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Bill Hare - Stories of Change

Updated Friday 11th December 2015

Dr Bill Hare, CEO and Managing Director/Senior Scientist of Climate Analytics,is interviewed by Roger Harrabin for 'Stories of Change'.

Bill Hare Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Bill Hare Dr. (h.c) Bill Hare, CEO and Managing Director / Senior Scientist

Bill Hare is co-founder of Climate Analytics, a physicist and climate scientist with 25 years’ experience in science, impacts and policy responses to climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion. He is lead author of the World Bank Turn Down the Heat reports and the IPCC AR4. His work has been recently published in Nature Climate Change, Nature, Climatic Change, Regional Environmental Change, Climate Policy.

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Bill Hare Interview

Stories of Change Project

Interview Transcript


RH:      = Roger Harrabin

BH:      = Bill Hare, founder and CEO of Climate Analytics. Physicist specialising in climate science, impacts and policy responses to climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion. Visiting scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research


RH:         This interview is for some documentaries I’m doing for the BBC on the radio and also some other radio pieces and also for a bank of interviews to act as a historical reference, so when people look back, historians look back from 20 years’ ago they’ll say, ‘What were they thinking in those days?’ Are you happy for all those things?

 BH:        I’m happy! <Laughs>

RH:         OK. So we’re starting all the interviews with the question, when did you first get interested in energy?

BH:         I guess in the mid-1980s I got interested in the issues to do with energy and climate actually, I was already became aware as a consequence of a US Department of Energy Assessment of CO2 on climate change and energy that was referred to me by scientists at the CSIRO at that time in Australia that I began to wonder about the whole problem of climate change.

RH:         And what were you doing at the time?

BH:         I had just finished my studies and I was working at the Australian Conservation Foundation in Melbourne and we were already beginning to deal with the early stages of climate policy and energy problems in the national energy planning context for that country.

RH:         OK, and so then you moved on to work further with that?

BH:         Well, the springboard for me personally was an interest in the stratospheric ozone depletion problem in the mid to late 1980s and dealing with that, but that, of course, begun to get scientifically related to the whole question of climate change so one thing led to another in that sense. And for me personally the registration that climate change was a significant concern as opposed to a curiosity happened in about 1987 when I was asked to prepare a review of the impacts of climate change, then published for a conference at the CSIRO organised in Melbourne; and that, I must say, was a wake-up call to me. Up until that time I had thought this was just a minor curiosity, not a big problem, it couldn’t be such a big deal.

RH:         And you’re a scientist by training?

BH:         Yeah, I’m a physicist and environmental scientist by training.

RH:         Alright, so you’ve seen the debate move massively over the years?

BH:         Yes, it has progressed massively, sometimes it’s gone backwards and sometimes it’s gone forward, right now we’re going forward. I think that when… we, I mean we, the expert community in the late 1980s and government officials concerned about it coming off the back off the stratospheric ozone depletion problem, conceived of solutions at the global level, there was a universal understanding that everyone had to act globally before we could solve the problem, it wasn’t just within the province of a few players to solve the climate change problem… By the time you got maybe 20 countries you would basically solve the problem at that point. So we knew it was a much bigger issue and we figured there had to be an international, legal agreement and the general feeling was then, as it is actually now I think in the expert community, that a legally binding agreement is the way in which you would encourage enough action ultimately from all actors. And of course, history has turned out otherwise in the sense that what we’re confronted with in Paris now is an agreement that probably won’t have legal binding force. We may not even see numbers adopted in the Paris agreement at this point, but I don’t think that subtracts from the original insight that we need to have a legally binding agreement at some point in order for all major economic actors to be comfortable that their counterparts and competitors are going in the same direction.

RH:         OK, so give me a snapshot of the organisations you’ve worked for over the years because they have changed.

