Interview with the British deputy Head of Mission in Sofia Nick Leake about climate change
Adelina Marini, August 3, 2009
- The UK is quite advanced in the discussion about climate change. There is a new Renewables Strategy, you have a special post Minister for energy and climate change and quite thorough position ahead of Copenhagen. Why is this?
Nick Leake: I think it's because that we believe that now is a very important time for action. We have the Stern report a couple of years ago which showed very clearly that although there is a cost in addressing the problem of climate change if we do it now, the cost if we don't do it now is so much greater. So, it's in our economic interest to take action now. Quite clearly we will be asking Copenhagen for an ambitious and effective deal and we believe that unless we walk the talk and that's we practice what we preach then that doesn't help us when we go to negotiate with other countries. So we're trying to the best we can as an individual country and reduce our negative impact on the climate.
- Am I right in thinking that this time, unlike Kyoto and other attempts for global agreements,
this time there's much more political will from all global players?
Nick Leake: I'm not in the negotiations in Copenhagen and I'm always an optimist. So, we're
optimistic that we will get a good deal this time. It doesn't mean that there won't be tough
negotiating, of course there will. Everybody has to fight for their own interests. We'll see what
we can get but the atmosphere is very good and we're optimistic.
- Since when the post of the Minister of energy and climate change has been introduced?
Nick Leake: It's a recent position but in fact we've had a cabinet minister who's taken the lead
on climate change for quite some time and the part of the difference is a changing title and
actually bring it out to the name of the ministry itself. But it's a change that Gordon Brown
introduced when he took over as prime minister (June 2007).
- Probably it improves coordination or something else? What's the idea?
Nick Leake: The development of the position over time certainly is to improve coordination and it's also to make sure that the government brings both the economic experts and the energy experts, environmental experts together to work in the same direction. We in the foreign ministry play our role as well in terms of negotiations with European partners and also other countries. But I
think the change of name is designed more to send clear messages about the importance that the
government and Britain attach to the issue. And maybe some of politics is about that - so as
people to hear your message and your message is clear. We've changed the name of the department
in order to show the focus that has actually been on climate change for quite some time.
- What % of the energy consumed in the UK is from renewable sources and does the government subsidize investments in renewable energy?
Nick Leake: Well, we're not as good as Bulgaria as fas as renewable energy sources are concerned. We don't have the advantages that Bulgaria has in terms of potential for hydro energy, for growing of energy crops, for geothermal, for wind, for solar. I actually think Bulgaria has real
potential to be one of the European leaders in renewable energies. We're not good as that. At
the moment we have less than 3 % from our energy from renewable sources but that is up from only 1.8% in 2007, so we're doing as much as we can. We have renewables obligation by 2020 we want 15% of our energy mix to come from renewable energy. A lot of that will come from tidal energy and offshore wind power. We think that's where the UK have some advantages because we have a lot of
coast line. We do provide support for it, of course, but it's not pure subsidy.
We have renewables obligation which means that electricity suppliers, as they are licensed in
the UK, have to source an increasing proportion as their condition in their license in order to
retain that license and they have to source an increasing proportion from renewable sources.
There are other grants, tax measures and other support mechanisms and we've exempted renewable
energy from something that we've called the climate change levy which is a charge that in on
other energy sources and the renewables are exempt from that. We think that by next year,
taken altogether, the renewables obligation in the licenses + the climate change levy should be
worth around 1 bn British pounds a year to the renewable energy industry. It's a lot of money.
It's not direct subsidies but the measures are intended to just twip the economy, to make it
more and more to people to invest in these energy sources.
- Britain seems to be very determined in its vision that the emerging markets should do more
to cut greenhouse gas emissions but their response is that the developed countries should pay bigger price and take bigger engagements. This makes it hard to reach a compromise, don't
Nick Leake: It is easiest to make the savings at the time that you're building a power station or a factory. It's much easier to incorporate the new technologies into something new than it is on
to something that has already existed. We think that if the carbon trading schemes work properly
then, actually that should create the necessary funding, transferring from developed countries to developing countries in order to help them meet their obligations, because the whole idea of the cap and trade schemes is that the reductions will take place where it's most economic and cheapest to do so. So, if they work efficiently they will have that effect. It is certainly true that climate change represents a fundamental injustice because the majority of carbon that is in the environment was put there by industrialized nations, and yet countries in places like Africa will suffer more as a result of climate change and they will also have to play their role in reducing it.
