Going to Madrid during the COP 25 conference was, in a few words, inspiring, depressing and frustrating. Inspiring to attend a few “side events” with excellent speakers deeply involved in implementing the TOTALLY DO-ABLE solutions we need to to turn the corner and drive global CO2 emissions to zero. Depressing to hear how blind politicians are to these solutions, CAPTURED as they are by the oil lobby, resulting in little progress on real commitment and action – so far as I can tell. Frustrating because it was exceedingly difficult to find information about what was happening, and how to participate. Anyone following the news was probably better informed than I was about any outcomes (or lack thereof) of negotiations. 

Greta’s speech was perhaps the most insightful moment of the COP. 

On a personal travel note, it was not an easy city to get around. Extensive subway system (thank god for that, but quite a learning curve required), car-clogged roads, and hardly any bike lanes (I didn’t ride at all).

Here’s a brief summary. More scholarly observations below. 

Madrid COP 25
Rat-racing the maze of subway tunnels, 
Sardine people pressed into train cars, 
schooling through Puerto del Sol, 
I’m flotsam in this tide, carried in the wrong direction.
“paraaguaparaaguaparaagua” call the Arabic youths,
to the tourists outside tapas bars, 
clutching umbrellas for sale. 
(Why "agua" and not "lluvia"?)
Security guard stands with semi-automatic rifle 
in a public square.
Climate conference - shiny suits and shoes file in. 
Negotiate loopholes. 
“Side events” have solutions 
but politicians are elsewhere. 
“Totally corrupted” the the oil lobby. 
Metal doors are closed on those who disrupt. 
Greta gives them shit. 

The COP has very high security, and you need official UN clearance to attend the main sessions in the “blue zone”, either as a delegate or as press. There are armoured cars and heavily armed police everywhere. There is also a “green zone” in an area adjacent, where regular people and members of the public can attend events, and apparently there were events being held at other venues around the city, but there was little information on the main website about all this. With over 10,000 attendees, an event of this scale takes many months to organize. It was originally planned to be held in Chile but as a result of civil unrest (ironically, linked with climate change), it was canceled and moved to Madrid with only one month to prepare. 

I attended several talks in Spanish, in the Espacio Diálogo next to the green zone. It was a good challenge for my rusty language skills (a little in high school and a 3 month trip in South America almost 20 years ago!), and I had to quickly learn some technical terms (e.g. “bomba de calor” = heat pump; eólica = wind power), but somehow I could actually follow most of it, at least the gist. I also attended a two-day conference called Low Emissions Solutions put on by the Universidad Polytecnica de Madrid – thankfully, mostly in English. I no longer have big expectations for conferences – I find both the learning and networking opportunities to be overrated – but this one was actually quite good, with excellent speakers, a coherent theme, practical topics, and well run. You have to hand it to engineers – they get efficiency!

Here are a few take-aways for me. 

  • Two of the key strategies are electrification of end uses, including mobility, buildings and industry, alongside transformation of the grid to zero carbon electricity. Not new information, but interesting to hear it so clearly stated and echoed by so many speakers at multiple venues and events. 
  • These two strategies are among the six pillars for decarbonizing society, outlined in the Roadmap to 2050 – A Manual for Nations to Decarbonize by Mid-Century, a very comprehensive strategy produced earlier this year by inter-disciplinary experts. The other four pillars are smart power grids, materials efficiency, synthetic fuels, and sustainable land use. Yes, it’s not complicated, just difficult to overcome the vested interests.
  • Jeffrey Sachs, Global Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a keynote speaker at the low emissions conference, said “we have the technologies” for total decarbonization of society. Electrifying the “easy sectors” – specifically, the power grid, new buildings and light duty vehicles – should be a priority and would result in 70% reduction in global GHG emissions, while continuing to work on the hard stuff – like shipping and aviation. And he pulled no punches, saying that the oil lobby has “completely corrupted politics”. 
  • Distributed and decentralized energy generation is a big interest here, which is called “self consumption” (which to me always invokes the image of a snake eating its tail – perhaps apt for the cyclical renewal symbolism – but I digress). In other words, home and business owners becoming “prosumers” – producing as well as consuming electricity. We’re mostly talking solar PV here. Speakers included reps from Hola Luz, and Solar Watt
  • Challenges to decentralized energy generation include a very high fixed portion of electrical billing in Spain (which dis-incentivizes energy efficiency and on-site production) and lack of policy allowing for aggregating small producers. 
  • Benefits of biomass energy, as presented by Avebiom, include jobs – more per unit of energy produced than oil and gas – particularly in rural areas where there is typically abundant biomass (forestry and agricultural waste), and which are often economically depressed. Personally though, I have mixed feelings about biomass. Using it close to a source of waste products seems like a better idea than trucking it long distances into cities. But fuels need to be truly residual materials that couldn’t otherwise be used for a better purpose, and we need to avoid land use that displaces food production or conservation for biodiversity. And how do you make sure there will be a steady supply of sustainable fuel for many decades? Still, there is perhaps a role for it, in the right place, done carefully. 
  • Geothermal energy is an under-used energy source in Spain, like in most countries; most of the country could access medium or high temperature geothermal energy. As per Geoplat
  • Politics are not helping: in 2013 the Conservative government in Spain abruptly ended subsidies for solar power, resulting in very few new installations. Renowned economist Lord Nicholas Stern (more on him below) bluntly called this “bad public policy”. Currently, Spain has had a hung government since the election at the beginning of 2019 with a Socialist minority, but it’s hoped that policies favouring renewable energy will soon be brought back in.   
  • Energy utility Iberdrola is investing massively in renewable energy. They have closed all their coal and oil plants, have installed 31 GW of renewable energy (wind and solar), have increased their assets six-fold, and their workforce of 34,000 employees four-fold.                                        
  • Many leaders in business and finance get it – the need to reduce their risk, position themselves for the energy of the future, and act ethically, according to Maria Mendiluce of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. During the COP 25, 177 companies in 36 countries, with a total market cap of US$2.8 trillion pledged to adopt science based targets consistent with 1.5 degrees of warming and to reach net zero emissions no later than 2050. 
  • Mark Lewis of investment bank BNP Paribas, said investors are increasingly demanding to know the “implied temperature” of global warming associated with their portfolios, driving the need for better transparency, data and reporting. He pointed out that the financial world has not yet come to terms with the radical shift that’s occurring, away from the “inflationary growth” model of fossil fuels – the cost of extraction and production increases over time, as opposed to the opposite for renewable energy which is getting cheaper – meaning there is huge disruption potential. The fossil fuel industry “doesn’t know how to compete”. BNP Paribas recently announced their complete exit of funding thermal coal by 2030 in favour of renewable energy. 
  • The transition to a zero carbon world has the potential to deliver US$26 trillion in economic benefits according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate report released last year, and according to the International Labour Organization four times as many new jobs will be created compared to those lost. The assumption that it will be expensive to mitigate climate change is false

