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Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth.
Rosamund Pearce/Carbon Brief
16 September 2015 15:30

The Carbon Brief Interview: Craig Bennett

Leo Hickman


Leo Hickman

16.09.2015 | 3:30pm
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Craig Bennett

Bennett is the new chief executive of Friends of the Earth, having taken up the role in July. Previously, he was the policy and campaigns director at the environmental charity, where he has worked since 1999, as well as the director of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change. He is a senior associate at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, where he was once the deputy director.

Bennett on fracking for shale gas: “I genuinely believe by trying to take us down this line this government is making a catastrophic error for the future prosperity of the United Kingdom.”

On nuclear power: “I think the evidence is really clear now: nuclear gets in the way of some of these other alternatives, including demand-reduction energy efficiency as well.”

On the Conservatives: “For some reason, the Conservative Party’s got stuck in a place, stuck in the past, where it now seems conservative with a small ‘c’ about no change in our energy system.”

On biofuels: “I think in the biofuel story there’s a real lesson for environmentalists, but also for people that are obsessed with climate change…but if you look at climate change just through the lens of climate change, without, say looking at biodiversity angles as well, you often can get the wrong solutions.”

On inertia: “The biggest problem we face, across all of these sustainability issues at the moment, is inertia. Industrial and economic and cultural inertia. And that is what’s holding progress back.”

On the Paris climate conference: “Paris is not going to deliver a global deal that is going to deliver anything like what is required by what the science says is necessary…Without question, according to any kind of scientific assessment, it will fail.”

On campaigning for the 1.5C target, rather than 2C: “I think from either a justice point of view or a pragmatic point of view, it would be wrong somehow to give up on 1.5C.”


Leo Hickman for Carbon Brief: Let’s begin with the topical issue of the day. So early today you were on the Today programme involved in a debate with Bryony Worthington over the carbon benefits, or otherwise, of shale gas and fracking. More widely, this issue about the environmental benefits, or otherwise, of fracking are being portrayed as a kind of pragmatism versus idealism. Is that a fair description of this debate?

Craig Bennett: I think the debate is one of pragmatism versus idealism and I think the pragmatism is more on the side of the organisations and communities opposing shale gas. I think it is absolutely fair to say that George Osborne and other advocates of shale gas in the UK, they are the ones with the extraordinary ideology behind this. I mean look at what they’ve done with the evidence here. I mean they’ve looked at the US experience and they’ve looked at it very simplistically and thinking you can kind of cut and paste that experience into the UK – even though in the UK we have very different geology, we have much higher population densities, we have very different kind of regulatory frameworks, but, perhaps most importantly, we have the Climate Change Act, we have the Committee on Climate Change [CCC] with their recommendations about decarbonising our power sector by 2030, and we have a very different energy market, where we trade our gas, we buy our gas on the international market really for the cheapest price. And so it’s deeply naive for George Osborne and other advocates of shale gas to think that just because it had a certain impact in the United States, that it would have the same impact here, or that there would be many more problems associated with shale gas here in the UK. Which is not to say that there haven’t been problems with shale gas in the US as well; there have been, which I think have been pretty well documented. So I think actually the ideology is very much on the side of those who are advocating shale gas that are stuck in a ideology of the past, of the 1970s and 1980s, where we’ve been addicted to fossil fuels and they think the only future is fossil fuels. I find it really fascinating that often those commentators and politicians that talk about, “hey, we’re in an energy crisis and we’ve got to do something about it”, you know, let’s be clear, this country has prioritised oil, gas, coal and nuclear over the last five decades, and pampered those sectors like no other sectors across the business community. And yet after doing that – after pampering those fossil fuel and nuclear sectors for five, six, in some cases, seven decades, with sometimes extraordinary subsidies and all kinds of bailouts and supports in other kinds of ways – you have commentators saying we’re facing an energy crisis and their solution is to carry on pampering gas, coal and nuclear for decades ahead. Why do they think that’s going to lead to a different outcome? If we’re going to move away from so-called energy crises, to real proper energy security, and deal with climate change, and move to a stable low-carbon future that’s also prosperous for the UK and delivers all kinds of other advantages and health advantages as well, that means we’ve got to kick our addiction to fossil fuels, and move on. And that represents real progress for humanity, not stuck in the past.