We certainly want to see a deal in Copenhagen that addresses that inequality and provides transfers so the carbon trade scheme will be part of that but it is correct that the developed countries will need to pay, but it is also correct that the developing countries actually offer fertile ground for the new technologies because there's a lot of new build going on there and the new technologies can be incorporated there so much more easily, so much more cheaply, so much more economically. And, of course, it doesn't matter to the atmosphere where the one ton of carbon comes from - whether it comes from Detroit or whether it comes from Lusaka it's still 1 tonne of carbon in the atmosphere.
- Do you think that the new US bill, if approved by the US Senate, can change significantly the
world emissions trade and it is there a danger of some protectionist measures?
Nick Leake: The new US bill in itself is not a global scheme of cap and trade and what we need to do is link the various schemes that exist - the EU emission trading scheme, what comes out
of the US and others into a global scheme, so that it can create the financial transfers that
we were talking about. So that the carbon emission can be cut where it's cheapest, most
economic and easiest to do so. So, it's a step in the right direction but it doesn't in itself
create a global cap and trade scheme.
- But given the fact that the former US government wasn't that open to climate change,
isn't that a significant progress?
Nick Leake: I think that the US under George Bush was often criticised but sometimes unfairly because although at a federal level the noise that came out of the federal government wasn't always encouraging for those of us that are looking to place climate changes as one of the
most important policies, if you look at what actually happened in the US in states like
California, which has one of the most advanced schemes for reducing their carbon emissions, it
was a lot going on. So, it's certainly good news that's been pulled together on federal level by
the new administration and the next stage is through Copenhagen and international processes we
can try and create something more global.
- The EU has agreed to cut its emissions by 30% by 2020 if there is a global agreement in
Copenhagen. Is that enough, since scientists recommend at least 40% cuts?
Nick Leake: Well, whether it's enough is a difficult question. What we think is that it's
important that the cuts are global cuts and are sufficient to limit the rising in global temperatures to about 2 degrees Celsius. We hope that this is enough. The science that suggests it probably is. But there's certainly risk margins in either direction that the science is not certain, the results are not certain, we can't say that if we continue emitting at this level we will have an exact temperature rise of 5.8 degrees. That's just impossible for us to do. We think that a 30% cut in the EU if much by similar cuts globally by the year 2020 is a big step in the right direction. Our own targets in the UK go out to 2050 and I suspect that globally we'll need to go beyond 2020 too.
- Bulgaria and some other new member states could be defined as emerging economies because of the problems they have to catch up with the old member states, especially now in the peak of the
crisis. Within the EU is it possible that some kind of additional help be given to them? For
example to make more investments in renewables, in clean installations etc.?
Nick Leake: Bulgaria certainly isn't an emerging market. I worked in the Commission for Africa before I came here and the difference in development in countries in Africa and countries
like Bulgaria is huge. So, Bulgaria is not an emerging market. However within the EU that is
exactly what the emissions trading scheme is designed to do - to make the cuts where it is
cheapest and economical to do so and if that is in Bulgaria, that's fantastic. I think Bulgaria
has real potential to produce renewable energy sources and as a European Union we have the
Research Framework programme which Bulgaria is also eligible for and should be looking to
benefit from. We have many many funding schemes already available and these funding schemes can certainly benefit Bulgaria and should benefit Bulgaria.
- The British Embassy in Bulgaria has a designated environment policy. Can you tell me
about it more in detail?
Nick Leake: We make little changes. We have something called an environmental monitoring system and what that means is that we've collected the data so we've worked out what our negative impact on the environment is and we looked to take action to reduce our impact
through the amount of energy we use the amount of carbon that we put into the environment through transport, the amount of water we use and our resources in waste. We are very short to be publishing our second annual report to show some very serious reductions in the amount of carbon. In terms of our resources and waste we calculated that we bought about 2,000 tonnes of paper last year but we managed to recycle 5,000 which shows how much comes to the embassy that we don't buy, as much as anything else. What we've done is we've identified where our impact is and we've identified a lot of little changes that we can make. People are focused on the fact that I cycle to work, people focus on the fact that the ambassador uses a hybrid car. I mean those are
nice touches for publicity but we make a lot small changes.
Things like setting the climate control throughout the embassy to the same temperature so that in 2 rooms the climate control isn't belting out heating in one room and air conditioning in the other to compete with each other. This makes a big difference. We will be connecting the ambassador's residence to the central heating system, rather than using oil which makes a big difference. There's lots of things that we can do and it's actually relatively easy, it's simple to do, it does make a big difference and it saves you money. So it's win-win-win solutions.
- Does the British government fund any environment projects in Bulgaria?
