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We are in the hands of innovators

Lord Giddens called climate change “the biggest risk for civilisation”, when he addressed the Liechtenstein Congress on Sustainable Development and Responsible Investment. The British sociologist sees the UN system as the best structure to take on this challenge. The upcoming summit in Rio has to be more consequential than its predecessor 20 years ago.

Lord Giddens called climate change “the biggest risk for civilisation”, when he addressed the Liechtenstein Congress on Sustainable Development and Responsible Investment. The British sociologist sees the UN system as the best structure to take on this challenge. The upcoming summit in Rio has to be more consequential than its predecessor 20 years ago.

Interview: Steffen Klatt, Vaduz

The 1992 Rio Summit tried to create a global policy towards nature, including climate change. What is the state of play now, 20 years later, when the UN convenes yet another summit in Rio?

Anthony Giddens: You should recognise to begin with that nature is no longer nature. We seem to invent a new age which scientists call the Anthropocene, where so much is influenced by human activity in the natural world. This world knows large new risks. That said, the fact that it is Rio ‘plus’ 20 indicates one of the big problems: our intention to create a more sustainable world and to limit climate change is not matched with substantive action. We are a long way from getting control over the forces which we created ourselves. Rio+20 should be more consequential. The same applies to the climate change negotiations.

What do you expect from Rio+20?

I hope that there will be some real substance and that there will be money flowing. In the climate talks there are endless promises of money with no money flowing. I hope people use the opportunity to come together and produce new ideas. But I doubt that the UN is going to do at this moment much more than set a general framework.

Is climate change the most important issue on the table?

To me climate change is the most urgent and difficult issue we face. Obviously the brief of Rio is wider than the brief of the climate negotiations. It is supposed to deal more with sustainability issues. Some of those are much more politically manageable. It is easier to deal with recycling the components of a car, for example, as it is a valuable thing to do. It is much harder to come to terms with the abstract future risk of a disturbed climatic environment.

What are the main obstacles?

With regard to climate change it is sheer inertia of the fossil fuel industry. We are essentially a fossil fuel-based civilisation. It is very hard to turn around a juggernaut of that kind, and we have been only marginally successful in doing so. We are gobbling out resources that we depend on. Over the next twenty years I would hope for a lot more practical impact. There is a lot going on, a lot of it is happening autonomously rather than on a state or global level.

Why does that matter? Is it important that it has to be globally coordinated?

We need a lot of innovation, and much of it can happen on a local level. You can try and get a low carbon economy on a local level. But without being knitted together on a higher level, it will not have the consequences which are needed. We need deep structural change. It could be that the convergence of the economic and the ecological crises produces a breakthrough. But it does not seem to be the case for the moment.

We live in a capitalist world. Is it possible to make a business model around fighting climate change?

You cannot generalise about the whole of business, as you have different business areas. But there is a core of enlightened business leaders who are very involved with wider environmental causes and who are concerned of the potential impact of climate change. They have to play a very important role. As far as possible this role should converge with economic advantage.  In the medium term it almost certainly would. If you are, for instance, in the vanguard of designing an urban system wholly based on electric cars, then this will give you a competitive advantage down the line, but not necessarily straightaway. Some business leaders are quite visionary. On the other hand, there are many businesses, especially in the fossil fuel industry, which are concerned to conserve the status quo.

What role do financial markets have to play?

I would not only include financial markets, but market mechanisms generally. They have a significant role to play, but almost always in a framework provided by a government. I would ideally like to see collaboration on blue skies research between investors and governments. One example is energy storage. If we could invent some way of storing energy on a large scale and cheaply, this would have a massive impact on renewable energy and their viabilities. But it is not so easy to get investors to fund such research. So the state would almost certainly have a role. Taxes play a role as they influence prices.

Big parts of business and its lobbyists try to get prices for energy as low as possible...

So do consumers, too. This is a very difficult issue. In order to limit carbon emissions it would be better to have much higher energy prices. But this is politically very difficult to achieve. James Hansen (American climatologist, stk) wants a single global carbon tax as the simplest measure. But there is no way to make this happen. It is not enough to have idea. You have to get them on traction.

The Kyoto protocol tried to use a market-driven measure, the cap and trade system, to reduce CO2 emissions. Is it a success?

Cap and trade by and large has failed as an endeavour. The European Trading System has made some contribution. But I do not think that it is going to be the significant medium people are hoping for. We have to look for other instruments to limit carbon emissions.

Which ones?

Quite a few. We are in the hands of innovators to some degree. All the existing technologies have limitations. It also has cost implications if you, for instance, try to replace coal with renewable energies. There is no guarantee that we will get the transformative innovation we need. So the future looks rather dangerous.

Who could be the driving forces for change?

I hope a combination of agents across the world, especially the kind of very rich civil society initiatives. The worst would be if the world would wait until a catastrophic outcome is virtually certain. Then it is by definition too late because we do not know how to get the emissions out of the atmosphere on a large scale.

Can’t we simply plant trees?

No, we cannot. You would need somebody to invent kind of a scrubber to get greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere on a very large scale without doing too much damage. Climate change is the biggest of the risks we know, and I would include nuclear weapons. We simply have no experience with that risk to go on. It might simply be too late soon.

Is the UN system still the appropriate body for the challenge of climate change?

It is the way to continue. In the end we need the UN as a coordinating mechanism of whatever happens. But we have to be realistic of what they can achieve.

In Rio 1992 the industrialised countries were leading the process. Now the balance of power has changed. Do emerging countries have to take up the lead?

It is quite likely, yes. Particularly China, Brazil and maybe India have a role to play. Innovation has to some extent decentred, uncoupled from the West. The old idea that we invent technology and let others use it cheaply is obsolete. A lot of invention can be made in the emerging countries, even the poor ones.

Anthony Giddens, born 1938 in London, is a sociologist and former Director of the London School of Economics. Giddens has been working on the politics of climate change, among many other issues. He was an advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair. He has been member of the House of Lords for Labour since 2004 as Baron Giddens.