LH: So, as you said – and the CCC and others – there’s a very tight window arguably for gas, whether it’s shale or LNG, or whatever it may be, for gas in this country, to hit the 2050 and 2030 carbon budget pathways and we’ve got to get off gas by, or move rapidly off gas, by the late 2020s or early 2030s. Is there not an opportunity to go for it for, say, 5-10 years,? Or are we locking ourselves in by building all this infrastructure to building fracking rigs etc. and then obviously committing to having gas-powered turbines? So there are the power arguments, that tightness, but then there’s also, which I think Bryony Worthington raised, the heat argument: we need gas for heat. How do you differentiate between the tightness of this window and the dual roles: the heat role for gas and then the power role?

CB: Well, it’s absolutely right to say that timing is everything on this issue really. So the CCC is being very clear that we really need to have got out of gas by 2030. And that means gas needs to be declining quite steeply in the late 2020s. Now let’s be clear, of course, we see a role for gas over the next decade or so. We’re not expecting that suddenly lots of boilers in people’s homes up and down the country are going to suddenly change overnight. That would be crazy. And we’ve said time and time again that we see a role for gas. But even people in shale gas, even advocates of shale gas, have said to me that the most shale gas can do, or the quickest really that shale gas, even with a fair wind, even if there was no public opposition to it, can do, can make any real difference to our energy market in this country, is by the mid-2020s. It’s not really going to make any difference before then. And here’s the difference: in the United States there was a big, established onshore drilling industry already there. Anyone who grew up watching Dallas knows that. They have that big onshore drilling industry. We’ve had a bit of onshore drilling here in the UK, but nothing like that. So here in the UK to have shale gas happening at the kind of scale that would be needed to make any difference to our energy supply, or indeed to gas prices, we’d need to be seeing thousands of wells being drilled. I mean Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist, I seem to recall him saying it would be about 2,000 wells drilled every year for a decade, through the 2020s to make any difference.

Now, if it’s going to take that long, then actually that means shale gas would start to climb at just the moment that the CCC says it needs to be falling. So that’s what doesn’t add up. But, of course, George Osborne would have us believe, and several newspapers would have us believe, that if we just went for shale gas, if there wasn’t public opposition, that somehow it could be up and running by Christmas. It’s ludicrous. If you actually understand how long it would take for this industry to be doing anything at scale, that’s when you see that it doesn’t match up with the CCC recommendations to decarbonise the power sector by 2030, it doesn’t match up with our carbon targets. And then, you know the point is, there’s also been reports that have said very clearly, that we need to be getting out by 2030 even if you had carbon capture and storage [CCS]. If you don’t have CCS, you need to be really getting out of it by 2025. Now, Friends of the Earth, we haven’t been strongly opposed to CCS. We certainly see there’s a role for it in industrial processes. There’s really been no opposition to CCS in the UK for over a decade now. I don’t really know of any main groups campaigning against it. There’s been a billion quid on offer from the UK taxpayer for it to happen. There’s been a massive fossil fuel lobby behind it, and it still hasn’t happened. If it doesn’t happen in that context, you have to really start wondering is it a chimera, and it’s really dangerous, I think, and naive, to assume that you’ll have shale gas on the assumption that you’re going to get CCS. Because what if it doesn’t deliver? Then you’re locked into a whole new generation of fossil fuel infrastructure. And it’s very hard to believe that big companies that have invested hundreds of millions in building that infrastructure are going to be happy for it not to be used when suddenly we get to 2030.

