I had the good fortune to be invited to the Climate Action 2016 Summit in Washington DC in early May. This was a truly stellar event hosted by the UN Secretary General, the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The broad aim was to galvanise bottom-up climate change action as implied by the Paris agreement reached at the end of last year.
Apart from keynote talks from the great and good – Ban Ki-moon, Al Gore, Ségolène Royal, Jeffrey Sachs – what was fascinating was a) the degree of enthusiasm behind the climate agenda and b) the particular groups that were strongly represented at the meeting. The energy sector, notably, was not which I’ll come back to later.
There was particularly strong participation from city administrations, the finance sector and consumer-facing businesses. On the city side, Michael Bloomberg, businessman and former Republican Mayor of New York, made a strong case for the power of city administrations to effect real change through their influence on transport and planning. This message was endorsed by mayors from Washington DC, Atlanta, Montreal, Paris, Belo Horizonte in Brazil and Pristina in Kosovo. Prospective mayors of Sheffield and Manchester take note. As the event took place on the same day that London elected its new mayor, I did feel there was one important city in need of representation.
The finance community, both the multilateral developments banks (like the Asian Development Bank) and private sector investors and insurers, were out in numbers. Here the call was for carbon pricing to underpin low carbon investments and considerable celebration of the falling cost of renewable energy and energy storage. The one voice flagging up the limitations of carbon pricing was development economist Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He warned that the ambition in the Paris agreement implied that planning and regulation were needed as well.
Business was represented by companies like Unilever (CEO Paul Polman) and Kelloggs. Message: they’re getting on with it especially in terms of greening the supply chains. But no real input from the energy sector! This point was explicitly addressed by Peter Bakker from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. He was explicit that energy companies, including oil and gas companies, needed to be part of the agenda. Any transition away from fossil fuels would take decades and would need to be actively managed by all concerned. The hostility towards fossil fuels – and certain fossil fuel companies – expressed by some of the activists at the summit was not constructive and could certainly have discouraged attendance. A role for the Energy Institute in fostering dialogue and debate on these issues?
Finally, a word on how strongly the UK was represented at the meeting, both in terms of the number of participants from private companies and international organisations, and in terms of the quality of the input. Unfair to single out any one person, but Rachel Kyte, leader of the UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative and former Vice-President of the World Bank, stood out in terms of commitment, grasp of her brief and quality of advocacy. Proof that climate action and energy access can go hand in hand.