An iron lady, a carbon problem and a steely determination

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By Russell Waite and Julia Warrander, Affinity Private Wealth

ON 8 November 1989, a world leader stood to address those gathered at the United Nations in New York with a speech which still resonates today, over 30 years later.

The opening words spoken were as follows: ‘While the conventional, political dangers – the threat of global annihilation, the fact of regional war – appear to be receding, we have all recently become aware of another insidious danger. It is as menacing in its way as those more accustomed perils with which international diplomacy has concerned itself for centuries. It is the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.’

The leader we refer to was Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of British politics, who became the first prominent political leader to warn the world about the danger of climate change, and to outline a strategy to deal with it.

This proved to be a very eventful 24 hours. The following day, the communist government of East Germany announced that its security forces would no longer prevent people from visiting West Berlin. Quickly, delirious Berliners surged through what were once armed checkpoints or clambered over ‘the wall’.

The world watched as a sequence of events unfolded across Eastern Europe, which soon precipitated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The timing of Thatcher’s speech, as communism was crumbling, was no coincidence; she purposely cast climate change as the global risk to succeed socialism and nuclear Armageddon.

This view proved very controversial at the time and so began a period where climate-change doubters were equally vocal, warning that ‘green alarmism’ was a danger to economic prosperity and believing the science to be unreliable, or even false.

This opinion, of course, has permeated the debate through more recent times – most notably by the Trump administration who routinely ‘trashed’ the science in order to escape the regulatory consequences of accepting it, thus withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Thankfully, the other 195 signatories remained committed through this period and the Biden-led administration has since reversed Trump’s decision.

2020 marked the end of the hottest decade on record, with an increased frequency of extreme weather events – such as tropical cyclones, droughts, floods and wildfires – demonstrating that environmental damage and climate change is a real and present danger. With global greenhouse gas emissions having increased by almost 50% since 1990, actions to halt climate change are increasingly urgent.

The States of Jersey is standing shoulder to shoulder with the governments of nearly 60 other countries having communicated a net-zero target and there is an expectation this number will increase ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), scheduled for November in Glasgow.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

This is the title of a recently published book written by another prominent world leader – but this time not a person from the world of politics, but the world of tech. The author, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, like many believes that solving climate change is an imperative.

He warns the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated and that there are two important numbers for us to remember: fifty-one billion and zero. The former is the number of tonnes of greenhouse gases the world typically adds to the atmosphere each year. Net zero – as we have stated – is where the world needs to get to.

The irony of the climate-change problem is that the science behind the cause has not changed significantly since Thatcher’s late-1980s speech – a period when one of us was studying the very same subject at university.

What has now changed is the ambition to solve it and the recognition that it will require major breakthroughs in climate technology to overcome the current hurdles. Massive investment by governments in research and development will be required, as well as support to enable the market for new products and technologies to grow.

Significant changes to the global economy lie ahead in terms of our energy mix, consumption, housing and even the diets we are accustomed to. Some countries and sectors are more carbon-intensive than others and will need to make greater efforts. A number of carbon-intensive industries will be easier to decarbonise than others; steel and cement production are harder to decarbonise than power generation, for example.

In times of crisis – such as Covid-19 – we have observed the scientific and technology communities achieve extraordinary feats. This has taken the form of vaccine delivery, in less than a year, with the help of ample funding, global co-ordination and a partnership between the public sector, private industry and the academic community. We firmly believe this should be replicated to solve some of the toughest problems in reaching net zero.

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