Iberdrola’s Carlos Sallé: Reconnecting people with natureCarlos Sallé, Senior Vice President of Energy Policies and Climate Change at Iberdrola
First published in Spanish in El Pais
In his essay Sapiens, From animals into Gods, Yuval Noah Harari analyzes the impact caused by humankind to our planet: “The historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer”. This relates to periods prior to industrialization, when humans had much less destructive capacity per unit of time than we currently have. Our ancestors required thousands of years to generate, for example, similar biodiversity losses to what current Homo sapiens can do in a few years.
Certainly we have done many bad things, but also many good ones in social and economic terms. Today’s Homo Sapiens, unlike those that lived 3,000 years ago, have the organizational and technological capacity to reverse, in part, the damage we’ve caused to the planet, to the diversity of all life on earth, and to the future generations that will inherit it.
Many of the issues we now face were caused and aggravated during the post-industrial era, due to an unsustainable model of production and consumption. This has been fuelled by an energy model based on the burning of fossil fuels. Although this generated impressive socio-economic growth, it has also caused numerous environmental problems, most notably climate change, caused by greenhouse gas emissions, and local pollution (caused by the emission of nitrogen and sulphur particles or compounds).
Climate scientists have been warning us for years about the serious problems caused by greenhouse gases: an increase in the planet’s average temperature and various extreme phenomena (heatwaves, cold fronts, hurricanes, floods, rising sea levels, droughts, disease transmission, species extinction…). This is already happening across the planet with more or less virulence. The cost generated by all these problems is enormous, and will increase over time. According to studies by the World Bank, the total global financial losses generated jointly by climate change and local pollution will reach 2.2% of GDP in 2050. Part of these costs are already being paid by citizens (and not by those who caused the damage), through taxes, which must be used to repair infrastructure, subsidise farmers or treat patients admitted to hospital. This is not to mention the incalculable cost of losing biodiversity and, even human lives.
Therefore, the decarbonization process, far from being expensive, is quite the opposite: it eliminates the root causes of the problems we’re facing, now and in the future. Additionally, clean technologies (renewable resources, electric vehicles and so on) that contribute to the solutions, are decreasing in cost at an impressive rate worldwide, making them in most parts of the world (currently and with a trend to continue), the most competitive alternative. Decarbonization was the objective of the Paris Agreement of 2015. The vast majority of countries signed it, presenting commitments – each country according to its capabilities – to fight against climate change. These commitments will be reviewed every five years, with the first review taking place in 2020.
The UN Secretary-General has convened a meeting in New York on 23 September with all agents (representatives from all governments along with leading companies, civil society and NGOs). The aim of the meeting is to motivate the presentation of ambitious and urgent objectives for 2020. Nine action tracks covering different topics have been created for the summit, each led by different countries and institutions. Spain has been assigned to Social and Political Drivers, dealing with issues such as air pollution, just transition and empowerment of women.
Time to act swiftly
Climate change is essentially a man-made problem, which is affecting us exponentially here and now. This is why we have to act swiftly and ambitiously and politicians need to make a pact to help accelerate the energy transition. For example, citizens are already paying for its costs, even if they don’t realize it, which is why a tax reform is essential. It should be based on the “polluter pays” principle to replace the contributions made by citizens to public budgets by new taxes for polluting activities. Fighting against climate change is much less costly than failing to do so and is a source of opportunities (motivated by the cost disruption of non-emitting technologies) job generation and sustainable economic growth.
The people who will benefit the most from the fight against climate change are those who are more disadvantaged since they are most likely to suffer most from its effects and least able to protect themselves. However, we also have to protect the vulnerable groups that could face temporary upheaval during the transition. For example, workers from mining regions or some employees in the traditional automotive sector, who will have to look for training and relocation mechanisms within their current employment or apply for one of the numerous jobs generated by the new economy.
Companies must help create sustainable employment, and different administrations must generate environments (through social, fiscal, and regulatory support) that allow part of the investments that generate green jobs to go to, for example, mining regions or the automotive sector. There is paradigmatic example of new employment in the sectors that supply components to offshore wind farms. And something similar will happen in the transformation of the transport sector towards electric vehicles, in battery manufacturers, in building insulation companies and in the reforestation business.
We need to also support low-income citizens who will be significantly affected by an increase of taxes on polluting activities (for example, on the diesel or petrol they use). To do this, governments must generate mechanisms to compensate for these effects, either through gradual implementation of the environmental tax reform to these groups, or through redistributive mechanisms. For example, by compensating the increased use of fuel with equivalent reductions in electricity costs, supporting the insulation of homes or providing grants to help in the purchase of electric vehicles or the use of public transport.
The transition to a zero-carbon future will generate profound and essential changes that will affect all of our daily lives so it’s important that everyone is well informed and able to understand the causes and seriousness of climate related problems, as well as how the costs will only increase if we don’t act with urgency. We need to highlight the new opportunities that are emerging from the transition and the support mechanisms that are needed for vulnerable workers and communities. Citizens need to be trained and aware if they are to alter their millions of daily decisions and drive the transcendental changes needed in our consumption models.
On the other hand, given the scale and depth of the urgent changes, which require major financial investment in the coming decades, it’s essential to reduce the existing uncertainties. As part of this, it is critical that politicians reach national consensus to guide their citizens with a clear road map.
The decarbonization of the economy is inherently a good thing, which brings many opportunities and will generate a better and more sustainable world for us and for future generations. Whoever defends the maintenance of the status quo, as happens with some managers of oil or coal companies, will have to demonstrate whether the benefits brought by slow or no-action on climate will outweigh the ever-increasing risks we face by continuing business as usual.
Scientists are warning us. Nature is responding. Young people are demanding that we act urgently for their futures and those of the next generations. We have the technology. The benefits are crystal clear. What are we waiting for? Let us start reconciling Homo Sapiens with nature.