LH: What is the impact, both in the short-term and mid- to longer-term, of what’s happening with commodity prices, with oil and gas prices in particular at the moment? I think everyone’s been – compared to what they might have been last year – a bit surprised by where they’ve ended up being. How does that rejig the landscape in terms of thinking forward over the next decade? Does it undermine or sort of nurture the shale gas argument? How is this going to play out, in your view, with the volatility, but that low-balling of pricing at the moment?

CB: It’s a very interesting one, because I think historically environmentalists have thought, well, if energy prices are high, that will drive energy efficiency. But, of course, the double-edged sword of that is if you have high energy prices that also makes exploration and production in the harder regions of the world more economically viable, which is, when you have those high oil prices, we know that’s what then unlocks the exploration of the Arctic, for example. We know high oil prices and gas prices is what opens up shale gas. And it’s been very clear that some of the drivers behind low oil and gas prices over the last few years, as we know, has been quite deliberate by the Saudis, in particular, and it has been to try and kill off some of those oil and exploration and production areas, particularly shale gas in the US, that have those lower margins. So here’s the interesting logic. You’re told by some politicians that what shale gas will do is this remarkable thing of lower gas prices and so on, but what we’ve seen, experienced, over the last two years is actually the shale gas industry is, when prices fall, no longer becomes economically viable.

LH: Well, the Financial Times is signalling this week the threat of bankruptcies across some shale gas operators in the US, because they’re so in debt…

CB: Absolutely. So, as it happens, I genuinely believe – and I speak to so many people in business and in the industry that believe this as well, – that shale gas [in the UK], realistically, is very unlikely to happen at scale. So, there’s very good reasons why Friends of the Earth is campaigning about it; very good reasons why people in communities are campaigning about it…

LH: Even with the UK government seemingly picking a winner here?

CB: But this is why I think it’s so ludicrous: the UK government think they are picking a winner. The UK government in picking shale gas and is doing no better than when the Labour government in the 1970s picked one particular model of the advanced passenger train. They are picking a winner here and it’s actually a “winner” that’s going to end up failing. All the kind of neoliberal conversations and messages you get from the government are all about: “oh, we’re going to let the market deliver”. It’s exactly the opposite of what they’re doing here. They’re desperately trying to rig the market for an energy generation and for a source that is in the wrong age. We’re in the wrong century for shale gas. The world has moved on. Principally because of climate change, and we we cannot be exploring for more fossil fuels when the International Energy Authority has said leave three-quarters of the stuff in the ground. In a century where renewables are coming on stream, are getting cheaper every year, are getting more reliable, and there’s new technologies being invented to deal with the variability of renewables and so on, and demand-side response and all these kind of things. That surely is the future, rather than harping back to the old models of last century and the fossil fuel economy of last century. And I genuinely believe – I have all kinds of environmental reasons why I think shale gas is a bad bet – I genuinely believe by trying to take us down this line this government is making a catastrophic error for the future prosperity of the United Kingdom. They’re banking on the wrong course that’s not going to deliver. It’s a real problem. I think the same is true, actually, of the government’s love of nuclear power. And I really welcome the fact that just today the Financial Times has come out really questioning Hinkley. Again, Hinkley is a massive white elephant. It’s the wrong technology, in the wrong time, in the wrong place, for the wrong price. And, yet again, for a conservative government that would love to say those old models of picking technologies like the advanced passenger train was the wrong approach, how can they justify Hinkley? There’s nothing free-market about what the government is doing here with Hinkley: tying consumers in to pay twice the consumer price of electricity for the next 35 years.There was all the hoo-hah in the general election about the “Mili-freeze” – Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze. Why wasn’t there more attention about the real price freeze that was being proposed here? This is not just a price freeze that was proposed for a couple of years by Ed Miliband, but a price freeze at double the wholesale price of electricity for the next 35 years. That is really locking us in and really anti-market.

