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How to stop the world’s poorest being left behind

Rachel Kyte is one of the world’s most influential authorities on climate change. She has led UN efforts towards greater access to clean and affordable energy and as the leader of the World Bank’s climate program developed strategies to make hundreds of billions of dollars available to developing countries. She is currently the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the oldest graduate school in the US dedicated to international affairs.

Kyte told The Skylark that policymakers will not succeed if they continue to pursue proposals that address the needs of the few at the peril of the many. For Kyte, if we are to live in a world with food and energy security, we must first address the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The revolution in renewable energy is continuing. Countries can now operate with the majority of their electricity coming from renewables. The reality that we can power a steel mill or cement factory with renewable energy is almost here. Just a few years ago people thought that was impossible, but this is all becoming deeply plausible and affordable.

Yet despite this progress, the global rollout of renewables isn’t going as fast as it should. And it’s for the same reason as why weaning us off harmful fossil fuels is so difficult to do: it’s not about the technology. And it’s not really about money or finance either. It’s mainly about the power of incumbency and system inertia.

Affordable, reliable and clean energy

When you think about the energy transition, it’s definitely underway. But if you look at other pieces of the puzzle, where we also need these transitions, they’re not at the same point as renewables are.

I’ve been doing a lot of work looking at the policy questions you have to ask in order to build the case for different pathways which would lead to systems change.

For example, if you ask yourself the question, “how do we get affordable energy?” somebody could tell you, “under this policy environment, coal is still cheaper than solar”. Well, for a start that’s wrong but it’s also the wrong question. The question should be “how do we get everybody affordable, reliable and clean energy?”. If you ask that question, you come up with different answers and potentially different policy advice.

We’ve got a food system that isn’t good for the planet

The same goes with food. The questions we usually ask now are either, “how can we have food security in a climate ravaged world?” or “how do we have a healthier diet?” (because we’re killing ourselves as a species through Type 2 diabetes and chronic heart disease, conditions all of which come from our diet). So, we’ve got a food system that isn’t good for the planet and isn’t good for people and yet we ask those questions separately.

“I think the internal combustion engine is on its way to obsolescence and we’ve got oil and gas companies shedding assets.”

If you ask questions about food security then traditionally everyone starts talking about the supply of food. In other words, how can we improve agricultural yield. But consider the fact that we’re putting something like 80% of agricultural research into just three crops that are totally unsuitable for a nutritious diet. In that case, why are we not putting more research into the food that poor people eat, and into making that food grow even under different climatic conditions? These are a whole set of questions that aren’t really asked.

Affordability becomes a very important driver

We also don’t ask the question from the demand side. In other words, what do people want to eat? Now you can educate public behaviour, but ultimately what they eat is really what they can afford. So, affordability therefore becomes a very important driver. We should therefore be asking: “what are the least number of most important things that need to be done so that everybody can afford a healthy diet that is sustainable?” But let me tell you that is not a research question. That is not the question policymakers or the UN is asking.

So how do you start addressing the actual core of the problem? We’ve got lots of solutions. For example, eat a more plant-based diet. And I don’t disagree with much of the science of that. However, we know from economics that that’s not the diet that people are demanding. We also know that that diet is entirely unaffordable for middle income and lower income people in about 117 countries. So, you can’t come forward with a policy solution which comes from the supply end of the problem.

We tend to have a policy proposal for some and not all

I’m very interested in how we need to ask the right questions which embrace the crisis of climate change and address affordability in a way that doesn’t leave people behind.

If you design solutions for the most vulnerable and poorest, or furthest away, then everybody in between will get served as well. But often we tend to have a policy proposal for some and not all, and then the all get left behind. And that just won’t work.

What we’re seeing that works better, in addressing these huge agendas, is a kind of minilateralism, whereby smaller groups of countries, private sector actors, civil society groups, think tanks and academia etc. work on different problem sets separately and then all come together. And if the questions are posed really well, then they can start building the evidence needed to show people what a solution might look like.

It’s really important for policymakers to be able to imagine an alternative, based on evidence, and then start moving in that direction. In other words, ask questions like: “can you imagine what it would be like if everybody had access to clean electricity at a level of productive use, so every village was able to have a lay and a grain store and clinic which is working in the evenings?”.

A deeply entrenched, extraordinarily well financed, effort to protect incumbency

But all of the time you’re fighting against incumbency and inertia. So, knowing how to make systems change is important but the incumbency is really difficult because that’s deeply corrupt money in politics.

You’re just starting to see now, for the first time, major listed oil and gas companies say that they will not spend money lobbying against what they’re claiming they’re committed to publicly, for example climate change action. Only in the last year have they started to show serious commitments to being net zero by 2050. That means different things to different companies of course, and we still have to hold them to account.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg because BP, Shell, all of these guys, may have stopped spending their lobbying money in this direction but in the US all of the shale companies like the Marathons and the Hess’ of the world are still pouring money into every Republican Congressman and woman, to the lobbies that sit in Washington, and making it absolutely impossible for fossil fuel subsidies to be removed. This isn’t just because there are a couple of leaders that are climate deniers, this is a deeply entrenched, extraordinarily well financed effort to protect incumbency and you have different forms of incumbency protecting different interests in different countries.

At the moment everybody focuses on coal, oil and gas but the same thing is going to be true as you try to break the lock that certain food companies have on a completely unsustainable and unhealthy food systems. So, we’re going to face this at different points in the future.

The public is beginning to take more interest in experts and scientists

I think that the public can eventually help break the power of incumbency. If an elected representative is not representing their interests, they will get voted out. And we are seeing significant shifts in public opinion. America is facing real challenges in its representative democracy related to the suppression of voting and to gerrymandering of districts. The system [in the US] is really in trouble and the money in politics is one big part of that. There are other issues going on as well. But public attitudes are shifting and that eventually reflects itself in who’s elected.

“If you design solutions for the most vulnerable and poorest, or furthest away, then everybody in between will get served well as well.”

What’s hopeful, on the back of Covid-19, is that polling data suggests the public is beginning to take more interest in experts and scientists. You can see this in the UK, a country where the rejection of experts was very important within the whole Brexit debate. But recent polling has shown something like 70% of people in the UK believe they should be listening to experts or scientists more. And that’s a shift as a result of Covid-19. More importantly, it’s a very important shift for climate action. If we are accepting science as a driver, then I hope we’ve turned a corner in that.  

I think the big one is the shift in attitude generationally

We also see a different mind-set emerging from the younger generations, a complete acceptance that we should and can live with a smaller footprint. And I think that businesses are now at a tipping point. They are beginning to understand that they can only stay in business and be profitable if they use resources more efficiently as they will be operating under drastically reduced and controlled emissions regulations.

There are also some very important signs that within the financial sector enough people are beginning to understand the macroeconomic risk of the destabilisation that will come from too much carbon in the economy.

And technological progress, the fact that we can talk about producing steel in a green way, we can imagine having fleets of ocean going cargo vessels working off green hydrogen and we can imagine a short-haul fleet of aircraft flying with zero emissions. I think the internal combustion engine is on its way to obsolescence and we’ve got oil and gas companies shedding assets since there’s less return on carbon now and in the future. These are signs of hope and I think the big one is the shift in attitude generationally.

If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.

This article has been edited and condensed for clarity – 18th June 2020

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