BH:         I’ve worked initially for the Australian Conservation Foundation in Melbourne, Australia. It’s one of Australia’s biggest environmental groups and there we had quite an active programme on climate change. I was actually an advisor to the Australian Government Delegation that negotiated the Framework Convention on Climate Change. I then moved to Greenpeace International in the middle of 1992 to work for what I thought would be a few years on securing a binding agreement for at first the industrialised countries, which became the Kyoto Protocol, and I worked there until… in a hybrid fashion, I guess, until the end of 2008. Around 2001 or 2002, if I remember correctly, I also became located at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, with the encouragement of Professor John Schellnhuber, where I also was able to at the same time as being involved with the climate negotiations for Greenpeace International, able to also work on my scientific interests, and we published quite a few Papers in that time that were quite prominent and I’m quite happy about that, so I like to mix the science and the policy and I’m unhappy if I can’t do both.

Then at the end of 2008 we set up, with Malte Meinshausen and Dr Michiel Schaeffer, a company called Climate Analytics, a not for profit institute based in Berlin, to work on cutting edge, methodological solutions to climate science and policy, and also to support the most vulnerable countries, the small island states and least developed countries. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, and remaining in their System Department at the Potsdam Institute.

RH:         You’ve been number crunching basically about what needs to be done in terms of the amount of emissions that needs to be cut and how that might be apportioned between different nations. Just talk me through what you’ve been doing.

BH:         Well, with the Climate Action Tracker we have been looking at what countries are putting forward and locating what those proposals are from countries within a wide range of views about what is a fair level of action to get below two degrees. With the Climate Action Tracker we are agnostic about what is the ideal approach for this so we put countries within the range of published, scientific studies, principally from the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. So if you go to Climate Action Tracker website you can look on a country page and you can see the different equity proposals and how countries fit within that, so we show whether countries are doing, within that broad range of scientific approaches, a fair level of effort or not and how much they would need to do more, to become fair within the range of scientific literature.

RH:         And what’s your assessment so far?

BH:         Well what we see is that most of the major emitters, developed and developing, are very far away from doing their fair share, whether you’re the United States or China, whether you’re the European Union or India, more can be done by all of those big emitters to close the gap in emissions. Some countries are not doing at all well, they’re quite inadequate; on the industrialised country side you’ve got Russia, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand; on the developing country side you’ve got countries like South Africa and some others that really could be doing a lot more as well.

RH:         How can you be confident in pointing your finger at certain countries and not others; it’s a global problem, isn’t it?

BH:         Well, all we can do is rely on what we see in the scientific community, putting together quite divergent approaches to what is a fair way of dividing up emissions and putting our results in the middle of those, in a sense. There’s no correct answer to that but I think we’re quite confident that we basically span the spectrum of expert and political views about this. There are extreme views out there, of course, that could never be reconciled with the approaches that we’re taking with the Climate Action Tracker, but nor I would contend, can they be reconciled with political reality either.

RH:         How can you be certain of what is fair and what’s not fair?

BH:         Well, we’re not certain, all we can do is look at the literature and say that is the range of literature –

RH:         OK, but explain to me how you come to those conclusions. You can clearly see what each country’s doing; how do you judge whether that’s fair or not?

BH:         We look at the five or six classes of approaches to equity –

RH:         Well, say what they all are.

BH:         Well, there’s per capita convergence, historical per capita convergence; there’s methods that look at equal economic costs; at the other end of the spectrum, there are methods that weight responsibility for emissions, historical responsibility; capacity to act as well. Put those together either additively or convolute them together to get different approaches – and there’s different variations of those within that spectrum – and some produce quite extreme outcomes. So, for example, an approach that just says every country should have equal cost to reducing emissions might have the lowest level of effort, for example, for industrialised countries and more effort from developed countries; but an effort that puts more weight into historical responsibility, relative capabilities and so on, would have more effort being required of developed countries than of developing countries. So then you get a range ok? And we try and fit within that range so that you can see a wide range of, let’s say, fair levels of effort within each category in the Climate Action Tracker. And you could then choose your own method, if you like, and say, ‘Actually I believe in responsibility and capability index,’ and look at that on our website and say, ‘OK, then actually that country doesn’t have to do as much as someone else, because they don’t have the same responsibility and the same capability.’

