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The IET at COP26 – blogging series: Al Gore’s perspectives on climate and energy

Throughout week one of COP26, I have used the opportunity to gain insight and engage with the big issues which impact us as engineers.

To summarise a few event highlights - I joined Nicola Todd, National Grid’s Head of Innovation and Strategy and Tom Howe, Head of the Energy and Environment Division at the IEA, for an informal discussion in the Green Zone on the topic of ‘What is a Green Grid.’

They spoke about the steps we need to take to ensure energy networks are ready for the global transition, how we build the skills and supply chain, how we need to scale up investment, and how we need to involve consumers and other stakeholders in the journey.

Members of our delegation also attended an event with Solar Energy UK, hosted by Mott MacDonald, which included an international panel chaired by the Chief Executive of the Global Solar Council, Jose Donoso.

They opened the event by stating that they don’t view energy as a separate sector anymore, we need energy experts when we are looking at all sectors.

Throughout the rest of the event, they looked at how the renewable industry can address barriers to scaling its ambition and was followed by a discussion about how we build the skills and capabilities required to address the 1.5-degree challenge.

For anyone not attending COP26 in person, it’s hard to appreciate the scale of the event and just how much there is to take in. 

To end the week, I decided to attend Al Gore’s presentation, former US vice president, politician, campaigner, and winner of both the Nobel Peace Prize, and an Academy Award for his documentary ‘The Inconvenient Truth.’

His talk was a hard-hitting hour and a half starting off with climate science, moving through adaptation, resilience, energy transition, climate finance and finally social transformation.

His ability to talk to an audience with clarity and urgency about technical topics was amazing. 

After walking us through the science he presented the perspective that COVID 19 has shown us that faced with a global crisis we can react and respond. 

Some key takeaways included:

We have the technology

  • Renewables will be the cheapest power source in all regions within five years.
  • We beat 2020 projections of wind capacity by 24 times, solar 17 times.

We need the financial sector to mobilise

  • Between now and 2040 emerging markets will account for 88% of new electricity demand.
  • Developed countries are investing $390bn in renewables for a population of 1.2 billion, however, the developing world with a population of 5.2 billion people has approximately one-third of this investment. What are we doing about this? 
  • Battery storage will be a one trillion dollar industry. Green hydrogen will be cost-competitive with fossil hydrogen with CCUS by 2030. By 2023/24 EVs will become cheaper than combustion counterparts in every product category.
  • The Market capitalisation of Tesla is now larger than the 12 largest oil majors combined.

It is clear in conclusion that the sustainability revolution is the largest investment opportunity in history.

Al expressed the view that markets are responding to the climate emergency better than authoritarian regimes, and that the direction of travel after Paris has been picked up by corporations and the private sector. However, they urgently need to widen their perspective.

He emphasised that profits for investors in equity are only a small part of real social value, and we also need to look at resource distribution and accountability for externalities.

1% of the global population controls 46% of wealth and this threatens both capitalism and democracy – the risk of hyper inequality exacerbated by climate breakdown.

He advocated a move toward multi-stakeholder capitalism, which leads to the need to create standards to measure and analyse commitments from non-state actors, and calls for radical transparency, where we can determine where pollution is coming from, and responsible actors can use this information to meet their targets and goals.

His concluding points were:

  • If and when we reach Net Zero, the temperature will stop rising in 3 - 5 years.
  • It always seems impossible until it’s done.
  • The only thing missing is enough political will – itself a renewable resource.

Reflecting on my week at COP, two things have struck me.

Firstly, I am heartened by the way business and industry are pushing the political class to go quicker.

Working in the energy industry, I am well aware of the key role energy plays in decarbonising the global economy, and the risks facing our businesses if we don’t adapt. 

Secondly, I hope that we are moving from an era of persuasion to an era of rapid action when our skills as engineers will be more in demand than ever before in addressing probably the greatest challenge our profession will tackle in my lifetime.