John Ashton pulls no punches in climate arena


The retirement of a British civil servant often has something in common with the schoolboy released into the playground, bursting to shout out all the words suppressed by teacher in the classroom.

John Ashton ©SOAS

John Ashton ©SOAS

Since July last year, John Ashton, CBE, has embarked on a flurry of speaking engagements and media contributions. As former Special Representative for Climate Change to three successive Foreign Secretaries, his thoughts are hot off the press, admirably forthright and worthy of attention.

The retired diplomat has told the Koreans to grow up and commit to an emissions target. In Tokyo he suggested that the Japanese should stop behaving like Hamlet. And, in so many words, Ashton informed an academic audience in Arizona that America is losing its soul.

At home, Ashton has advised some of the world’s leading climate scientists to get their act together on the politics of climate change. He encouraged young students in Bedford to draw inspiration from the Occupy movement.

John Ashton has an unusual résumé. Abandoning an exotic early career as a Cambridge astronomer, he forged his craft in the bowels of the Foreign Office. The scientific training made its unexpected comeback in the latter part of his career, culminating in the first recognition in the British honours system for “services to international climate change.”

For good measure, Ashton speaks Mandarin and claims 30,000 followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter – “a very small number there,” he observed in his revealing valedictory evidence to the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee.

We should be grateful that he has so far resisted the revolving door of corporate sinecures that are without doubt stuffed in his back pocket. Now describing himself as “an independent commentator and adviser on the politics of climate change,” Ashton has clearly invested time in crafting his speeches. I’ve tried to pull together the recurring observations from those that I’ve read:

  • The 2008 banking and economic collapse ended all credibility of free market ideology and casino finance but politicians and their electorates remain in denial
  • The stress on food, water and energy systems accelerated by climate change represents the new systemic risk to global security and prosperity
  • Power is controlled by default by political and business elites whose interests lie in the status quo
  • Pleas that economic recovery can only be secured through conventional fossil-fuelled growth are clinging to the wreckage of an obsolete model and will fail.
  • Developed countries must rapidly decarbonise their power generation and electrify all transport and heating. Transformation on this scale requires a revival of the post-1945 shared resolve to build a better world.
  • China, Germany and Korea lead the way in low carbon competitiveness;
  • Don’t blame the negotiators for the impasse in UN climate negotiations. They are hidebound by their political bosses back home.
  • National delegations have no leverage in negotiations unless their own countries walk the talk. The UK is losing ground in this regard.
  • The unlikely prospect of the US Senate ever ratifying any international agreement to limit US emissions casts a dark shadow over the promise of the Obama/Kerry partnership.

The gaping hole in these reflections is the special predicament of the poorest countries and the current failure of UN climate negotiations to interpret the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. How should the burden of emissions reductions be shared and how should the cost of climate action in the poorest countries be reimbursed? There can be no international agreement without answers to these questions.

It was telling that the only mention of these issues that I could find in John Ashton’s material – a brief reference to the decision to locate the Green Climate Fund in Korea – makes the error of stating the amount of promised climate finance to be $100 million per annum, instead of $100 billion.

Ashton must have been deeply involved in the climate justice dimension – why does he leave it out? Presentations scheduled later this month at RSA and SOAS offer the chance to rectify the omission.

I’ve embedded below the text of the Arizona speech, in preference to the YouTube recording (46.00-57.30) which portrays John Ashton as a poor speaker. This may have been on account of the rather un-British culture of that conference or it may simply reflect the Foreign Office tradition that its cadres should write beautifully but keep their mouths shut, in deference to their political masters.

Other speeches are posted in the news archive of E3G, the climate advisory group co-founded by Ashton. RTCC also posts this material, having engaged Ashton for a monthly q&a session with its readers.

Heikki Holmås enters inner sanctum of UN energy initiative


Appointments to the governing bodies of the UN’s Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) initiative announced by the Secretary-General on April 19th are unlikely to silence longstanding criticisms of the governance structure.

In a sprawling list of 47 names, only that of Heikki Holmås, the Norwegian Minister of International Development, caught my attention. The American establishment dominance of SE4ALL’s Executive Committee may be disconcerted by the new arrival, described as a former “waste collection worker” and now a driving force of one of the most left-wing parties represented in European government, with form as a critic of US society.

Heikki Holmås, Minister of International Development, Norway ©IISD Reporting Services

Heikki Holmås, Minister of International Development, Norway ©IISD Reporting Services

I recognised the name rather more as a minister who has quickly made his mark, having succeeded the long-serving Erik Solheim last year. The speech given by Holmås at last year’s London Summit on Family Planning was one of the best of its type that I’ve heard. And in hosting a high level meeting on Energy and the post-2015 Development Agenda in Oslo earlier this month, he made a serious attempt to transform the tired conference format into something interesting and telegenic (not entirely successfully).