Speaking of economics, a highlight for me was hearing Lord Nicholas Stern speak in the green zone of the COP, albeit in a fairly informal interview. Lord Stern is the Chair of the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics and has held numerous prominent positions with the British government and World Bank. The famous Stern Review, published in 2006, highlighted that the economic and human rights benefits of strong, early action to mitigate climate change far outweigh the costs. This compelling argument from an economic perspective actually gave me hope back then, and the truth is ever more evident each day. 

Lord Nicholas Stern, with human rights champion Dessima Williams of Granada

Here are a few of Lord Stern’s responses the other day (paraphrased):

How do you respond to people who are “confused” about climate change?

  • If you are ill, you go to a doctor. If you want to learn about physics, you go to a physicist. If you need clarification about climate change, you should listen to the climate scientists. 
  • Climate science has a 200 year history, and basically what was known decades ago or longer is proving to be correct. 
  • England has a lot of pubs, where I can go and people will give me their opinions. But will I go to the pub for advice on how to run my life? No. 

In Spain, a lot of people wanted to do their part and bought solar panels for their homes, but then the previous Conservative government abruptly cut off subsidies and people lost a lot of money. What do you say to these people and the government? 

  • Government needs to send strong signals to the market. Subsidizing solar energy is one example.  It would be even better to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, Over time, as the price of renewable energy comes down, subsidies can be phased out. But you don’t just cut them off. That’s just bad public policy. 

There’s a lot of energy from youth right now, How can we continue to engage youth in the climate movement? 

  • Actually, it’s the older generation that needs to catch up, and get on board with the youth. 
  • At the London School of Economics students entering say their top two reasons for being there are: 1) for the environment and climate change, and 2) for addressing human rights and inequality. They aren’t there to learn about GDP.
  • The voices of youth are truly changing the world. We need to respond and support them in all our work, whether that’s in the curricula or other parts of society. 

What does it mean when you said in a recent interview, “stationarity is dead?” 

  • Historically we made decisions based on the past, but now things are changing and it’s a different world we need to plan for. 
  • On the positive side, there’s also great opportunity in making the lifestyle and investment changes needed for a world limited to 1.5 degrees of warming. 
  • For example changing our transportation system can transform cities to “places where you can move and breathe”. They are cleaner, healthier and more efficient, and this helps business. That means we can actually increase our standard of living. 
  • The other big opportunity is restoring degraded land. It can improve livelihoods and resilience, and also  increase carbon storage. 

So, to sum up: we have most of the solutions to address climate change, and ample know-how to figure out the rest. It won’t cost more, and in fact has huge economic opportunities. Not only that but we can improve societal health and well being. Only the oil lobby, aligned with corrupt politicians, stands in the way. Some will do battle with them, others will go around them and simply get on with improving our society despite politics. As for me, I remain an optimist, because there’s so much on our side, and I’m all the more convinced that city scale action is one of the biggest leverage points. Like a “pressure point”, the right solution applied at just the rigbt spot can make benefits cascade throughout the system.