Eternal Optimism in the Era of Climate Change

An evening with John Carstensen and BEI’s Climate Change Working Group

On Tuesday 28th February we were delighted to host our second Climate Change Networking evening, with this now becoming a regular quarterly event. We were joined by a broad range of attendees, representing a diverse range of organisations exporting climate adaptation and resilience services, from innovative SMEs to larger organisations.

We were honoured to host John Carstensen as our keynote speaker, the Climate Resilience Lead for  Africa, South Asia and the Middle East at Mott MacDonald. John has over 30 years’ experience in the climate field, perhaps most notably having represented the Danish Government as part of the cohort that created the landmark Montreal Protocol in 1987, to protect the Earth’s ozone layer by phasing out the chemicals that deplete it.

The Montreal Protocol is still one of the most important and successful international climate agreements to date, and as someone who has only studied the effects of these agreements and learned about this period in my studies, it was incredible to be hearing about this all from first-hand experience. John shared some anecdotes from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) summits that created the Montreal Protocol, and we were treated to an insider’s view of what it was like to be part of something so monumental, and the zeitgeist of this time.

John’s main message centred around the reality that the 1.5 degree goal is now in reality a truly  unattainable target, a hard truth to swallow, but rather than a cause for dismay this brought a call for renewed vigour and action. Describing himself as an eternal optimist, as one must be within the climate spheres, he thoughtfully explained that in his opinion, the pace of change must be driven by industry.  

He made the argument that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC, which hosts the COP conferences) exists as a platform to create a paradigm for action, but there exists a misunderstanding within parts of industry and the third sector as to its function. Rather than being likely to set the pace of change required to ‘keep 1.5 alive’, the UNFCCC exists to agree upon the lowest common denominator for the global community to rally behind and to act as a baseline to surpass. The same is the case with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which conducts a systematic review of the past 6-7 years of climate change science. By its very nature, the IPCC is not presenting the latest science - and it is up to businesses to follow the latest science as it emerges rather than only looking at the IPCC’s conclusions. This was not a critique of the valuable work being undertaken, but a reminder that these assessments do not always represent the latest findings and the private sector must remain active in its efforts.

Setting the pace will not come from these multilateral processes but instead must come from industry, NGOs and community groups. It is industry that has the means and resources, as well as the financial imperative, to help pave the way for change, and the cost of inaction will be much higher than investing to transform the most carbon-hungry industries now.

Alongside this, John explained, there is the need for concerted global efforts with shared, but differentiated responsibilities, and this is as important today as it was back in 1987. The solutions lie in a fundamental shift within the most carbon-intensive industries such as construction, energy and transportation - as the global economy continues to rely heavily massively on steel, cement and fossil fuels. Whilst there is already a lot of focus on new solutions, governments and businesses should bring greater focus on retrofit and adaptation.

John recounted how “all too often we see attention focused only on mitigation efforts in the least developed countries”, which is of course is necessary and must continue, but it must not supersede the fact that developed economies need to make a critical effort to decarbonise their own economies in tandem with these other efforts - to lead by example, so to speak. The technical solutions for the climate crisis must be directed by positive social outcomes, particularly by addressing poverty and social injustices. To finish off, John expressed his confidence that the UK – alongside its responsibility – will play an integral role in delivering climate justice.

There was an overarching air of optimism in the room during the networking session following John’s keynote, and we are honoured to work with organisations that are leading the charge in making a tangible change across all aspects of infrastructure. The reception was buzzing with energy as members from across the climate change remediation space - from transport, energy, innovation, to policy, advocacy, government and finance – all embraced the change we are all trying to be in the world.

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