SE4ALL is a bold initiative led by the UN Secretary-General which seeks to force the pace on the scourge of energy poverty. It sets a target to provide universal access to electricity and safe cooking facilities by 2030, alongside further goals relating to global energy efficiency and the use of renewable technologies. This vision is a strong candidate for inclusion in the new range of post-2015 sustainable development goals currently under debate.

Governance criticisms came to a head at last year’s Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development when SE4ALL featured as the lead case study in the Friends of the Earth investigation, Reclaim the UN from corporate capture. It described the UN’s High-level Group for SE4ALL as “an unaccountable, handpicked group, dominated by representatives of multinational corporations and fossil fuel interests, virtually without any involvement from or consultation with global civil society.” Only 4 of the 35 members of the Group were women.

Ban Ki-moon has responded with a more balanced selection but also by further distancing the high-level group, now called the Advisory Board, from the day-to-day work of the initiative. Co-chaired by Ban himself and Dr Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, this Board has 36 members. It’s difficult to conceive a coordinated role for these senior figures, other than as powerful advocates for the cause.

Attention therefore focuses more on a new inner Executive Committee which will supervise the activities of Kandeh Yumkella, now appointed as the full-time chief executive of the initiative.

This Committee’s profile is unconvincing. Only two of the eleven members are women. The interest of traditional energy corporations continues to be represented by Shell and Eskom. Apart from the Eskom CEO, Africa has no voice, nor does Southeast and East Asia, the world’s most dynamic economic region.

The two representatives of civil society, The Energy and Resources Institute and the World Resources Institute, are organisations renowned for research, rather than the grassroots experience of implementing programmes in poor communities.

The inclusion of Heikki Holmås to this inner group may have been compelled by force of credentials. The Norwegians have been right behind the Secretary-General’s energy initiative from the outset, hosting a pivotal conference in October 2011 at which the prime minister launched Norway’s own programme, the International Energy and Climate Initiative (Energy+).

Energy+ broadly replicates the approach of SE4ALL in pursuing the goal of universal access to energy. Norway’s 2013 aid budget includes a figure approaching $350 million for the Energy+ programme. This is serious and near-term money, unlike the vaguely articulated promises of public-private partnerships that proliferated at the Rio+20 event.

Norway’s Energy+ initiative is important not just for its budget but for its “guiding principles”. These preclude support for new fossil fuel developments, despite Norway’s own ambiguous position as a major oil producer. Referring to the 1.3 billion people without access to electricity in a speech earlier this month, Heikki Holmås said: “the reality of climate change means that this increase in energy production should be in the form of renewable energy.”

This position – which is shared with considerable passion by most environmental NGOs – conflicts with the Rio+20 outcome document and may be at odds with other members of the SE4ALL Executive Committee. The World Bank, represented by Rachel Kyte, in particular has been grappling with the dilemma of financing coal and gas projects for grid extension in poor countries.

Much may depend on the interpersonal dynamics within the new group. I couldn’t help noticing that eight of the eleven members of the Executive Committee either work in the US or possess a higher degree from a US university. Make that nine out of twelve if you include the chief executive, Kandeh Yumkella.

Heikki Holmås did venture into an American university a couple of weeks ago, his speech on inequality to students at New York University amounting to a bold manifesto on the challenge of global poverty.

He also informed the students that: “the American dream is dying in the US, but it is still alive and kicking in Norway.”


Heikki Holmås announces Norway’s commitment to family planning at the 2012 London Summit.

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UN Secretary-General and World Bank President name Sustainable Energy For All advisory board members

Mini-bios of SE4ALL Executive Board members (scroll to page 13)

Energy+: Questions and Answers from Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

World Bank vision tested by Dhaka factory disaster


The worst industrial accident in the history of Bangladesh has highlighted the scale of internal culture change necessary to legitimise the World Bank’s new goal to eliminate global poverty by 2030.

Ten days before the disaster, the Bank published its Bangladesh Development Update, recommending that 40,000 acres of land should be requisitioned to enable an exponential increase in the country’s Special Economic Zones. It endorses the transfer of these Zones from state to private ownership in order to reduce both the red tape of bureaucracy and the labour rigidity which creates “difficulties in hiring, firing, and training.”

The Rana Plaza building that collapsed on Wednesday with the loss of hundreds of lives is located in the Savar Export Processing Zone, one of the state-owned predecessors of Special Economic Zones. (CORRECTION 2nd May: the Rana Plaza is located in the same district – Savar – as the Dhaka EPZ)

Produced by the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction and Economic Management team for South Asia, the message of the Development Update is straightforward. “Bangladesh could become ‘the next China’…. with their wages being five times lower than their Chinese counterparts.”

