Reasons for optimism about prospects for the Paris climate summit.

BusinessGreen: “BusinessGreen Leaders Awards Champion of the Year, Jeremy Leggett, reveals why there are reasons to be optimistic in the run up to the Paris climate summit.”
“Jeremy Leggett admits that he has been surprised by the past year. Surprised by the pace at which the cost of solar has fallen, surprised at how serious commentators have started to discuss the “death spiral” some utilities face as the renewables industry expands, and surprised at the extremely warm reception to his latest book.
“I was nervous,” the Solarcentury founder and winner of BusinessGreen‘s Champion of the Year admits of the publication of his most recent book, The Energy of Nations. “It went to publish and I was expecting some flak; that some might think it was talking down to people. But the reviews and the feedback I got was amazing – I was thrilled.”
Leggett should not have been surprised – The Energy of Nations is one of the best books in recent years on the parallel transformations underway in the energy industry, geo-politics, and the global climate. It is accessible rather than dumbed down, and in narrating the history of the fossil fuel and solar industries over the past decade it delivers a story that is far more compelling than the initial subject matter may suggest. “Psychologists tell us people like a story,” Leggett says, recalling the thinking behind the book’s intriguing structure. “So that was where I got the idea to shape the book as a story – a linear narrative of events from 2004 to 2013 accompanied by diary extracts that explained how I have seen and experienced it on the front lines.”
The story Leggett tells in The Energy of Nations is the complex saga of what the clean tech entrepreneur describes as a “civil war” within the energy industry between emerging “survival technologies” and fossil fuel incumbents – a battle that runs alongside a similar skirmish between those who fear the oil and gas industry is facing a capex and supply crisis and those who think the carbon intensive energy complex can continue with business as usual for decades to come. As non-executive chairman of a solar company in the form of Solarcentury, chairman of a solar charity in the form of SolarAid, and chairman of a green NGO in the form of the influential Carbon Tracker Initiative, it is fairly clear which side Leggett is on.
But if The Energy of Nations was predominantly the story of the oil and gas industry sleep-walking towards a crisis, Leggett is hopeful his next book will focus more on the success of those emerging industries that are attempting to challenge the energy incumbency. “I’m still keeping a diary and writing another book,” he reveals. “It will run from Easter 2013 to the end of the 2015 climate summit in Paris… I am hoping it will be a somewhat uplifting narrative. It will be published very quickly after the summit.”
This optimism springs from a number of different sources. First, Leggett is convinced the “mood music and the politics” surrounding the UN negotiations are “totally different” from the tensions that resulted in the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. Secondly, clean technologies are maturing fast.
“Solar costs are down, storage costs are down, and we are starting to see what the interface between the two can achieve,” Leggett argues. “The potential to accelerate the survival technologies is much greater than people think.”
And finally, the huge risks associated with the carbon intensive status quo are becoming ever more self-evident, as demonstrated by Carbon Tracker’s increasingly influential analysis of the so-called “carbon bubble”.
Leggett is convinced this previously marginalised hypothesis is starting to gain traction, pointing to growing numbers of articles in papers such as the Financial Times and the Telegraph that highlight the long term risks the oil and gas industry faces. “I have spoken to senior journalists and they would say there are a lot of people in their organisations who just don’t want to run these stories,” he admits. “But with the passage of events that is starting to break down a little. It is beginning to become obvious there are problems that are being ignored. The level of capex and debt in the oil and gas industries is just one example.”
The argument put forward by Leggett and Carbon Tracker is now being increasingly borne out in the hard data released by the oil and gas industry. Capital costs are soaring and the projects that the industry is relying on to keep track with rising demand, such as tar sands or drilling in the Arctic, are proving ever more costly. The industry is struggling to keep up, as evidenced by oil prices that haven’t dipped below $100 a barrel in several years. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions keep rising and the cost of alternative technologies keep falling, meaning that these capital intensive fossil fuel investments could quickly be left stranded by either competitive clean technologies or tightening environmental regulations.
According to Leggett it is the dawning realisation about the strength of this argument, coupled with the growing viability of clean technologies, which could give world leaders the push they need to deliver a meaningful and ambitious agreement in Paris. “By the time we get to Paris there will be so much more capex pressure and divestment pressure,” he predicts. “The policymakers will say ‘look the markets are starting to move here’.”
It is an optimistic assessment and in his role as a self-described “professional green business campaigner” it is one that Leggett is committed to turning into a reality. Consequently, he has launched an innovative new campaign designed to mobilise a new wave of low carbon investment and fossil fuel divestment pressure. Dubbed the Big Boost Climate Project, the campaign kicked off this month with an attempt to raise £30,000 through crowd-funding platform IndieGoGo to pay for a newspaper advert. However, it won’t be any old newspaper advert. “We will take out a full page ad in one of the big newspapers to run a hard-hitting declaration,” Leggett reveals. “Over 100 of the world’s most respected environmentalists have signed up to this.”
The declaration will call directly on the world’s leading foundations and philanthropists to take a chunk of their various endowments and trusts and throw it behind the transition to a global low carbon economy.
“The more I have worked with SolarAid and Carbon Tracker the more I have realised that the philanthropic organisations sit on an awful lot of money,” Leggett explains. “It is all sitting there at a time when we could be on the way to unavoidable global warming. Our argument is, take some of it out and put it into a climate blitz of investments, grants, and low interest loans.”
Leggett is cagey about the level of interest this idea has sparked among philanthropic organisations, but admits there are “reasons to be optimistic” that the planned public declaration will resonate with some high profile foundations.
He is also optimistic about the second phase of the campaign, which would aim to create an additional pool of capital for clean technologies by ensuring that only firms that commit to donating five per cent of their profits to the mission of fighting global warming can qualify for the philanthropic cash. It is an idea that has already been pioneered through Solarcentury’s commitment to provide funding to support SolarAid’s effort to roll out solar lamps across Africa.
“Our partnership with SolarAid has shown that a mid-sized company can achieve amazing things with this sort of commitment,” says Leggett. “A lot more companies should be making a similar commitment to donate a share of their profits – there are lots of intangible benefits you get as a business from taking that step.”
Leggett describes this intriguing new campaign as a “social experiment on the frontier of the war on climate change”, a phrase which in many ways neatly summarises so many of his past campaigning efforts. It will be fascinating to see if some of the world’s richest and most powerful organisations can be convinced of the Big Climate Boost’s merits. If so, it promises to provide a further fillip for a low carbon economy that has long benefited from Leggett’s campaigning nous. He may end up being pleasantly surprised once again.”