RH:         OK, just talk me through, just for radio purposes, that’s quite complicated, I understand it but just give it me for one or two countries, for instance, one on the culprit side and one on the victim side, an example that people can understand in words and terms they can understand, in like, for instance, let’s look at the USA, etc., and then let’s look at say… I tell you where we’ve been, we’ve been to Malawi. I don’t know if you know about –

BH:         I know Malawi, yes –

RH:         Fine, that’s perfect, tell me about those two then.

BH:         That’s a country we haven’t analysed in this way, Malawi, actually, but I’ll do two. If you think about one approach, say you weight a country’s action according to its historical responsibility, for example from 1850, to all the greenhouse gasses that have been put into the atmosphere, then a country like the US ends up with a much greater responsibility than a country like India. So the US would have to make massive emission reductions by 2030, maybe even negative allowances, and India could increase its emissions quite substantially, just simply weighting on how much has been emitted by each country per capita since 1850. If you run that forward and say start the calculation of responsibility in 1990 rather than 1850 – 1990 because that’s when the convention had the starting year – then the US would still have to do a lot more than India but not as much as if you weighted it from 1850. And then on the other end of the spectrum, if you’re an economic rationalist and said, ‘History doesn’t matter, justice is not of concern to us, we just want to weight on the actual cost of countries reducing emissions now,’ then you might come up with a result, and it’s not one that I would agree with frankly, but you would come up with a result that said India has to do a lot more even, on some indexes, relative to the United States. I think most people would say that’s not really fair because there are many other factors that go into what a country has the capability to do and a responsibility to do. So there has to be some median found between these extreme spectrums to find a real solution to the problem that can actually work in practice.

RH:         And what about a country like Malawi, for instance?

BH:         Well a country like Malawi would have very little responsibility to act, it’s got very low levels of emissions historically, it has very low capabilities, it’s a poor developing country, so a country like Malawi, in a fair approach, would be expecting, rightly, to receive a lot of financial and technological support to enable its economy to avoid a transition to, let’s say a coal intensive economy. So whilst it might be cheaper for Malawi in the end to be in renewables, at present the upfront investment costs are higher and for a country like Malawi with such a low per capita income and poverty, you would really say that’s a big responsibility of the international community to provide the wherewithal for Malawi to invest in a transformation to a renewable energy pathway.

RH:         But you can see that given the extreme variation between the different scenarios that you’ve just evoked here, the different ways of measuring emissions, all of which are laden with values and ethics and economics, you can understand why the talks in a process like this are so incredibly complicated, you can basically pick your own numbers.

BH:         Well, you can, but in the end we all know it’s a negotiation, so we all know if we stick to our own numbers there’s no solution and we’ll all ultimately fry in a five or six degree warming world, so there’s going to be and has to be a resolution to this, somehow or other, that probably won’t confront the central problems but will make a step around or over them, I think. You’re right; the numbers are so polarised that if you stood back and thought, ‘We should just walk away from this mess and forget it,’ but actually I know from history that these negotiations always get harder before they get solved. So the polarisation is almost an essential part of actually coming up with a creative, political step to move the next one on. And right now this negotiation here in Bonne, preparing for Paris, is dancing around those issues but behind the scenes I see a lot of convergence about the need to be practical, the need to be relatively pragmatic in moving forward and I think that understanding, should it persist to the end of Paris will be what ultimately builds a consensus about moving forward. That doesn’t mean countries will take their, let’s say, extreme positions off the table, but they will park them in order to move to the next step and move to the next step in a way that deliveries to them what they need. In some countries it might be simply political comfort, like the US needs political comfort that the big emitters are moving forward; some of the big emitters like China need the political comfort the US is moving forward, but others need real stuff: they need money, they need resources, they need finance, they need expertise. For these countries they will want to know this deal will deliver to us maybe not enough but enough to get moving, the resources, the technology, expertise that we need to start dealing with the problem and that will need to be real and deliverable for them to say, ‘Actually, this works for us.’

RH:         Let me talk to you about the pledges that the countries are making because as you say you’ve been assessing them, some of the poor countries are really in no state to make proper calculations as to what they can achieve, how much help have you given countries? Give me some examples.