Fertility rate: a real poverty reduction indicator

Fertility rate: a real poverty reduction indicator
Source: Population Reference Bureau

Notes about poverty reduction in the report are overwhelmed by its conventional macro-economic analysis, reminiscent of the findings of an annual IMF visit.

The Update fully acknowledges that the reputational risk of poor factory conditions in the garment sector in Bangladesh may deter foreign investors. But it offers no recommendations for action. Nor does it demonstrate any understanding of the knock-on effects of land acquisition for industrial development in a country striving to protect its food security on an ever-decreasing inventory of arable land.

All of this would be perfectly legitimate were it not for the fact that, over the last three weeks, the Bank’s publicity machine has pulled out all the stops in a rebranding exercise. The rather vague World Bank mission to reduce global poverty is to be ratcheted up to eliminate poverty, complete with a quantitative target.

The starting gun was fired in the April 2nd Georgetown University speech by World Bank president, Dr Jim Yong Kim. Under the heading “Within Our Grasp: A World Free of Poverty,” Dr Kim proposed “a common vision for the World Bank group” in which global poverty will be reduced to 3% by 2030.

This common vision goes further in identifying climate change unequivocally as the biggest risk to achieving the goal. “Climate change is not just an environmental challenge. It’s a fundamental threat to economic development and the fight against poverty,” said Dr Kim in an interview after his speech.

These radical ambitions were approved by the Joint Development Committee of the Bank and the IMF at the Washington spring meeting last Saturday. A strategy to deliver the new goals will be put to the World Bank board at its October annual meeting.

A good start for strategy planning might be to rewrite the Bangladesh Development Update with the new “common vision” governing the content.

Two fundamental changes will be needed. First, that the Herculean task of reducing poverty from over 30% to 3% by 2030 in Bangladesh can be achieved only by putting poverty policies at the top of the agenda; economic growth is necessary but insufficient to deliver a goal to eliminate poverty.

Second, that the impact of climate change is not just the biggest threat to poverty reduction in Bangladesh; for a significant percentage of the land mass, it’s an existential threat. The capital city of Dhaka is ranked as the world’s most vulnerable city in the 2013 Climate Change Risk Atlas published by Maplecroft.

A rewritten report might therefore question why the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics suppressed the key indicator for hunger in publishing the results of its 2010 Household Survey. It would challenge whether government spending on social safety net programmes – a subject ignored in the original – should be more ambitious that the current target of 3% of GDP by 2014.

It would quantify the reduction in conventional growth brought about by the impact of climate change, estimate the cost of adaptation and speculate on who might foot the bill. It would contemplate the astronomic cost of extreme weather events, challenging international climate negotiators meeting in Bonn next week to get cracking with the idea of an international mechanism on loss and damage.

And, yes, the expansion of Special Economic Zones might feature as a means for providing decent work and a dignified path for displacement from the rural economy – subject of course to identifying the social and environmental impacts of land conversion. And the memory of those who died in the Rana Plaza will be honoured only through employment regulations which put people first, and profits second.

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Bangladesh Development Update, April 2013 from World Bank Poverty Reduction and Economic Management team for South Asia

World Bank Group President Calls for a World Free of Poverty

Bangladesh briefings

Global Poverty briefings

Carbon bubble blown away by stock markets


After weeks of feinting with the pundits, the S&P 500 stock market index finally surged to its all-time record last Wednesday. The moment was symbolic, as the previous high, recorded in October 2007, marked the end of innocence of toxic banking. Many in the financial services industry will sense a return to the halcyon days when investment charts headed relentlessly towards the top right hand corner.

So much for the carbon bubble, the fetching idea that declared reserves of fossil fuel companies, so important to their share price, are destined to become stranded or sub-prime assets. This inference of overvalued markets draws on expert opinion, led by the International Energy Agency, that most of these reserves need to stay in the ground if dangerous global warming is to be avoided.

Since the touchstone report Unburnable Carbon – Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble? was published just over a year ago by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, many influential voices have supported its hypothesis.

The leading climate change economist, Lord Stern, referred to the “fundamental contradiction between current valuation methods and declared world climate policy” in his recent speech at the IMF. And the green philanthropist, Jeremy Grantham, admired on Wall Street for his track record of anticipating stock market upsets, was reported by the Guardian last week as stating that “the carbon bubble is the biggest he’s seen.”

Ironically, Grantham himself perfectly represents the gap between talking and walking the carbon bubble. The massive GMO investment funds under his direction continue to hold conventional assets in the oil and gas sector.

We have to recognise the reality here. The idea that political action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions might be sufficiently tough to strand oil and gas assets in the ground is treated as a joke by thriving world stock markets.

Evidence against the carbon bubble theory is in plentiful supply. ExxonMobil enjoys a Triple-A credit rating, superior to that of the United States government.

