Finding a Practical Solution to Climate Change
14 January 2019 at 8:18 am
Anna Skarbek is the CEO of ClimateWorks, a not for profit helping business, governments and investors reduce their carbon emissions, and take advantage of the technology ready to stop climate change. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Working in the climate change space, Skarbek often worries about what sort of world her two young daughters will grow up in. The clock is ticking to cut down on emissions, and she knows we aren’t moving fast enough to halt irreparable damage.
But, she’s hopeful. The technology to cut emissions is ready to go, and the question of doing so in the private and business sectors is no longer “if”, but “when” and “how”.
While the clean energy sector has come a long way since Skarbek first started (it didn’t exist), she knows with a change as big as this it is always hard to convince those in power and in parliament to become investors.
It’s a tough slog, but she knows it’s this generation’s responsibility to clean up the climate, because for the next, it will be far too late.
In this week’s Changemaker, Skarbek discusses how a career in banking led to environmental activism, her frustrations on climate inaction, and what’s ahead in 2019.
Was there a specific moment you realised you wanted to be involved in the world of environmental action?
When I was at university studying law and finance, I took an environmental law subject, and we were looking into the Kyoto Protocol, because it had just been negotiated and the process was going through ratification. I found the idea of the protocol harnessing the power of the market, through carbon trading, carbon credits and emissions limits and business opportunities, really interesting. I really loved projects and business, but also wanted to do something in the environmental space, and so learning about carbon trading inspired me to try and combine my qualifications.
When you first started out, what did the clean energy sector look like? Did jobs exist in that space?
There wasn’t a clean energy sector back then, but I knew that carbon trading was just being recognised at an international treaty concept and that the market would be a very powerful way to bring forward all the solutions that were needed. My career actually started in banking to learn about project financing for energy projects in any form. We worked on gas pipelines, and coal mines. We only dealt with one clean energy project during that time; a wind farm with two turbines. But it was a skill set that would be valuable and it was an eye opener about how the market participants worked, the small size of the clean energy market, and that good policy is needed to level the playing field to make transactions economically attractive as the incumbent ones.
Since that time, how have attitudes changed regarding emission reductions in business?
It’s moved from an optional task to essential, and the question is no longer an if, but how. How can these companies manage the risks and also harness the opportunities. A decade or two earlier, you could see these companies who were trying to develop a market leadership position, now it’s on the core agenda of most businesses to help reduce climate change.
Does that make you feel more positive about the environmental choices businesses are making into the future?
Yes it does, this is exactly the vision that drove me all those decades ago. The market is a tremendous force when it can be harnessed in the direction for a win-win. Because the issue has become much more widely understood, and the cost of some of the core solutions have come right down, particularly renewable energy, it’s attractive for business, but also people are recognising it’s essential to keep going. Awareness has also reached a point where business will not be tenable in future if there isn’t a sustainable energy response plan, and that’s a powerful motivator. Public policy is still essential in accelerating that transition though, because we’re definitely not there yet. But the market trends are in the right direction. Businesses recognise there are risks and opportunities and they are looking for how to harness them.
What kind of projects is Climateworks working on at the moment?
There is enormous amount of work to do in mapping and designing roadmaps to help the big sectors of electricity, transport, land, forestry and farming become more sustainable. All of those sectors need to be carbon neutral by the middle of the century or sooner, which is generally understood and accepted, but the detail of how to do that isn’t quite there yet. We are very much focused on the implementation challenge, that is designing pathways for each of those sectors to show groups and government groups what technology can do in each of those sectors, and show the optimistic evidence that says we can actually achieve these environmental goals of zero emissions, within the time of the ticking clock that is the climate change challenge.
So for example, we work with building regulators to make sure the building code includes an updated energy efficiency standards and a trajectory to get standards towards net zero on a pathway. But we’re also working with local councils on electric vehicle fleet procurement.
Being an election year, many environmental groups have said that it’s now or never to take action on climate change. What issues do you think are going to be the most challenging?
Carbon pricing is incredibly politically contentious, and remains a very powerful policy tool. I think what we’ve learned is that there isn’t a one size fits all solution and there’s been a shift towards sector by sector solutions. There’s a lot of opportunity in that, it does have its own needs, and needs tailored regulatory and policy support.
Climate change is much broader than an environmental issue. We have the technology to address it, which is exciting, but it will need an economic transition, and a significant investment in the technology for it to work. I think the lesson of the last decade is that those who were impacted by the negative are often resistant to change, but also I think a decade ago there wasn’t as much acceptance that this is the new normal, and I think the Paris Agreement has done that job.
What’s different about the Paris Agreement in your eyes?
Previous climate agreements have had UN defined targets imposed on countries who then agreed to sign, but that often led to a feeling that it had been set by someone far away that didn’t understand their local needs. The Paris Agreement does that, and it sets the global goal because the atmosphere is a shared resource, so limiting the emissions that enter the atmosphere to the volume so we stay under the limit of less than two degrees is important. That can be mathematically measured and that’s the shared global goal. But it [now allows] individual countries to propose their pathway and accept transparent reporting and ratcheting up or upgrading their commitments once they can see what other countries are doing, or when technology improves. It’s taken a lot of the heat off politics for a lot of countries because they now have their own targets that they have to submit to. It was widely agreed that those targets in round one weren’t enough, but it was a start.
Getting people to invest money in this technology has been hard, do you find that frustrating?
It is a challenge but often we find when when when we set ourselves a goal of net zero emissions it’s a little bit like the circular economy. It’s such a major mindset shift that it sometimes invites companies or owners to in fact reimagine how they go about producing their products or servicing their needs. And that can lead to terrific innovations, new inventions and lower costs. The challenge of getting people to invest a lot up front is big, but there is no shortage of people willing to take it on. Clean energy assets can be low risk, long life assets that are very attractive to superannuation funds for example. There’s no question that shifting from the status quo to something different requires change and that change can be bumpy if not managed well. We don’t lack the financing ability or the technological ability to do it but what’s important is that we’ve a lot of effort in getting those technologies to market. Decades of research into solar panels and electric vehicles are now bearing fruit and are commercially available. A similar amount of effort is now required for transition policies that smooth the bumps for those who will be impacted negatively during the transition. And that’s an equally valid and important part of the transition and could derail the process if not done well. Addressing climate change is really an interdisciplinary challenge that cuts across silos of government departments and institutions.
Do you worry about the sort of future younger generations could have if this transition isn’t managed well.
I have two daughters, one just started primary school and one just started walking last year. When I think about the world they’ll grow up in, I hope that we have a cleaner, more livable and natural environment because I know we actually can, and I’m pretty hopeful that humans are able to get us onto that path. But the other thing that I realised when I think about what I know about the climate change challenge is the ticking clock. In Australia we’ve started to reduce emissions but we’re not reducing them fast enough. If we don’t change that pace, then we’ll miss those goals and a more dangerous world of more extremes is an unattractive place for everyone.
The race against time is something I also think about in the context of my daughters and everybody in their generation. We can’t wait for the next generation to graduate and invent new stuff to solve this. So it’s up to this generation – not the next one – to do it.