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Sir David King and the International Energy Agency

Dr John Constable: GWPF Energy Editor

Sir David King, Special Representative for Climate Change of the United Kingdom’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, has called on the International Energy Agency (IEA) to make ‘defossilisation’ of the world economy a central part of the way the IEA operates. The last thing that any sensible person would want is for the IEA to become yet another uncritical element in green energy PR.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an “autonomous organization”, founded by the OECD, and funded by 29 states, all members of the OECD, to provide expert advice on and data collection relating to the energy sector. The IEA publishes the World Energy Outlook (WEO) annually, and many other occasional studies and datasets. It is a trusted source for all concerned with the subject of energy and climate change.

A few days ago, on the 29th of January 2016, the Special Representative for Climate Change of the United Kingdom’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Sir David King, addressed a meeting at the IEA’s offices in Paris, a meeting chaired by the IEA’s Executive Director, Dr Fatih Birol, and attended by various ambassadors and other national representatives.

A recording of the event can be watched online, and sheds light on various topics, including:

a) The manner in which the United Kingdom government presents its position internationally;

b) Current UK government views on the character and significance of the COP 21 agreement;

c) The character of the proposed decarbonisation of the world’s economies,

and almost incidentally but very importantly,

d) The independence with which the IEA will be allowed to fulfil any likely role in future discussions about decarbonisation, a function that must be significant, since, as Mr Birol noted, two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector.

In regard to the first of these it is interesting, perhaps even a little embarrassing for a British citizen, to see that the United Kingdom presents itself as offering, almost de haut en bas, both a moral and a practical lead. Sir David is too experienced an international negotiator for this to be egregious, but it was present nonetheless. The audience, mostly of diplomats after all, was very polite; but one wonders what they really thought, and how they interpreted Sir David’s observation that the UK’s £120 billion a year low carbon sector was, “outside of the service sector”, the fastest growing in the national economy, and was now as large in gross value terms as the food and drink business. It is possible, obviously, to see those points as reflecting rather poorly on the UK economy, rather than otherwise, particularly so since the low carbon sector is very heavily subsidized and supported by market coercions.

On the subject of COP21 Sir David was definite. Future historians, he told his audience, will think the 12th of December 2015 a crucially important turning point in co-ordinated global action to mitigate the threat of climate change, which threat he described as presenting a “looming catastrophe for mankind”. Sir David claimed that the conference had successfully replaced the failed top-down proposals of Kyoto and Copenhagen, by achieving agreement on bottom-up Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), now agreed between 190 countries and comprising 96% of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, this achievement was revealed as something rather less than significant when Sir David went on to admit that the NDCs did not stretch beyond 2030, and that the United States had not even committed itself that far. Furthermore, he granted that the NDCs, as currently stated, are inadequate, in spite of what is clearly significant cost, to contain global temperature increase within 2 degrees, and were probably likely to permit an increase by three or four degrees, increases which may in fact be acceptable, though Sir David clearly judges them to be otherwise. Consequently, he echoed the warnings of Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, that the fossil sector has no long term future in the global energy sector, and observed that the NDCs created a new and enormous market, the “world’s biggest market” (“forget laptops”), of some 2 to 3 trillion dollars per year. All this would add up to a self-accelerating process, and according to King’s charts it would have to be so, since the remaining carbon budget for a 2 degree limitation would be consumed by 2030 even under the NDCs.

This self-accelerating process would address, he suggested, such problems as capital cost and the intermittency of renewables, and he referred to his own Global Apollo Program, a scheme conceived in conjunction with John Browne, Richard Layard, Gus O’Donnell, Martin Rees, Nicholas Stern, and Adair Turner, and supported by numerous “billionaires”, a word that Sir David emphasises as if it would have some special influence with his audience. Twenty nations have now joined, with $20 bn committed, and the roll-out of this project, now called the “Mission Initiative” (apparently because Mr Modi didn’t like the reference to Apollo), is expected in June this year.

At this point Sir David turned, with a drum roll as it were, to discuss some of the promising technological avenues available, but, and in common with many similar speeches by others, the weakness of these proposals is quite remarkable. He first offered a scheme for cutting large cores out of the earth to create subterranean storage cylinders into which water could be pumped to absorb surplus renewable energy output, raising the rock core above the surrounding surface. Energy would then be recovered by allowing the mass of the core to fall and drive the pressurized water through turbines. In his second example, he offered a new model of helium airship, which he imagined carrying tomatoes from Africa and delivering them to individual supermarkets in England by hovering overhead and lowering containers of produce to consumers below. In his third instance he described the apparently significant potential of second-generation, lignocelluosic, biofuels, though this hardly seemed consistent with his emphasis in other parts of his talk on the urgent requirement for global reforestation of an area as large as India by 2030.

After the urgency of the early parts of the speech, with its terrifying prospect of global catastrophe, the pressing need for heroic acts and the great political and financial will driving ahead, the bathos of these concrete exemplars is remarkable. The mountains go into labour, and are delivered of a small litter of laboratory-reared white mice. This all serves as a yet another reminder that the ‘entrepreneurial state’ has a preternatural gift for the picking of candidates promising fair to be losers.

With a sinking feeling many will conclude that while invention and innovation (a distinction not observed in Sir David’s speech) may be agreed to be essential to a low carbon transition, these are unlikely to be efficiently, and perhaps not even successfully created by well-meaning committees of the great and good.

All this suggests that the low carbon transition will in all likelihood be fundamentally unattractive, economically or otherwise, and will require ceaseless governmental coercion, a suspicion that would be confirmed by Sir David’s extraordinary response to Dr Birol’s closing question, “What advice do you have for the IEA?”

“Let me be clear”, Sir David said, “the move towards the defossilisation of our economy [he meant the global economy] has to be reflected in the way the IEA operates, and I’m sure it will be.”

On the contrary, let us hope that Dr Birol and his colleagues at the IEA are not intimidated by such a strangely threatening remark, but strive to fulfill their duties to the taxpayers of the OECD, who provide their funding, by offering objective and fearless comment on the policies that are proposed by the member governments. The last thing that any sensible person would want, though Sir David appears mistakenly to desire it, is for the IEA to become yet another servile element in the policy delivery mechanism.