BH:         As one negotiator was saying last night over dinner, the emission numbers are a huge problem, a massive problem to work out what is going on in our often very small economies that may be a few hundred thousand people, but even so the officials and experts in these countries have actually got something together to say, ‘It was hard, but we have something we can do on our own and something that we can do even more if we get resources.’ So despite these problems with accounting and knowing what is going on in an economy countries have bitten the bullet in many cases to come up with something that could just be the start of a plan. And, for me, that’s one of the most empowering things of this year, is that so many countries have prepared INDCs. It’s very disappointing that a lot of them are quite inadequate but the very fact that you have a globally synchronised movement of government officials, experts, politicians, to actually bring forward to Paris these proposals is a unique moment. It’s not an adequate moment but it is a unique moment.

RH:         It’s remarkable, isn’t it? It would have been difficult to predict a few years ago.

BH:         It would have been very difficult to predict in the dark period after Copenhagen, absolutely, so it is a positive and I think the trick now is to capture that momentum, not to lose sight of the fact that the ambition levels are far from adequate, indeed in some cases problematic, but also not to lose sight of the political momentum that’s coming out of that and therefore the potential for further change.

RH:         And, of course, as more renewables get installed, as a country like India promises a huge programme of solar, we will see the costs of manufacture and installation of renewables continue to tumble, and that’s been a huge factor, hasn’t it?

BH:         It looks not just huge but spectacular. I think the price drops for solar power, photovoltaics, battery storage, wind power and other technologies is really quite radical and quite unexpected to many mainstream energy people. And that is going to have a transformative effect on many energy markets. The entry into the market of electric cars at scale, coupled to renewable energy systems and all the technologies that go around that are genuinely transformative, it’s a spectacular change, highly disruptive, but the momentum from that won’t be able to continue unless governments create the environment that permits that change to take place. So in economies where you see already these new technologies being cost-effective in households and companies, you also see in many cases the incumbent power producers or electric network operators erecting barriers of different kinds in order to protect their profitability. It’s these challenges that governments will face to say, ‘OK, you need to transform your business or else you’re out of business,’ as opposed to, ‘Yes, it’s a terrible mess and we’re going to put in regulations and stop people selling power back to the grid or installing batteries in some cases.’ So that’s the challenge that governments everywhere, developed and developing, have now.

RH:         And it’s not a trivial challenge either, because a lot of countries, large, incumbent corporations are very close to governments, sometimes, frankly, money changes hands now on a large scale, it will be a difficult one to achieve this?

BH:         Extremely difficult and not just political, there are also important technological challenges with making this work as well, so I don’t want to understate those but those combination of politics and technology challenges mean that it will be difficult and that’s why I see the momentum from Paris being so important that if this momentum is positive, forward looking, then governments, I think, are going to feel, ‘If we don’t make the right decisions here and empower these new technologies into the market, then we could ultimately lose.’ That’s the trade-off, whereas defending very expensive electricity charges to consumers, defending power producers, might be something you could get away with in one context but if the world is moving in a different direction, it might not be one that you would want to stick with as a politician.

RH:         I think I heard the phrase from somebody yesterday, ‘The climate action bandwagon is on the road and is now unstoppable,’ would you agree with that?

BH:         I wish that were unambiguously the case but I’ve been around long enough to have heard that story before. I agree the circumstances are fundamentally better than ever before and I agree that if we can keep political momentum moving forward and governments keep making the right decisions in big markets, then yes. But I also see the other side. If you look at the plans that countries are putting forward in quite a few important cases there’s an awful lot of coal going in that would make it very hard or impossible for countries to actually meet their INDCs. In other words countries will have to change their investment plans pretty soon in this area to enable them to actually meet their INDCs and to close that gap between where they’re headed and their INDCs. And this is also recognised in the academic community and the energy policy community, so there’s important publications worrying, with good grounds, about the so-called renaissance of coal, particularly in the middle income countries, that’s a big threat. The International Energy Agency keeps on analysing that as a major problem for us. So we’re right at the cusp now, it could become unstoppable, this whole transformation of energy towards renewables could become unstoppable but on the other hand it could be blocked and delayed for another 10 or 15 years, which will then make achievement of the two degree goal very difficult, if not impossible. So we’re right now at a historic moment that won’t just be decided in Paris but will be decided in the next few years over whether this does become an unstoppable transition, whether all of the institutions align around this objective, where banks start to say, ‘We won’t invest in anything unless its two degree compatible, because it’s too risky.’ If we get real momentum like that then sooner or later governments will see the writing on the wall that they can’t rely on banks, private sector, supporting four degree world-type investments in coal and fossil fuel infrastructure and banks and financial institutions will only want to invest in below two degree technology because that’s safe, it won’t be stranded.

