Fighting against the fossil fuel industry is something campaigner Jeremy Leggett has been doing for many years with his work in social enterprise, charity, business, lobbying, and activism at Greenpeace. He has won some battles lost others but despite the challenges remains optimistic about the future of the energy industry and our planet, which lies with renewable, green and community energy resources.
His fifth book The Winning of the Carbon War is a compelling and highly personal account of the past two years in climate politics, a fast paced thriller that explores the main themes – the carbon bubble, the price of oil, fracking, the renewable energy revolution and international climate change politics, and explains what’s really been going on behind the scenes. Beginning in 2013 when “something changed… and the tide began to turn” he explains why the fossil fuel industry is on borrowed time and talks about the three mega-trends that will lead to its downfall. His approach to the publishing process is innovative – since March 2015 he has been publishing a chapter at the beginning of each month, available for free download on his website, to build a picture of the carbon war in the build up to the Paris Climate Talks, which started on 30th November. He will release the final chapter after the talks and a printed version of the book (“edited by people power”) is now available to pre-order online.
From my position as an outsider to the industry, a journalist with an interest in health and current affairs I found it entertaining, informative and almost impossible to put down, like a James Bond adventure it puts you at the heart of the action in the main theatres of the carbon war – US, China, Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Africa – in solar factories, the Bank of England, World Economics Forum, Occupy camp in London and at various summits, private meetings and conferences. It’s a real eye opener and a colourful read that makes a complex subject easy to digest.
Jeremy has a unique insight as someone who has been on both sides of the fence – a former oil geologist, he switched to campaigning and solar work when he realised what was happening to the planet, firstly setting up his own company, Solarcentury, the UK’s largest solar electricity company to prove that green technology can work followed by SolarAid, an international charity which invests in solar lights for Africa (5% of Solarcentury’s profits go to SolarAid). He is also chairman of Carbon Tracker, a think tank to help shift global finance away from fossil fuels.
Reading the book has brought me up to speed with what’s been happening in the energy world over the past 25 years, why we’re in the mess we’re in after persistently “clinging to coal, oil and gas” and feeling excited and hopeful about the COP 21 talks in Paris and new community energy ventures, which are happening throughout the world and locally in Balcombe, East Sussex, and through organisations like Energise Sussex Coast and Transition Town Hastings, which are challenging the big players. I have invited Jeremy to Hastings to speak about his new book and am thrilled that he’s accepted, as he has local connections and went to school here.
The Winning of The Carbon War is a novel approach to a book on climate change and energy politics in that it’s not dry and academic. It’s written completely from his first hand perspective and reads like a diary of his life in lobbying from the last two years. It’s like a House of Cards for energy and climate politics (except these things really happened!) and puts me in mind of Erin Brockovich and The Insider about tobacco industry whistleblower Jeremy Wigand. I’ve read some shocking news stories about unsafe practices and payoffs by fracking companies that want to keep residents quiet about the effects of their work on the local community.
“The aim has been to get as many more people to feel informed about the drama as it unfolds, helping people to be aware of the issues and ready to exert pressure – within their sphere of influence – for a good outcome in Paris.” He’s done a fantastic job and presents a vision and some answers as to how we can create a sustainable future for our planet. I’ve passed it on to friends and a colleague who works in the field who read it one sitting. He said “you just have to find out what happens next…”
So what are the three emerging mega-trends he’s talking about? From 2013 to 2015 there were several events that helped move the arguments forward in favour of community and solar energy, which are driving the energy revolution:
1. The falling cost of renewable energy. There’s been a big drop in terms of electricity and transport e.g. battery use in electric vehicles and other innovative ventures like the Bristol poo bus, which challenge the business model of utility, oil and gas companies and shows alternative ways. Iconic brands like Apple and IKEA are investing in solar with Apple announcing plans to mass-produce electric cars. In 2013 renewable energy generation overtook fossil fuels and nuclear installations globally.
2. The rising cost of delivering hydrocarbons. Last year saw the highest spending by oil and gas companies yet the lowest rate of discovery of new reserves in 20 years. The cost of producing gas and oil is much higher than companies can sell it at which makes investors nervous and likely to disinvest. In the US, WBH Energy, a shale gas and oil producer in Texas has gone bankrupt, which doesn’t bode well for other fracking companies.
In September 2014 the heirs of the Rockefeller oil fortune withdrew their funds from fossil fuel investment, as part of a wider divestment of £50bn by 800 global investors over the next five years. A huge and significant step given that their fortune was founded on oil. E.ON, Germany’s biggest utility company has also done a u-turn on its business plan to focus on green energy, which has had a big impact on the rest of the industry. Shell initially said its Alaskan arctic projects were good value for money, but backtracked in September and abandoned the project. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England has also warned that climate change may lead to financial crises and falling living standards unless we do more regarding current and future carbon emissions.
3. Social and political change. The general mood is one of change and sustainability. We care about the future of the planet and the air our children breathe. More than 100 countries have the target to reach zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which should stabilise global warming below the 2 degrees centigrade cap that governments have pledged to deliver. Given the failure of 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen to reach a formal agreement there’s an urgency to make sure this doesn’t happen again in 2015. China and the US have agreed to limit carbon emissions, which has further boosted the cause. China has agreed to cap its carbon output by 2030 and will focus on generating its energy needs using clean energy like solar and wind. Candidates with strong climate change policies are being favoured in elections. Newly elected Canadian PM Justin Trudeau has been using the bus to travel to various engagements and will want to put his country’s stamp on things at the climate summit in Paris this month.
Jeremy will publish his final chapter after the Paris talks and says he’s realistic about their outcome. We could fail to reach an agreement again although there have been several key developments since 2009 and this time leaders from various countries have been invited to attend the entire conference rather than the final few days, which sets a precedent. We recognise that it’s important we reach an agreement regarding target emissions this time round.
Reading the book has created a sense of momentum for change and helped me to feel more involved in what’s been going on. I’m looking forward to hearing the outcome of the talks. Jeremy presents a convincing argument that we can and will win the carbon war – it really is common sense and a matter of time…