Nick Leake: In terms of bilateral funds we have less and less and this is because Britain makes
huge contributions to the EU - funds that come to Bulgaria. Just as an example - in the current
budgetary period (2007-2013) we think that the amount that Britain is paying - Britain alone is
paying to Bulgaria alone, is over 1 bn euros, which equates to roughly the annual cost of the
Foreign Office with all its embassies across the entire world. So, it's a big investment coming to
Bulgaria and we hope that a lot of that will be used for environment projects. In terms of what
we do is small funds. We run a little project last year to try to help provide information for
business about climate change as an opportunity for business which is certainly how we see it. We
think that the world will move to a low-carbon economy and those companies that make that move
earlier will have a significant competitive advantage.
- As a representative of a country that obviously pays significant attention to climate change, how do you find Bulgaria in this respect?
Nick Leake: Bulgaria makes a decent amount of energy already through renewables and there are opportunities for a lot more. Bulgaria has good hydro projects. Bulgaria agrees with us that
nuclear energy is part of the mix, not the solution that we're looking for and there are
companies in Bulgaria that are interested in growing crops for energy. There's a lot of spare
land which can be used for that. The scope for wind energy, the scope for solar energy - you
know it's an exciting area for policy in Bulgaria cause this is where you could play a lead. I'm
confident that the government will see these opportunities and Bulgaria will look to benefit
- But isn't it expensive to be green these days? Some experts say that the
transformation to green economy would cost a lot of jobs and some business might not manage in
reaching the standards, especially in times of a crisis.
Nick Leake: 880,000 people in the UK work in this area and the sector already costs some 4 trillion euro globally because it creates a hell of lot jobs. And these are the jobs of the real future.
I think that at a time of recession you have to look for which are the areas which will lead the
world out of recession, which are the new technologies that people will be demanding and we
certainly think that low-carbon technologies and the low-carbon economy will be the power house of next period of growth as we come out of the recession. So, this is the right time to be
getting involved in it and I certainly don't think that it is somehow policies against climate
change that cause job losses. I just don't think that's true.
I think there are far more and far better jobs created in the low-carbon economy than those that, at a margin, under the cap and trade scheme may be lost, because companies that will suffer under the cap and trade scheme are inefficient. These companies are using old technologies and, in fact, prolonging those companies is not only bad for the environment but we're losing out on the new jobs in much more efficient technologies that the replacement factories or replacement power stations can produce. I visited Maritsa power station down in Stara Zagora and the new Maritsa power stations are far far more efficient and far far more effective than the old ones. And the Bulgarian government wants to have Maritsa as one of the sites for carbon capture and storage test site and that's fantastic. That's an excellent example of a new build with new technologies, driving
growth as we come out of the recession.
- Yes, but in the same time there are a lot of old factories in Bulgaria which need to invest
more so as to be more efficient and this would make their production even more uncompetitive.
Nick Leake: I would argue that they are already uncompetitive. The older factories are not competitive not because of the amount of carbon dioxide that goes in the atmosphere or not only because of that but because of the cost of producing. And that's market economics. I think that blaming climate change is just not correct. I mean, an old and inefficient factory is an old and inefficient factory and a new and more efficient factory will always be more
competitive, that's a fact of life.
- It sounds so easy when you explain it but it might take quite a lot of time I guess?
Nick Leake: When I was in Maritsa recently we were talking about how long will it take for a
carbon capture and storage to become standard in new build coal fired power stations across Europe
or across the world, and they thought that was about 15 years which fair enough. And I said to
them while we were looking at their beautiful system for what's called flue-gas-desulphurisation, how long ago you would have told me that this is an impossible technology that does not emit sulphur dioxide to the atmosphere and they said about 10 years. So, technology does move quickly when we support it as governments, when we support it as industries, when we support it as individuals. And it's amazing how creative and innovative the world is. I think that the world because of the availability of fossil fuels has been lazy and we haven't developed these new technologies when we relied on oil and coal and gas.
- But it would be very interesting what those countries that have plenty of fossil fuels will
do after renewable energy prevails?
Nick Leake: I don't think we're gonna ever stop using fossil fuels. We're talking about having a more sensible energy mix, we're talking about burning it in a cleaner way. We think that, for
example with coal, there is a lot of potential for carbon capture and storage which will make
coal very effective and very clean fuel into the future. We're not there yet, we need to develop
that technology but we need to understand that technology and create the incentive for the
industry to invest in it and that's what cap and trade schemes do. I mean that if you invest in
these technologies, the energy that you produce is a lot cheaper. You still use coal but the
energy that you produce is a lot cheaper because you haven't got to pay for you carbon credits.
Thus, with optimism and with eyes in the future my conversation with the British deputy Head of Mission in Sofia H.E. Nick Leake ended. What's left is life to prove that we have really reached the turning point and start thinking and working more ecologically and with eyes in the future.