RH:         So this is nothing to do with divestment this is to do with avoiding stranded assets?

BH:         I think divestment is a useful strategy but ultimately it’s about the finance sector broadly defined, understanding that it’s in their interest to invest in a two degree world and avoid the problem of massively stranded assets which will come from a two degree pathway, for sure. And I think that broader understanding is slowly growing, there’s a lot of work going on in different institutions about it, but there again you’re going to require some regulatory environment that basically makes banks face that reality, so ad hoc rejections of banks against, for example, the big Adani coal mine in Australia, is an ad hoc move by banks, it needs to become replicated very broadly so banks understand this is not a good investment.

RH:         Is it fair for somebody like you from a rich, Western nation to say to a developing nation, ‘You may want coal, coal may help your economy, you may not have very much energy but you can’t have coal’?

BH:         Well, I can understand if people would view that as unfair but I also think it’s a scientific and technical discussion and in science the question of fairness doesn’t really arise. The numbers show that a county like India would be a lot better off economically and create much greater access to electricity for poor people than the oil model essentially. The oil model has not worked really in terms of delivering massive reductions in energy poverty, electricity poverty, so I think that, yes, I receive those comments from people in developing countries, but also know that in a country like India there are massively divergent views about this. So if you actually go out of the Deli beltway policy community and speak to people from different states of India you get a very different perspective; they are dealing with coal mines on the ground, they’re dealing with the reality that electricity is not coming to their villages or their communities and they see the alternative out there as better. So you have to look and unpack these national discourses as well but it’s clearly more helpful if the messages really come from inside a country and they are able to be reflected politically inside countries. And that’s not always the case, even in India it’s a difficult discussion about coal, the central government doesn’t like people who oppose coal in general and Greenpeace, as you know, has been in a lot of trouble in India for this, so yeah, I think there are problems with, let’s say, rich world experts appearing to dictate narratives about development to the developing world, but I also know the world is more complex and I think perspectives from scientists globally do help these discourses.

RH:         Let me go back to the pledges countries are making, how much help are countries getting from organisations like yours in determining how far they can go to combat climate change and adapt to it?

BH:         Organisations like ours are involved in doing the technical work for countries and in our experience for the countries that we’ve worked for they determine how far they are ready to go. And sometimes they might go further than we think they should but that’s the decision of their governments and sometimes they might not go as far as we judge they could. I understand the political reasons for that because some countries want to be out there and be really ambitious and the governments want to be ambitious for political reasons, so they might go further than the technical view of it might tell you is effective; others when it gets to Cabinet, say, ‘We put something in this Paris Agreement, this becomes a legal obligation, so maybe we step back a bit from what is technically possible because we don’t really know whether we can achieve that technical capability, so politically we want to step back from that some degrees and put in only what we can be absolutely certain of achieving.’ I’ve seen all of that happen.

RH:         And do you approach countries to give them advice or do they approach you, how does it work?

BH:         In all cases we have been approached by countries.

RH:         So how does it happen, talk me through how it happens? You get an email from Morocco or something saying, ‘Come and help us with our numbers,’ what happens?

