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  • Charlotte Owen-Burge

Rachel Kyte: Design solutions for the most vulnerable and poorest first

Rachel Kyte is one of the world’s most influential authorities on climate change. She has led UN efforts towards greater access to clean and affordable energy and, as leader of the World Bank’s climate program, developed strategies to make hundreds of billions of dollars available to developing countries. She is currently the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the oldest graduate school in the US dedicated to international affairs.


Kyte told The Skylark that policymakers would not succeed if they continued to pursue proposals that address the needs of the few at the peril of the many. For Kyte, if we are to live in a world with food and energy security, we must first address the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.


The revolution in renewable energy is continuing. Countries can now operate with the majority of their electricity coming from renewables. The reality that we can power a steel mill or cement factory with renewable energy is almost here. Just a few years ago, people thought that was impossible, but this is all becoming deeply plausible and affordable.


Yet despite this progress, the global rollout of renewables isn’t going as fast as it should. And it’s for the same reason why weaning us off harmful fossil fuels is so tricky: it’s not about the technology. And it’s not really about money or finance either. It’s mainly about the power of incumbency and system inertia.


When you think about the energy transition, it’s underway. But if you look at other pieces of the puzzle, where we also need these transitions, they’re not at the same point as renewables are.


I’ve been doing a lot of work looking at the policy questions you have to ask to build the case for different pathways leading to systems change.


For example, if you ask yourself, “how do we get affordable energy?” somebody could tell you, “under this policy environment, coal is still cheaper than solar”. Well, for a start, that’s wrong, but it’s also the wrong question. The question should be, “how do we get everybody affordable, reliable and clean energy?”. If you ask that question, you come up with different answers and potentially different policy advice.


The same goes for food. The questions we usually ask now are either, “how can we have food security in a climate-ravaged world?” or “how do we have a healthier diet?” (because we’re killing ourselves as a species through Type 2 diabetes and chronic heart disease, conditions all of which come from our diet). So, we’ve got a food system that isn’t good for the planet and isn’t suitable for people, yet we ask those questions separately.


If you ask questions about food security, then traditionally, everyone starts talking about food supply. In other words, how can we improve agricultural yield? But consider that we’re putting something like 80% of agricultural research into just three crops unsuitable for a nutritious diet. In that case, why are we not researching the food that poor people eat and making that food grow even under different climatic conditions? These are a whole set of questions that aren’t asked.


We also don’t ask questions from the demand side. In other words, what do people want to eat? Now you can educate public behaviour, but ultimately what they eat is really what they can afford. So, affordability, therefore, becomes a significant driver. Consequently, we should be asking: “what are the least number of most important things that need to be done so that everybody can afford a sustainable diet?” But let me tell you, that is not a research question. That is not the question policymakers, or the UN is asking.


So how do you start addressing the actual core of the problem? We’ve got lots of solutions. For example, eat a more plant-based diet. And I don’t disagree with much of the science of that. However, we know from economics that that’s not the diet people demand. We also know that that diet is entirely unaffordable for middle- and lower-income people in about 117 countries. So, you can’t come forward with a policy solution which comes from the supply end of the problem.


I’m very interested in how we ask the right questions that embrace the climate crisis and address affordability in a way that doesn’t leave people behind.


If you design solutions for the most vulnerable, poorest, or furthest away, everybody will get served. But often, we have a policy proposal for some, not all, and then all get left behind. And that won’t work.


What we’re seeing that works better in addressing these huge agendas is a kind of minilateralism, whereby smaller groups of countries, private sector actors, civil society groups, think tanks and academia work on different problem sets separately and then all come together. And if the questions are posed well, then they can start building the evidence needed to show people what a solution might look like.


Policymakers need to be able to imagine an alternative based on evidence and then start moving in that direction. In other words, ask questions like: “can you imagine what it would be like if everybody had access to clean electricity at a level of productive use, so every village was able to have a lay and a grain store and clinic which is working in the evenings?”.


A deeply entrenched, extraordinarily well-financed effort to protect incumbency

But all of the time, you’re fighting against incumbency and inertia. So, knowing how to make systems change is essential, but the incumbency is difficult because that’s profoundly corrupt money in politics.


You’re just starting to see now, for the first time, major listed oil and gas companies say that they will not spend money lobbying against what they’re claiming they’re committed to publicly, for example, climate change action. Only in the last year have they started to show serious commitments to be net zero by 2050. That means different things to different companies, and we still have to hold them accountable.


But that’s the tip of the iceberg: BP, Shell, and all of these guys may have stopped spending their lobbying money in this direction. Still, in the US, all of the shale companies like the Marathons and the Hess’ of the world are pouring money into every Republican Congressman and woman, to the lobbies that sit in Washington and making it absolutely impossible for fossil fuel subsidies to be removed. This isn’t just because a few leaders are climate deniers; this is a deeply entrenched, extraordinarily well-financed effort to protect incumbency. You have different forms of incumbency protecting other interests in other countries.


At the moment, everybody focuses on coal, oil and gas, but the same will be true as you try to break the lock that certain food companies have on a completely unsustainable and unhealthy food system. So, we will face this at different points in the future.


The public is beginning to take more interest in experts and scientists

I think that the public can eventually help break the power of incumbency. If an elected representative does not represent their interests, they will be voted out. And we are seeing significant shifts in public opinion. America is facing real challenges in its representative democracy related to the suppression of voting and gerrymandering of districts. The system [in the US] is really in trouble, and the money in politics is one big part of that. Other issues are going on as well. But public attitudes are shifting, which eventually reflects in who’s elected.


On the back of Covid-19, what's hopeful is that polling data suggests the public is beginning to take more interest in experts and scientists. You can see this in the UK, a country where the rejection of experts was fundamental in the whole Brexit debate. But recent polling has shown something like 70% of people in the UK believes they should be listening to experts or scientists more. And that’s a shift as a result of Covid-19. More importantly, it’s a significant shift in climate action. If we accept science as a driver, I hope we’ve turned a corner in that.


We also see a different mindset emerging from the younger generations, a complete acceptance that we should and can live with a smaller footprint. And I think that businesses are now at a tipping point. They are beginning to understand that they can only stay in business and be profitable if they use resources more efficiently, as they will operate under drastically reduced and controlled emissions regulations.


There are also some vital signs that within the financial sector, enough people are beginning to understand the macroeconomic risk of the destabilisation that will come from too much carbon in the economy.


And technological progress, the fact that we can talk about producing steel in a green way, we can imagine having fleets of ocean-going cargo vessels working off green hydrogen and a short-haul fleet of aircraft flying with zero emissions. I think the internal combustion engine is on its way to obsolescence, and we’ve got oil and gas companies shedding assets since there’s less return on carbon now and in the future. These are signs of hope, and I think the big one is the shift in attitude generationally.


This article has been edited and condensed for clarity - 18th June 2020

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