LH: On the subject of nuclear, obviously, Friends of the Earth and other environmental NGOs are famous for being opposed to nuclear power for decades. The traditional reasoning behind that has been safety and waste legacy issues, but it feels like the mood is now moving towards – as you said, the Financial Times had an editorial today ostensibly making the same point – the view that Hinkley is a bad bet because of costs, not because of the risk of waste issues. You’re new in this new role and you have the opportunity to do a policy reboot or refresh in a way: is the nuclear issue maybe an opportunity to go towards your supporters and the public and kind of reframe the nuclear opposition that you’ve had for decades, and move more towards this cost argument, than, say, what sometimes get portrayed almost as a 1970s argument against nuclear? Is the cost argument actually a more compelling argument with the public now?

CB: Well, it depends who you talk to. But certainly a lot of the people that were involved in Friends of the Earth in the 1970s and 1980s are very clear that they always used to talk a great deal about cost. They always used as a big part of the campaign against nuclear back then the fact that it absorbed huge amount of financial capital, but also political capital that clouded out other alternatives. And, back in the 1980s, there were stories about how the Department for Trade and Industry scuppered investment in tidal and wave technology because it was getting the decimal point in the wrong place, so it made the wrong calculations there. So for decades we have seen this government obsession with big power projects and nuclear power; the “let’s have a big, one-size-fits-all solution of nuclear” has actually skewed the thinking in government around these issues. So I think for campaigners highlighting the problems with nuclear, the economic case against nuclear has been there all along. Now, of course, in the context of the 1970s, shortly after Three Mile Island, and in the 1980s when you have the Chernobyl disaster and so on, it’s no big surprise that there were concerns about radiation which got a lot more media publicity. I mean let’s not forget, large parts of Wales saw the sheep being banned for edible consumption right through the years immediately after Chernobyl and right through the 1990s. So it was a very real, raw issue for people, and of course there were all kinds of fires and accidents at Sellafield and so on. Now, I think the reason the economic issue has become even more forefront over the last decade or so is actually because it’s become much clearer how nuclear is crowding out renewables. Now,  the government attacks on renewables we’ve had in the past 2-3 months, I wonder how much of it would have happened if we hadn’t had Hinkley? How much of it is perhaps to clear the way to try and enable a deal to be signed when the Chinese payment comes over in October? They get in the way of all these other policies supporting other technologies.. But I think the evidence is really clear now: nuclear gets in the way of some of these other alternatives, including demand-reduction energy efficiency as well.

In terms of Friends of the Earth’s position and policy review, actually when I was director of policy and campaigns, in my previous job, I instigated a policy review of our nuclear position, along with many others. We instigated a review on population, as well as many others, so it was part of a suite. It wasn’t that we just picked nuclear. But we took a very, very thorough approach to this, and we thought it was right, we hadn’t had a policy position for a long time, we thought it was right to look at the evidence, and actually it was because we hadn’t had a team of people focused on it. So in many ways it was because we hadn’t done a huge amount of work on nuclear for a while that we thought it was right that we do the research objectively to keep on top of things. So we hired the Tyndall Centre, I think it was back in 2011, 2012 maybe, to do a very thorough evidence review, literature review for us. We then took that and some draft position papers to our local groups and then debated them at our national gathering and discussed them, and we reached a common agreement very easily within Friends of the Earth. Our position was that we still think nuclear gets in the way. It’s an old technology. It’s not nearly as cost-effective as the alternatives of renewables, and particularly energy efficiency. It takes away that political capital and attention, and there’s the nuclear waste issue as well, which if an industry after existing for 70 years still hasn’t solved that problem of nuclear waste, why do we think they’re going to solve it anytime soon? We can’t add to that, and now there are so many better alternatives. We have a very clear position that we think nuclear is a problem, it’s not the way forward. But it was right that we looked at it – because of climate change you have to keep your mind open to this. But we did very thorough review 2-3 years ago, and I’m very proud of the review that we did there and I think we’ve got one of the most up-to-date positions on nuclear of any organisation. It’s one that we’re very proud about.

