Become an energy engineer
Things are so bad now, that anything you do to solve the climate crisis has got to help. That’s the way Nina Klein feels about the climate change situation, and it’s the advice that she would give to others who want to make a difference in this pressing field. Be a climate scientist, work in government or industry, become an architect or a lawyer, but most importantly spread the knowledge that we need to reduce our carbon emissions significantly, if we are going to maintain life on this planet as we know it.
Nina was clutching her bound PhD thesis when we met at Wolfson College, Oxford. She has recently finished four years researching the latest photovoltaic technologies. Her description of solar panels which can be printed on rollable plastics, so light and flexible that they could even been incorporated into windows, resonated with me as I remember speculating about such technology 20 years ago, when I worked in the scenario team at Shell. That technological prediction has become a reality, but so too have the worst possible climate change scenarios and the need for urgent action.
I asked Nina for an interview about “How to Make a Difference” after reading a great book last summer called The Switch by Chris Goodall. It was the first optimistic book about climate change that I had read in a while, as it explained how the switch to renewables really is within reach. Nina and her research into photovoltaics are mentioned in the book and I was keen to hear where it had taken her and whether she shared Chris’s optimism about renewables and the future.
Now that her research is complete, Nina is working for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as an energy engineer. Her role is to advise policy makers on the latest technological developments in renewables so that they can in turn make effective evidence based policy. Nina is happy to be applying her scientific expertise in the “real world” but also admits that she is now starting to understand why making change happen at the speed required is so challenging.
Nina loved science from an early age and studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge. While she was there she became involved in campaigning around environmental issues and in particular the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society, which wants the university to divest from fossil fuels. Her PhD at Oxford gave her a more technological perspective on potential routes to resolving climate change. She was looking at how to improve the material qualities of those rollable, plastic photovoltaic cells.
Despite her technical background (or perhaps because of it), Nina is clear that what’s needed right now is not more technological developments: “We should be deploying what we have already, as fast as possible, on a global scale” she says.
Nina sees a great galvanisation of human spirit that is epitomised by Extinction Rebellion and personified by David Attenborough and feels some hope. She is also deeply concerned that every piece of scientific evidence seems to get worse and worse. But what are we going to do? After my years of working for Shell, I had always assumed that change had to come from government. Nina is working for government, and is reluctant to be pinned down on where the change needs to come from. Government, the general public and business are all going to have their roles to play, she believes.
What about a carbon tax? I try and suggest helpfully. “That might solve climate change, but not all the other problems that we have like water scarcity and inequality,” Nina responds. At this, I am feeling that things are even more hopeless, but luckily Nina is still upbeat saying that the youth have an “incredible opportunity to demand change, as they have access to the science and knowledge, but not the vested interests in current systems.”
Nina’s further advice: “People created this. If we can understand people and how people work, maybe we can understand how to get out. Go and study history and social psychology. If you understand the transformation of the Industrial Revolution, then you might be able to understand the next change that is needed. Everything has a role. Follow whatever you are passionate about, then see if you can use it to make a positive change.” Now, that’s advice I can live by.
Invest in reducing greenhouse gases
One of the challenges I find with being both the writer and photographer behind How to Make a Difference is that moment when I have to switch between being interviewer and photographer. With James Cameron, I realised once again that the more interesting the conversation I am having, the more difficult it is to get a great photograph. James, who is a founder, vice chair and executive director of Climate Change Capital, has a truly impressive track record in the field of climate change. 45 minutes was barely enough to scrape the surface before we needed to dash outside for a quick few snaps (OK, excuses over!).
It was only just before the photographs that I discovered James role in instigating the Kyoto Protocol. In 1988, he co-authored an academic article which was the first to argue that an international negotiated agreement was the best way to use the law to resolve climate change. This article led on to a study into what such an agreement would look like: “We attached the research to an entirely made up group of countries: low-lying developing states. Then, we set about introducing ourselves to the governments of those countries and said ‘There should be an international climate change agreement. We could represent you and you won’t need to pay. It’s all pro bono.’” The Alliance of Small Island States was born and the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol ensued. While we can’t yet look back and say climate change is resolved, the Kyoto Protocol has been a very important step on the path to controlling emissions. James’s ideas, followed by years of involvement in negotiations, have had a notable impact. I hope I didn’t miss anything else this significant in his past!
