The climate clock is ticking. Normal isn’t working. What should we do differently?


In 50 months from now, greenhouse gas concentrations go beyond the point where it would be “likely” we could keep global warming below the dire-danger threshold of 2 degrees, on current emission trends. It seems incredible to many of us that the world is not galvanised by this, writes Jeremy Leggett.

Fifty worried people have today written a collective note of their dismay that world leaders are being so ineffective in the face of “one of the greatest threats to human progress”, especially considering that “tackling it could be a huge economic opportunity”.

Why is this happening? A key reason is that society currently allows the carbon-fuel incumbency – the coal, oil, and gas companies, their bankrollers, and their institutional supporters – to get away with a deeply dysfunctional defence of their narrow short-term interests.

I see this daily in my vocation, but I have rarely seen it more clearly than at the recent FT Global Energy Leaders Summit, where bosses from Exxon, Arch Coal, and (ex) BP opined on the question, “Are We Entering A New Fossil Fuel Era?”.

Yes, they said, provided we overcome a few issues of what they call “social licence”. Not necessarily, I said, if those of us who care succeed in progressively removing your licences to operate, and/or if you have got their exuberant supply projections wrong in the peak-oil debate. I invite you to have a look at the arguments in the FT video of the debate.

The 50 worried people referred to above were all invited to contribute prescriptions for the climate crisis by The Guardian. And here’s my take on things.

We must mobilise clean energy as though for war, and a solar revolution must be part of that mobilisation.

I experience daily both the potential of solar and its sister technologies, and the deadly effectiveness of the carbon incumbency in holding clean energy back. I think that our best chance of derailing the suicidal carbon train is to switch off its capitalisation process.

Investors continue to pile into carbon fuels because we allow companies to account coal, oil and gas as assets at zero risk of impairment today. But such ‘assets’ are at risk of ending up stranded, once a critical mass in society begins to realise there is no choice but to cut emissions.

Researchers at CarbonTracker, a small thinktank that I chair, have shown just how big a problem this is, and how relatively easy it would be for all types of players across the financial value chain – regulators, actuaries, auditors and so on – to do their jobs properly and recognise the risk. If they did that simple thing, in their different ways, things would change quickly.

The Mississippi river of capital flowing to carbon would have to begin diverting to clean energy. That such dysfunctional behaviour is the norm today is just one symptom of the fact that capital markets have been allowed to behave in suicidal ways generally, for many years now.

I have come to believe that we must reengineer modern capitalism root to branch. One simple example among many is that we should require pension funds to invest as though pensions are for the long-term benefit of retirees, not the short-term enrichment of a bonus cult.

In all this, we must not forget that huge part of the developing world where carbon fuels are an ever-inflating burden and conventional energy is not a realistic option for development. Here the challenges ought to be simpler.

In both my Solarcentury and SolarAid roles, I see how easy it ought to be to knock out diesel and kerosene in power and lighting, because solar is cheaper today. All we need to do is create channels of distribution and credit.

As I look at the soaring solar lantern sales of SunnyMoney, SolarAid’s commercial brand, I feel that we have identified a real candle for hope. We aim to be a leader in ridding Africa of the kerosene lantern by 2020, and I think we can do it.

Like us, many people are working to remove the carbon incumbency’s licences, by demonstrating the power of alternatives, trying to correct current skewed policies, consuming (or not consuming) as though carbon matters, and the like.

To those who are, I wish you strength, with some hope. To those who aren’t, I politely plead for a rethink.

Jeremy Leggett is founder and non-executive chairman of renewable energy developer Solarcentury, and founder and chairman of SolarAid, an African lighting charity set up with Solarcentury profits. 

Further reading:

Impacts of climate change already evident

To tackle the melting Arctic is to tackle climate change itself

Why our quality of life is sacrificed by the continued use of fossil fuels

Papua New Guinea is the latest in a long line of fossil fuel disasters

Climate confusion