Named by Time magazine as one of the 15 women leading climate action, Rachel Kyte is currently dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts. She was previously CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and has served as World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change, leading the run-up to the Paris Agreement. She is a member of the UN secretary-general’s high-level advisory group on climate action and an advisor to the UK government for COP26. Here, she gives an honest, expert account of the state of play ahead of COP26.
What impact does climate change have on your view of the world today?
The impacts of past emissions, and then our efforts over the next few years to curb those emissions very rapidly – that is now the context for everything. It is the context for the economy, it is the context for military planning, it is the context for security, for the movement of peoples around the world, for extreme weather.
We have to be really clear about what we need to do, but we also need to understand what climate change does to the parameters we’ve been used to for the past few decades. It changes the geopolitics of energy, and the geopolitics of energy are a large part of our geopolitics. Over the past 50 or so years, we’ve always had an eye on the oil-producing countries of the world, but that changes enormously as the geopolitics shift to who has the renewable-energy resources. So do we see manufacturing moving from China to maybe West Africa, because West Africa has abundant wind and hydro and other resources that can be developed? It changes everything.
What do you want to see being achieved in the coming years?
We have to get out of coal everywhere, as soon as possible. We need to transition away from fossil fuels, unless the emissions are capped and stored, and that seems a very expensive way of producing energy. We have to stop any methane being released into the atmosphere, so that adds a burden to the gas industry. And we need to massively invest in storage capabilities. This pathway is fairly well known, although reasonable people can agree and disagree on emphasis.
On transportation, policy needs to be put in place to make the electric-vehicle revolution go faster. We need to not sell all our filthy junk cars to the developing world, which is what we did when we moved from leaded to non-leaded petrol. There’s no point driving a Tesla and then having your gas-guzzling Volkswagen driving around the Sahel. And then we need to get ships and planes on to zero-emission fuels as soon as possible. That movement is sort of underway. And then our food systems will also need to shift drastically.
You’ve served as vice president of the International Finance Corporation. What role does the financial sector play in this transition?
We’re going to need lots of financial innovation for the steps above to happen. The financial sector has made enormous progress. Central bank governors understand the macro-political risk of climate. There are lots of risk instruments now, but we’ve got to actually start making it easier for ‘green’ to happen. It’s still very difficult to get good-quality equity into renewable energy and to off-grid developers in some parts of the world where nobody has access to electricity. There is no transformation to a 1.5°C world if the change is just being made by the rich in rich countries.
There’s so much to be excited about. There are so many companies out there doing amazing things, but they are fighting extremely hard to get access to capital. On the other hand, we’ve got trillions of dollars divesting from fossil fuels; we’ve got pension funds all over the world. So we have to take the capital being freed up and connect it to the need. That has always been difficult and that’s still a big part of the stumbling block.
In many ways, the roadmap is clear, and yet all the evidence suggests we’re way off the Paris Agreement targets. What can we take from that?
It is confusing. Why would anybody invest in a new coal mine? Why would anybody invest in new oil exploration? This is where the financial system as it currently operates is our enemy – because it’s in somebody’s short-term interest to make that investment. The cost of inaction is far higher than the cost of action, but our economic systems don’t measure that very well. The instruments that we use to measure success are very blunt, such as gross domestic product. It’s very difficult to calculate in the hidden costs of asthma, childhood pulmonary diseases, loss and damage to crops from extreme weather events – those are the costs of inaction that are invisible to us. The short-termism of both politics and finance make things difficult in the absence of policy.
This means that the glide path to a safe landing zone has to be given by policy. Take the UK as an example. We know that we need to get off fossil fuels for heating, we know we’ve got to get out of fossil-fuel cars and get people onto multi-modal, clean transport. You’re going to have to incentivise them. And you’re going to have to take away the subsidies that you apply to the people who benefit from not doing that. Maybe some of them are donors to your party, or maybe some of them are sitting in Parliament. Okay, that’s politics. It doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want my mum to buy another boiler – I need her to get a heat pump and I need her to be able to afford to do that. So it gets down into retail politics really quite quickly. But policy can make that glide path go faster. It requires the politicians to say, ‘Th is is going to be good for everybody,’ and to make that case.
What should we look out for at COP26 in Glasgow?
Paris was the ‘what?’ We were negotiating the agreement, setting out where we thought warming needed to be limited to. The COPs that came after it were the follow-up in terms of the rules around that. And then Glasgow is really the ‘how?’ It’s a different kind of COP because it’s about ratcheting up our ambition. It’s a giant thumb screw on a rack. We should be looking for every G20 country to come with a ratcheted-up plan. And then, given that we probably know that we’re not going to be on course at Glasgow, we need to come back in maybe another two years, not another five years, to say, okay, how can we ratchet up even more?
Then we need to have a finance package. For many developing countries, it’s difficult to express the deep levels of mistrust they have for the developed world because we’ve systematically failed to live up to commitments, especially around finance. That becomes important in the negotiations. The developed world needs to explain how it has lived up to, or how it’s going to live up to, its commitment of US$100 billion a year. It’s going to have to put more money on the table.
You should also see some strong signals that governments and the private sector together really want to grapple with greenwashing. In particular, I think you’ll see some strong indications that there’s collaborative work now going on to make sure that every claim that’s made by a company, especially if they’re using offsets, actually fits within a science-based pathway to 1.5°C.
What are the actual negotiations like for delegates?
The delegates have their instructions, but at the end of the day, and it always goes down to the wire, these are individuals in a room and individuals have to cut a deal. So it is hand-to-hand combat. And these are individuals with kids, with pride in their craft and their work. People are known to each other; you are professional and collegial. And then people are also sensitive to whatever the press is saying at home.
We’ve seen over successive climate negotiations that, in many cases, there has been an extreme-weather event either while we’ve been in the climate negotiation or just before. Normally, it’s in a small island developing state in the Pacific or the Philippines or somewhere like that. You’ve seen their negotiators in tears of anger and frustration, because what can they do except plead for action? Now what’s interesting is that we’ve recently seen these extraordinary floods in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and extraordinary heat waves across southern Europe, Canada and the USA – does any of this start to have an impact?
There are also some other interesting dynamics. For example, the voices of Indigenous peoples. Over many years now, they have successfully managed to get their voices heard. They don’t sit at the table as a member state, but they influence a number of member states and they’ve become an extremely well-coordinated global advocacy effort, which wasn’t the case a decade ago. And now, the pressure of the street is quite extraordinary. That has an extremely powerful effect, I think.
Do you remain hopeful that we can tackle climate change?
I’m hopeful because, for me, hope conveys agency. If we organise ourselves differently, if we are committed, we can do this. I’m also pessimistic because, for all kinds of reasons, in different societies around the world, we have a political class that’s unable or unwilling to act. And we’re really running out of time.
I have moments of real angst. It’s a bit like grief – it hits you when you’re least expecting it. I was once sitting in traffic and I just burst into tears. You realise that you are carrying it with you. But you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and you get up and fight again. There are amazing, amazing, amazing people everywhere around the world fighting much harder than me and having a huge impact. If I can do anything to lift them up or make it easier for them then I think that’s a good day.