I met James in the library of Climate Change Capital, at the heart of the very impressive Norton Rose offices, just South West of London’s Tower Bridge. The view is over the Thames to the Tower of London and the skyscrapers of the City of London beyond. In this kind of situation, one realises that environmentalism has made huge steps towards the centre of how our society operates. James is quick to emphasise that much more needs to be done. “We’ve done a lot. Our capacity to make the revolutionary changes to our energy system and reorientate our economy is growing. But the things that we do are still very peripheral. The bulk of financial resources that are needed to make the transformation are still locked onto fossil fuels.”
A qualified barrister, James was a practicing legal professional until he set up Climate Change Capital in 2003. His work with the small island states was one of the first projects of the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) which he helped to found. Later in his career James set up the climate change practice at the law firm Baker and Mckenzie. “I could not have imagined creating Climate Change Capital if I hadn’t done it before with CIEL, FIELD (CIEL’s UK offshoot) and the specialist practice in Baker and McKenzie.”
About ten years ago James, along with other climate change “pioneers”, saw the potential of a commercial enterprise which would invest in the global transition to a low carbon economy. A chance meeting with Mark Woodall, a former investment banker with considerable environmental expertise, led to Climate Change Capital taking off as a separate entity. “Mark had the clarity and wanted to start something new. Without him we wouldn’t have got going.”
Climate Change Capital now manages funds with over US$1.5 billion of commitments. They have funds which are directly targeted at reducing greenhouse gases, as well as more traditional investments, like property, which aim to invest with a “climate change lens”. James is proud of the team that he has around him: “We cannot deliver on the mission ‘creating wealth worth having’, unless everyone here is of a very high standard, whether they’re investing for environmental purposes or not.” On his own role: “They look at me and know that I’m not a professional investor but I am the creative force behind the business.”
James muses that it was probably the news of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, while he was studying for a post graduate degree in international law at Cambridge, which inspired him to pursue a career focused on international environmental issues. “It was a perfect example of transboundary harm, which needed to be addressed through legal systems that crossed boundaries.” Growing up as an expat in Lebanon and then Singapore was formative too: “All of my idealism and excitement about politics was fixed on power and abuse of power, and ultimately how to you reconcile competing interests where the state has a fundamental role, but where individual liberty is at risk.”
For now things are good. The business is going well and James is pleased to note that the new Lib Con coalition deal includes some elements that Climate Change Capital have been proselytizing: “I’m very happy at the minute with the space that I’ve got to be me, and the people I’ve got to depend on. When you see the potential of what you’ve created, and you reset your ambitions, then you have to work out when to let go, but that time hasn’t come yet.”
Work with people in other fields
Nigel Bell, past retirement age now, still loves what he does enough to keep him at the office. He’s a professor of environmental pollution at Imperial College, and for much of his 40 year career he has run one of the best Environmental MSc courses in the country (I would say that. I’m a former student!). Nigel has seen over 2600 students graduate from the MSc and claims to know them all by name. He is at the nexus of a generation of environmentalists who are working hard to protect the planet’s natural resources.
I’m talking to Nigel in his office which adjoins the current MSc students’ common room. Nigel is definitely not an academic who is isolated in his ivory tower. “I love being in the heart of things, where the students are.”
When the MSc took in its first students in 1977, it recognised that the resolution of environmental problems required a multidisciplinary approach rather than relying solely on science and technology. Social sciences like environmental management, law, policy and economics are critical. “It was really quite a heresy in those days because Imperial College was almost entirely science and engineering,” Nigel tells me. The MSc drew upon specialists who were often somewhat marginalised in their own departments by virtue of their interest in the environment. Nigel’s research interests were in, and remain, the influence of air pollution on plants. He was then in the botany department, but the chance to work with others across departments with interests in environmental issues was very attractive.
To this day, one of the reasons why students from the MSc course are so effective at tackling environmental issues is because of Nigel’s enthusiasm for networking across disciplines and occupations. Environmental problems are so complex that these links are essential. Take for example the resolution of stratospheric ozone depletion in the late 1980s. It took scientists, politicians, international lawyers and negotiators, manufacturers, retailers and consumers working together to achieve the successful phase out of CFCs. Nigel and his colleagues are educating people in all of these fields to resolve the even more intractable issues we now face.
Nigel is palpably proud of his ex-students’ “devastating success” in such a wide range of occupations. All bringing their environmental expertise with them. “When the course started we didn’t know what jobs people were going to get. There weren’t very many truly environmental jobs and most of them were in the public sector.” In the late 80s the private sector started showing an interest in environmental issues and EU legislation started driving things forward. Now, 40% of the students go into consultancy: “environmental consultants, energy consultants, carbon management consultants, consulting engineers, management consultants etc”.