LH: So, no shale, no nuclear and no open-cast coal mining, etc. So, that’s all clear. In terms of what your vision of a low-carbon or zero-carbon scenario might be: DECC produced a global calculator which I think Friends of the Earth fed in a scenario, amongst many other people including Shell, and in that scenario Friends of the Earth’s vision for 1.5C relies on very, very arguably ambitious efforts in energy and material efficiency, including a 60% fall in per capita power consumption – and this is global – by 2050. Are those efforts achievable, and are they realistic?

CB: Well, I think – I’ll definitely answer that, but to take a step back on that – I think, with respect, the question is symptomatic of a disease that hits this whole area of the energy debate at the moment, particularly the British energy debate, which is, we can’t continue this journey to 2050 until we know exactly how it’s going to pan out, for every year, for every technology between now and 2050. I blame those bloody McKinsey cost curves and so on, which everyone was obsessed about not very long ago, where, literally, we were all thinking, we’ve got to see exactly how this works for every year between now and 2050. I mean, in what other industry sector would you do that, would you try and say this is exactly how everything’s going to pan out in telecommunications innovation, would you do that for IT, would you do that for pharmaceuticals, no…

LH: But unlike pharmaceuticals, unlike IT, we have set ourselves a national legally binding goal by 2050, so there’s got to be a long-term vision about how you get to a target…

CB: No, I agree. There’s got to be a long-term vision, there’s absolutely got to be a long-term vision. But that isn’t saying exactly nail down precisely how we’re going to do it, and as if we’re going to do it with the technology of today, of 2015. Now we were clear, Friends of the Earth feeding into, that it’s possible for us to get there, and on some of the assumptions about even the 2015 technology and so on, making certain assumptions you know you can get there. But the point is almost certainly that’s not how you get there. There’d be different assumptions and new technology would be invented in the meantime. And I think – here’s the important thing – there’s a difference here and it’s a difference I’ve noticed say in Germany, and in the UK energy debates. In Germany, with their desire to get to 100% renewables, you talk to German engineers, you talk to German civil servants and you ask them how are they goings to get there, and they say: we’re very confident we’re going to get there, we don’t know exactly how we’re going to get there, but we trust in German engineers to undertake the innovation and to work us out how to get there, and we will get there. And back in Britain we’re stuck in this paralysis of thinking we can’t do it until someone’s worked it all out. Now, there’s been plenty of reports, plenty of models showing how we can get to 100% renewables. What’s critical in there is understanding that it’s not just about one technology, it’s not just about wind, and sometimes the opponents of this will say: you can’t run the whole country on wind. Well, no one’s said you can. Of course, it’s not: the thing about renewables is it’s a whole family of technologies, and when the wind’s not blowing the Sun’s possibly shining and the waves are turning and the tides are turning, and so on.

LH: Does it rely too much on energy storage and inter-continental interconnectors?

