal? Will security overshadow the talks?

I don't think security will overshadow the talks. The one thing that has become clear is that some of the civil society interactions, like street marches, gatherings, they won't be able to take place. The police are not prepared to allow those sorts of large uncontrolled events, but the Le Bourget site was always going to be under heavy security. I don't think it will make any difference. And that's a big site. There are going to be thousands and thousands of people there. I don't actually think that will have any impact on the talks themselves.

Simon Upton, thank you very much for your time this morning.

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