The Climate Group is 15!

Helen Clarkson, CEO, The Climate Group
Reading time: 4 minutes
28 November 2018
Helen Clarkson, The Climate Group

This week The Climate Group turns fifteen. As with any anniversary, this provides an opportunity to reflect on the past, look forward to the future, and examine our impact as an organisation.

Looking back to 2003, our year of establishment, is a reminder of what has changed in the world and what has not. It is to visit a time and place that is both familiar yet different. Then, as now, many things were in a state of flux or transition, while ideas or brands we now take for granted did not yet exist. Politically, the world was still dealing with the uncertainty and destabilising consequences of 9/11. China’s economy was little more than 1/10th the size of the US and ‘Made in China’ was still associated with products of a certain quality. Social media meant a movie with friends or perhaps a watercooler conversation about last night’s detective drama. And Nokia was the world’s greatest mobile phone company, seemingly unassailable with its addictive snake game and dominating global sales.

The world of climate and energy was also an oddly familiar yet different place. The scientific evidence for climate change and its impacts was becoming increasingly clear thanks to the work of the IPCC, but this was not matched with a similar urgency for action from governments or international bodies. The Kyoto Protocol, signed six years previous, was still not ratified and the US had confirmed it would not join. Climate change meanwhile barely got a mentioned from the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its 2003 World Energy Outlook, which focused instead on the good prospects for coal and the need to find new reserves of oil and gas.

For anyone who was concerned by the mounting evidence and threat of a warming planet, the solutions still looked distant or uninspiring. Wind turbines were becoming a more regular sight in a few locations, but still required subsidies to compete with fossil fuels. Solar panels were an expensive niche product, found only in a few highly subsidised markets (hello Germany!) and otherwise associated with spacecraft (or calculators). As for electric vehicles, the leading (only?) option in the UK was the two-seater ‘G-Wiz’: a micro-car, technically classified as a ‘heavy quadricycle’ and powered by lead acid batteries. A Tesla Model S it was not.

It was into this world that The Climate Group was launched, with a mission to change the way governments and business talked about and acted on climate change. The founders of The Climate Group recognised the need for a new organisation that approached climate action through the lens of economic opportunity and a relentless focus on the benefits to business and governments of bold and ambitious action. Smart and powerful communications was to play a key role.

Over the past decade and a half, The Climate Group has remained true to this founding vision and mission. Through the twists and turns of external events and our own varied portfolio of initiatives, the constants over our fifteen years have remained the same: our engagement with our partners in business and government and the narrative of opportunity.

So how far have we come exactly? By many measures, the world has witnessed some impressive achievements. The cost of wind and solar energy has fallen dramatically, while deployment has skyrocketed, confounding the predictions of nearly all analysts. In 2004, for example, the IEA predicted that by 2020, total installed global wind capacity would be around 200GW, while the figure for solar would be between 25-30GW. By 2016, the actual figures were already near 500GW and 400GW respectively, with growth curves that had turned exponential.

The world also (thankfully) moved on from the G-Wiz. Today there are dozens of models of EVs available, including high performance Teslas, BMWs and Jaguars, as well as every-day family movers, often indistinguishable from their fossil fuel-powered siblings. Practically every major car company has plans to release new models before 2020, while growth in demand for EVs far exceeds that for petrol and diesel vehicles.

However, if there is one technology that epitomises the success of low carbon tech over the past 15 years, it is the humble LED light. This technology, more than any single other, has transformed an industry and with it a significant chunk of the world’s electricity demand. Historically, lighting has accounted for up to 19% of global power use due to our reliance on 100-year-old incandescent light technology that wastes up to 90% of energy as heat. By contrast LEDs are 90% efficient. In 2003, a Technology Review article reported on intensive research to develop elusive ‘white light’ LEDs, which it noted “could one day light our kitchens and lounges”. Today, such bulbs cost as little as £1.50 from your local supermarket, will last a decade and dominate the market.

These technology successes, as well as others in the fields of climate policy, finance and diplomacy (that’s you Paris Agreement!), obviously have many parents, but The Climate Group can justifiably lay claim to be one of these across a range of issues and areas. From our support for California’s historic AB32 ballot that lead to the establishment of the state’s carbon trading scheme, to our pioneering LED street lighting field trials in New York and other cities, to our founding role in the We Mean Business Coalition, to our seminal work on the role of smart technologies in driving emission reductions, to our establishment of Climate Week NYC as a critical moment in the international climate calendar, we have a legacy of initiatives and impact to be justifiably proud of.

Unfortunately, despite all our individual and collective successes, there are two key metrics to remind us that our work is far from done. The first of these is the level of annual global emissions, which despite a possible plateau in recent years is a third higher today than in 2003 (at least for carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas). The second is the stock of carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million (ppm), which like clockwork has increased every year since measurements began in the 1950s. The current concentration is 406ppm, 9% above the 2003 level and a figure not seen for some 3.6 million years.

These metrics, along with the IPCC’s stark and alarming findings in its recent Special Report on 1.5oC of Global Warming, underline that 15 years on from our establishment, our work remains more important than ever. Clearly, our task remains immense, but the collective achievements we have already made, as businesses, governments and an international community, illustrate what can be done when minds and efforts are concentrated. In the years ahead, provided we start to make the smart decisions and investments we know are necessary, we may well look back on this period as the time we laid the foundations that allowed us to finally solve this century’s greatest challenge.

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