Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, gave a tour-de-force speech in London on 3rd of June 2015 as part of the organisation’s build-up to COP21 in Paris. He drew upon “Aligning Policies for a Low-carbon Economy“, an OECD report that was produced with the International Energy Agency, the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Transport Forum, but his speech was not a dry litany of managerial tweaks that civil servants might make to public policy.
Gurría challenged assumptions about the impact of a low-carbon energy system on economic growth, business competitiveness, and also development goals. “There’s a flawed but deeply rooted idea that development comes before decarbonisation. That there is a certain inevitable sequence. While developing economies will inevitably increase their emissions, there is no iron law in the 21st century that it has to be as fossil intensive as it has been in the past. Viable alternatives are already commercially available.” He bemoaned the lack of a price on carbon and the scale of investment into unabated coal-fired electricity generation. Then the former minister of finance laid into the discount rate – used to compare costs and benefits that occur in different time periods – which leads to “ …our grandchildren end up having no value – simple as that! Brutal as that!” This was a speech that could have been made at a climate change demo. Instead, I was at sitting in the City of London, in the company of investors and representatives of some of the biggest companies in the world. While some may have disagreed with his analysis, the applause extended well beyond politeness. But it is not unusual nowadays for establishment figures to call in strident terms for action on climate change. Lord Nicholas Stern, who introduced Gurría, was among the first, and the latest being Pope Francis.
Why is it then that politicians are so hesitant and timid on this issue? The past 20 years have been laden with missed opportunities, U-turns and inconsistent policies. Will 2015 break the trend? Gurría lamented that although COP21 will take place in just five months, 152 countries are yet to table their commitments– their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – to action, preventing the UNFCCC staff from being able to tot up commitments to see if they might keep to a two degree temperature rise. He said countries must not wait for others to act, and avoid staring into each other’s eyes to see who blinked first. He urged politicians to take action independently and called for them, in short, to lead.
However, the question remains what prevents too many politicians from significant action? Some are clearly not convinced by the case of man-made climate change. Others may be paralysed by the complexity of the problem, or may determine their actions via a delicate calculation of what suite of policies will garner them most success at the polls – and perhaps climate change fails to figure. Yet others may be repeatedly diverted by more immediate problems. For that group, the moment has arrived to courageously neglect what is urgent, and do what is important. As Gurría said: “The next trade negotiation, the next trade facilitation can wait. There are some damages, but it can wait. This [climate change action] cannot wait because as we are speaking the damage is happening.”
Gurría’s talk was hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise. “Aligning Policies for a Low-carbon Economy” which can be found at http://www.oecd.org/environment/aligning-policies-for-a-low-carbon-economy-9789264233294-en.htm
About the author:
Andrea Smith is researching corporate action on climate change, specifically support of renewable electricity, thanks to an Economic and Social Research Council-funded Ph.D. with Sussex Energy Group. She has worked as a journalist, political assistant, civil servant, and technical expert for an NGO with climate change as the common denominator through these diverse activities.
Follow Sussex Energy Group