Thirty year corporate bonds issued by the oil and gas sector continue to be favoured by investors who see nothing incongruous at the prospect of drilling-as-usual in the 2040’s. The UK Oil and Gas strategy, published by the government last month, makes no bones about its goal “to ensure that the productive life of (North Sea Oil) stretches out beyond 2050.” New government subsidies support this ambition.

Why is mainstream investment analysis failing so utterly to understand the implications of global warming?  I posted here in February suggesting that the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s estimate of the safe carbon budget for the private sector was over-generous. This may in part have contributed to the timid conclusion of the otherwise welcome response by Standard and Poor’s Rating Services, What A Carbon-Constrained Future Could Mean For Oil Companies’ Creditworthiness.

Whilst acknowledging grounds for change in their metrics, the analysis decreed that the method of rating major oil companies can be regarded as sound at least until 2016-2017.

There’s a more fundamental weakness of these studies which may allow wriggle-room for the investment analysts. They both treat climate change as the only blindspot of modern economics.

Yet scientists increasingly refer to broader global environmental change, the damage to critical ecosystems brought about by the loss of biodiversity, pollution of the oceans and disruption of natural cycles of water, nitrogen and phosphorus. It’s not just the fossil fuel companies that are overvalued through ignorance of so-called externalities.

Remember those excuses offered by economists and investment analysts for their failure to spot the stock market bubble back in 2007? As experts in their narrowly allotted fields, they protested their inability to assess the bigger picture. Do we likewise have too many climate specialists, unable to hook up their models with other planetary stresses?

The UK now has a Financial Policy Committee dedicated to identifying systemic issues that threaten the whole financial system. Not unreasonably, the folks at the Carbon Tracker Initiative have argued that this Committee “must urgently address the carbon bubble.” Perhaps such demands would carry greater weight if framed by an equivalent systemic environmental watchdog.

Markets are going to be talked up over coming weeks in the euphoria of the S&P500 record. I recall a favourite tip from the easy-going days of the old London Stock Exchange. “Sell in May and go away” provided cover for gentlemanly stockbrokers to spend their summers enjoying corporate hospitality at Wimbledon and Ascot.

These days I wonder whether the old adage should be amended a little: “sell in May and stay away.”

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What A Carbon-Constrained Future Could Mean For Oil Companies’ Creditworthiness from Standard and Poor’s Ratings Services

Unburnable Carbon – from Carbon Tracker Initiative

Jeremy Grantham, environmental philanthropist – Guardian interview

Climate Justice briefings

Lord Stern makes mischief for climate finance ministerial


For the conspiracy theorist, there’s just a hint of mischief lurking in the depths of Lord Stern’s wide-ranging climate speech at the IMF last week. It concerns his namesake, Todd Stern, US special envoy for climate change.

The Washington-based Stern has a real problem on his hands as host of a two-day “ministerial meeting on mobilizing climate finance” which starts on Wednesday. In a January speech he acknowledged that “there will be enormous pressure on donor countries to show that they are taking their 2009 pledge to a goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020 seriously.”

His problem is that the numbers don’t add up. There aren’t even any numbers to perform an addition.

Lord Stern confided in his speech that he’d had a “long discussion” with Secretary of State, John Kerry, Todd Stern’s boss, on the evening before. So we have a possible connection.

Coverage of the IMF speech has focused on Lord Stern’s technical criticism of economic and scientific modelling of climate change, balanced by his positive suggestion that 2013 presents a rare window of political opportunity for action.

There was one curious digression in his section on policy. “We must be very careful to think of development, mitigation and adaptation as bound up together. Sometimes they get separated out….. that’s a logical and a policy mistake of great magnitude,” he said.

Stern is surely aware of the scale of administrative effort within developing country ministries and international aid agencies that strains every sinew to separate out development, mitigation and adaptation. They do so in order to monitor promises of climate finance. These promises concern the additionality of climate finance and its adaptation component.

How the donor ministers meeting in Washington would love to brand this endeavour as “a policy mistake of great magnitude.” Hey, let’s just declare all foreign aid for poverty reduction to be climate finance. Let’s not worry too much that the private sector won’t touch adaptation programmes.

That does sound far-fetched but time is running out for the donors to persuade developing countries to cooperate in negotiating a new climate agreement for 2015.

There is no roadmap for the $100 billion pledge. Aid budgets are stagnant. The suggestion of taxes on aviation, shipping or financial transactions has been hijacked by exchequers who have no intention of earmarking proceeds for foreign fields. Ministers have resorted to bleating promises of public-private partnerships which have at best a limited role where it really matters.

They need only note the hole in US public finances created by the weird weather of 2012.

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US climate finance meeting ‘needs to deliver plan’ from RTCC

Fostering Growth and Poverty Reduction in a World of Immense Risk – Lord Stern’s presentation, hosted by WRI and IMF (see slide 25)

⇒ more posts about climate finance

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