I came to talk to Nigel at this time because I want to explore making a difference to one of our generation’s most incredible challenges: Climate Change. Climate change is now a major element of the MSc course and Nigel tells me that 20 students annually move into professions which are specifically aiming to tackle the problem: They become carbon traders, or work for energy related NGOs, charities and consultancies. These are some of the people who I plan to talk to over coming months. “Climate change is hellish important”, Nigel confirms, but then he’s quick to caution me: “The trouble is that it ain’t the only problem. Over population and over consumption are equally worrying.” I take the point, but let’s start somewhere.
I wonder what this man, who has probably influenced more people wanting to make a difference than most, thinks is the best way for an individual to have an impact. “ Get right into the heart of it. I think you can argue that the solution to the world’s major environmental problems lie in the self-interest of big business. You’ve got to be able to talk the language of big business and the City.” Personally, I found trying to change things from inside Shell International very tough, but hopefully there are plenty of other MSc graduates out there having more success than I did. I’m planning to put Nigel’s network to the test and write about the most inspiring examples for you here.
Have an idea and realise it
Last week I found myself in an unlikely situation; sitting on a Caribbean beach talking to Richard Branson. In recent years, the international entrepreneur and chairman of the Virgin Group has become closely involved in projects that explicitly try to make the world a better place. He has made significant financial commitments to battle climate change and Aids, and several years ago set up a foundation called Virgin Unite. I was delighted to have a chance to ask him about how to make a difference.
The occasion was the annual gathering of Virgin CEO’s and their guests on Necker Island. On the first night a beach party had been arranged on Mosquito, the island next door, which Sir Richard recently bought. It was a staggeringly beautiful setting. The sun was down, the beach was lit with flame torches, blankets and cushions had been laid out. Hot on the barbeque were beer can chickens and chilli chocolate turkey. It seemed that the only down-side, as the island’s name suggests, was the need for plenty of insect repellent.
I was impressed by the friendliness and openness of our host, who seemed genuinely interested when I raised the subject of “how to make a difference”. He was keen to talk about his work. Even though the party music was thumping in our ears, I managed to pick up on Richard’s passion to use entrepreneurship and business to resolve some of our toughest environmental and social problems.
In the run up to the Iraq War in 2003, Richard and his old friend Peter Gabriel came up with the idea to create a group of senior, influential and independent people who could work together to resolve global issues and alleviate human suffering . He wanted them to be “global elders of the global village” and hoped they may prevent unneccessary conflict. He started by approaching Nelson Mandela and his wife, human rights activist, Graca Machel. The couple loved the idea and Mandela agreed to become the founding Elder. Although bombing in Iraq commenced before they could play a role there, Richard continued to provide the support needed to get a larger group of Elders off the ground. Mandela and Machel recruited 10 further highly experienced players like Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu. The Elders use their moral authority and connections to intervene and promote peace in tense situations. So far they have gone to work in Sudan, Cyprus and most successfully, according to Branson, in Kenya in early 2008.
I was keen to hear more about his commitment to invest all the profits of the transportation arms of his business over the next ten years (about $3 billion) into combating climate change; I also wanted to ask about the War Room in South Africa which aims to tackle diseases like Aids, TB and Malaria, but deafened by the sound system we had to postpone our chat until the following day when I was introduced to Jean Oelwang, CEO of the foundation, Virgin Unite.
Jean was inspired and enthusiastic about the work of Virgin’s foundation. She has a great job working with people to launch entrepreneurial projects which aim to have a positive impact on the world. This meeting was a reminder for me of why I started on my mission to find people who were making a difference. I worked as an environmentalist trying to influence Shell from the inside for five years and while doing so I became disheartened by the slow pace of change and wondered what better approaches there might be. Jean told me about how Virgin Unite uses the creative spirit of the Virgin Group, combined with its financial backing, to incubate world changing ideas and launch them. The conversation really made me feel excited again about the potential for business to resolve some of the world’s toughest problems. Maybe it was the beauty of Necker Island that surrounded us, but for the first time in ages I even started to imagine that I could work for a large organisation again. So long as it was as innovative and passionate as the one I was hearing about from Jean Oelwang.
We can’t all be billionaires or run our own foundations but I still found meeting Richard and Jean inspired me to work on my own world changing plans. As Richard says in his latest book:
“What matters is that you operate as a force for good at every scale available to you. An Aids policy rolled out across the staff of your business is as important as an Aids policy rolled out across the entire Virgin Group, or across an entire nation. The important thing is to have the idea, and realise it, however modestly.”