Sherpa Hossainy's Blog

You can hear the sound of a clock ticking

Posted in Bangladesh, Climate change, Dhaka, Environment, Interviews, Renewable energy by Sherpa Hossainy on July 30, 2011

My interview with UK govt Climate Envoy John Ashton

Published in The Independent (Op-ed page) on 29 July 2011

Read the article on The Independent website

Digital print version

The voice of urgency on climate change, despite being a globally burning issue, is yet to be widely heard in Bangladesh. The correlation of climate change with global economy, food and international security and human existence are appearing to be far more complex and steadily demanding action from a politically motivated force.

Unfortunately, few countries are so directly exposed than Bangladesh to some of the stresses that eventually everyone will be feeling as a result of climate change, if a successful response can’t be summoned. However, building a coalition of highly ambitious forces and putting political momentum into the issue is posing to be a great challenge for climate change diplomacy.

In a mission to build the much needed political response for a stronger cooperation, John Ashton, international climate politics expert and British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s Special Representative for Climate Change, came to Bangladesh recently.

“My goal is to work with like-minded people around the world to push up the level of ambition in the global response to climate change,” John Ashton told The Independent in an exclusive interview. Ashton lamented that in nearly 15 years of his involvement in this issue he can’t remember of a time when the available political momentum globally had been lower than it is now.

“You could even say that we have hardly begun to respond to this challenge at the scale we need to. It’s human nature to focus on the important at the expense of the urgent, and there are so many distractions that people regard as important,” he said.

John Ashton, William Hague’s Special Representative for Climate Change

Describing climate change as a “multiplier of stresses”, Ashton said that it’s a widely made mistake to regard climate change as a separate set of issues that are not intimately connected with other stresses society is dealing with.

Ashton said it would be interesting to see if the two main political parties in Bangladesh can transcend the deep and bitter political rivalry between them and focus on the mission.

“I think I’m fortunate to come from a country where there is a cross party consensus,” said Ashton, referring to his appointment by a Conservative Foreign Minister even after representing two previous Labour Party Foreign Secretaries in the UK. Although it is a very political role, it’s a non-party political role, he said.

Ashton said it’s imperative to pull a finely resilient carbon neutral global economy through effective politics based on a legally binding framework.

“When governments or politicians make voluntary promises it does not fill people with confidence that they will try to the limits to carry out that promise even if there are distractions. We need them to make promises that people can have faith in. That’s why this battle between legally binding and voluntary is so important,” the diplomat said.

Following the watershed at the climate talks in Copenhagen 2009, Ashton remained unconvinced about a fully fledged legally binding framework as an outcome of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa, in December this year.

“This is an extremely difficult political subject that would take years to construct. I hope we can come out with a higher degree of confidence that would lead to a legally binding project,” he said.

Responding to a question whether Bangladesh would be able sustain its growth in a low carbon economy Ashton said there is no contradiction between simultaneously wanting to have high growth and a carbon resilient growth.

“Both could be mutually reinforcing if we do it the right way. It is better to use the efficient form of energy which is low carbon rather than the inefficient energy,” he said.

Ashton cited example of the new Chinese five-year plan, which focused more on the quality of growth rather than the quantity after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao termed the country’s economic model as “uncoordinated, unbalanced and unsustainable”.

“There’s a growing realisation that if you don’t pay attention to the quality of growth you may find that the price of having very rapid growth in a very short term is that your growth then collapses, because it contains the seeds of its own destruction,” he said.

John Ashton, UK Govt climate envoy

Voicing optimism about the prospect of renewable energy in Bangladesh, Ashton said that an enormous amount can be done with the available opportunities as they don’t require a huge capital, or technologies that are not yet invented.

“I’m a bit puzzled why there are no solar water heaters in Bangladesh. In China and South America nearly every house has them. They are extremely cheap and in warm countries they can provide all the hot waters needed.” Ashton said.