BH:         Well, in our case it’s always been the governments that we are working with, providing support in the climate negotiations, their official has come to us saying, ‘Our government would like to prepare an INDC and we’re wondering if you can help technically or help put us in touch with funders? The Government’s prepared to support us,’  including the German Government, for example, or the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others. So we make contacts and put officials in touch with others and then occasionally they come back and say, ‘Actually, we would like you to help us with some aspect of that technical work.’ Or they say, ‘We don’t have the capability to actually coordinate the resource inputs, can you do that?’ And if we have the resources and the capacity and the expertise to do it, then we’ve agreed to do it. In other cases we’ve said, ‘We don’t have this in-house and we suggest you contact another agency or another government and bring it together that way.’ And of course we will help in the background as we do, pro bono, to review all their numbers, but not actually get involved, it just depends on a case by case basis.

RH:         So when you’re saying we here, who is the ‘we you’re referring to?

BH:         I’m referring to the team that works for Climate Analytics and our partner organisations, so they could involve… we’ve had scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research who’ve had the interest and ability and time and also get involved in reviewing a number of the technical aspects of INDCs for least developed countries or Small Island States.

RH:         Some people will hear this and they will be suspicious that there’s rich country technicians determining targets for poor countries who don’t have the capacity to work out themselves what they can do.

BH:         Yeah, I think that’s right to be suspicious and I know those sort of pressures go on but I think in our case philosophically our motivation is to build capacity in poor countries and vulnerable countries, so philosophically we’d rather not be in the position of an outside consultant coming in and simply making up a bunch of spreadsheets and putting the narrative round and sending it to the minister, so we simply haven’t done that. And we’ve got involved with governments on the government’s terms and as I’ve said, sometimes governments choose a bigger target than we would believe can work easily and other times governments say, ‘No, actually we step back from what would technically work because we don’t want to get ourselves in a position where we can’t meet our obligations.’ So I think that I’m comfortable with the team coordinated by Sandra Freitas from Togo, who’s been coordinating our INDC work that we have been in a position to fully respect the sovereignty of the countries that we’ve worked for.

RH:         OK, so we’re now a month away from Paris, what level of optimism do you have of a successful conclusion to the climate talks, depending of course, on how you would define success and how optimistic are you about the future generally of the climate and energy systems?

BH:         Well, I think that for Paris I think it’s clear that we will get some kind of agreement, it’s not clear to me what the legal form of that agreement’s going to be, I think as of this morning, for example, the US has put forward a proposal to turn this into a Paris Implementing Agreement so that the protocol that we believe we were negotiating would become an implementing agreement. To me that wouldn’t have the same legal affect as a protocol so that would mean that Paris wouldn’t be as strong legally as many would like but it would be matched with an implementation process, post Paris. And I guess for me whether we come out of here with a legally binding agreement or a weaker agreement, the question of whether Paris will work will hinge fundamentally on the implementation process. If there’s no real momentum for implementation, if there’s no review of the inadequate INDC commitments within a few years, by 2020 at the latest, then we get locked out of the two degree pathway essentially or there’s a big risk of that. So for me the success of Paris, its impact on energy systems, investments, technology and so on, will depend very much on building on the political momentum of Paris in concrete ways post Paris and quite quickly.

RH:         Do you expect to see this problem solved in your lifetime?

BH:         <Laughs> That’s a good question!

RH:         Well, actually there is a number of questions implicit in that, but let’s go ahead with it in whichever way you want.


BH:         I would hope that by the end of my lifetime I see the big reductions that we need.

RH:         And do you think you will?

BH:         I wouldn’t stay here if I didn’t think there was a good chance, I don’t know I’d find something else to do, for sure.

RH:         What else would you do?

BH:         I love the Bush and the coast, so I would go and spend my time in the Bush and the Coast of Western Australia if I didn’t think there was much chance, but I truly believe we can do it, but it’s very difficult.

RH:         Here we are looking at the tower blocks of Bonne under a grey sky. I think the Bush would be rather more attractive.

BH:         Well, it certainly is but I’m very worried about the Bush, where I come from and the coral reefs where I come from in Western Australia and for me, that’s a great motivation to keep at this. We simply can’t afford to lose it.

RH:         Brilliant, thanks very much.

<End of Interview>


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