Advising on Bangladesh’s 2.5 billion tonnes of high quality coal resource in its northern districts, Ashton said it would be wrong to exclude coal although it sits right at the heart of the problem.

Coal is still a very important part of the power generation worldwide. In Germany 50 per cent of all electricity comes from coal, in UK it is about 30 per cent, in America and China it’s 50 and 83 per cent respectively.

Ashton pointed out power crisis as a “particular bottleneck” for Bangladesh and said there are two things to do about coal: one is to move away from coal to lower carbon gas or other renewable; and another is to use it but increasingly apply carbon capture storage (CCS) technology that will make coal carbon-neutral.

“If you have suitable geological conditions for CCS, you can ask the donors and international financial institutions to fund for coal-fired power stations with CCS to become a part of the first-wave of CCS in the world,” Ashton advised, asking to seek help from the climate financing fund of World Bank and Department for International Development (DFID).

“World Bank can pay for the additional costs so that building such a power station is no more costly than a conventional one. It is clearly not reasonable to expect Bangladesh to pay the additional costs of CCS,” he said.

Ashton rebutted the claim of CCS technology being unproven, terming it as “nonsense” and said, “This is not some over-the-horizon technology; this is something that has been on use for a long time in an industrial scale.”

Although Ashton said that he holds no ideological standpoint on whether grants or loans should be given to the vulnerable countries to deal with climate change, rather he opted to go for the suitable financing mechanism available.

“You need a mixture of grants and loans, and you need to make sure that you are using the balance which is suitable for particular circumstances,” he said.  The climate envoy said: “The development community in the industrialised countries needs to take this much more seriously that there is a significant component of adaptation funding that has to be grant based.”

The UK is trying to help in this regard from a moral imperative and climate change is about responding to a deep inequity, he added.

“Those countries which will suffer the most, the soonest, and have the least capacity to deal with the consequences tend to be the countries which have contributed the least to the problem. Unless it’s reflected in the responses we would not be able to gain trust in the international system,” Ashton said.

But he stressed on maintaining a very high degree of transparency so that people can see whether they can be sure to put the money in, and the money don’t get diverted elsewhere.

He said there are some more areas where there is far more sensible to use loan – because it’s easier to bring business-based approach, and private sector players who will give you more efficiency in the interventions.

Urging everyone to build a century of cooperation Ashton said: “We have to learn to define ourselves and our various national identities on the basis of what we all have in common, rather than on the basis what divides us.

Ashton said: “The key is to try and build a willingness to see these problems through each others eyes. If we try to do this just on the basis of a negotiation, where we send negotiators in a big resort in Bali, or in a conference centre in Durban, we don’t learn very much about the realities.”

Putting the onus of a carbon resilient economy on the developed nations, Ashton said, “It is incumbent upon the high carbon and particularly industrialised economies to take the lead in mapping the path for a low-carbon growth model.

John Ashton, William Hague’s Special Representative for Climate Change, in an interview with The Independent

“Everybody’s life is going to be touched very significantly by climate change. The only legitimate conversation to have is one in which everyone has a voice — a global conversation.”

Describing the global spike in grain prices in 2008, following a drought in large part of Australia, one of the world’s leading grain producers, as “a prequel of what to come”, Ashton said the existing double-digit food price inflation in Bangladesh could take a grave shape if the climatic extremes are not dealt urgently. Last year in Russia, heat wave and drought led the Russian government to ban the exports of wheat that saw an immediate surge in international prices of wheat.

On the flipside of the climate change issue, there is an “anti climate change” sect who claim that the issue is a “fairy tale” and the earth will take care of itself. Blasting those critiques, Ashton said: “There are people who still say that the earth is flat. For some there is more cynical motivation because they want to prevent certain actions being taken.

“If you just dismissively say I don’t care about it, it seems to me a deeply immoral position and unacceptable according to the political morality of every society that shares this.”

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