CB: First and foremost, it relies on demand reduction. In other words, energy efficiency, because what that does is significantly reduce the peaks, and so much of our energy system at the moment is to deal with peaks of demand. And the moment we can bring those peaks down, which we can do through – energy efficiency makes a great difference on that, but obviously demand-side response in the future has even more potential to remove those peaks – then it’s much easier to have a grid that is 100% powered by renewables and to get there. But here’s the thing: no one’s advocating doing this is the next year, we’re advocating doing it over the decades ahead and as we begin this journey we’ll get better at it and learn from it and so on. And again, yes, there will be inventions on storage that will help us out there; that will be the real game-changer as we get better storage, but it’s not as if we don’t need storage in a fossil-fuel economy. I remember learning in my Geography GCSE about Dinorwig power station and how that was built to cope with the fact that when everyone puts their kettle on when Eastenders ends to make a cup of tea, it needs to roar into action because you can’t fire up coal-fired power stations and nuclear power stations from nothing to full whack in a few seconds, so we need storage now. We’re going to need, perhaps, a bit more storage, but the beauty is in the future, we already know storage is becoming decentralised and the way that we have it in our laptops, smartphones and so on and next we’re seeing battery packs coming out for houses with solar panels. The interesting places where we are at the moment is organisations like Friends of the Earth that believe we can get to 100% renewables, we’re now the organisations that believe in technology, that believe in engineers, that believe in the future, believe that humans can be smart and find a way through this, and then we’re up against a generation of people and a political and Westminster and fossil fuel-lobby elite who are the naysayers, who say that they don’t believe the engineers are going to find the solutions, that we’ve got to stay stuck in the past, and that we’ve got to stick to the old technology of the past: that’s the real, interesting flip for me that’s happened in the last 10-15 years. And I’m pretty convinced we’re on the right side of history and our way will win through. But we’ve got to get over these blocks of the vested interests and the people that believe in the old models of the past.

LH: So you’ve got by coincidence, or however it landed, you’ve arrived in this new post at pretty much the same time as we’ve now got a new Tory government, who’ve made all sorts of rapid attempts to – well, let’s say change energy policy. We don’t yet know what it’s going to be replaced with, so what is your hope, and maybe fear, perhaps, both of them, about what Amber Rudd and her team are going to announce in the coming weeks, about what they’re going to replace some of the policies that they’ve put in the shredder over the last few weeks and months?

CB: Well, my real problem with this government is they scrapped a load of policies before they know what they’re going to replace them with. Now, I totally respect that in a democracy one government will go out and another one will come in and they will have a different approach, a different ideology as to how to solve some of these problems, and I respect that. And, actually, I welcome that fact that in an ideal world you’d see different political parties and different political traditions, offering alternative solutions to deal with these political problems. That’s absolutely what we need is these political parties agreeing that there is a problem, and coming up with alternative solutions. It’s also not as if we necessarily thought all the solutions were great anyway. I mean the Green Deal had huge problems with it, we know – and that was lead by a Conservative minister anyway, of course – had huge problems with it. The carbon reduction commitment was a pretty useless policy as well. So some of these had real problems with them. But the thing is, this government has, in the space of two or three months, torn these all up, and we know they haven’t been doing any clever thinking about what comes next. We also know it’s not top of their priorities, so I don’t believe for a minute that this government is in the next five years going to put new policies in place that address the problems the old policies were trying to address. Now, what is in the Conservative Party’s manifesto now is addressing energy efficiency in a really big way. If they introduce a policy that’s really effective, then great, that would be fantastic. But why haven’t they come out and promised that that’s what they’re going to do, and articulate that before they rip out the previous policies? And the same with renewables. In June or July, Amber Rudd said she wanted a “solar revolution”. In August, she tore up the only bits of policy that were there to promote solar power. So my only question to her is what’s her vision as to how we’re going to see that solar revolution now, because I don’t know a single person in the solar industry that knows how that’s going to happen without those kind of measures.

But the real problem is – what I’ve said this government has been very hypocritical about this – is they’re not offering a level playing field. They’re saying, “Oh, we’ve got to cut the cost of certain technologies and the impact on bills”, and so that was their justification for getting rid of the solar feed-in tariff. Well, that adds just £6 to the average bill, whereas Hinkley Point alone is going to add £43 to the average bill over the lifetime of Hinkley. Let alone the conclusion by the International Monetary Fund that the UK is subsidising fossil fuels to around, I think is was £450 per citizen. That’s the real [problem]: way more than the subsidies that we’re offering to renewables. So that’s the hypocrisy that’s behind the government’s actions over the past few months. There are parts of the Conservative party and their tradition that should absolutely be on the side of innovation, start-ups, entrepreneurship, decentralised employment, let alone decentralised energy. And yet, for some reason, the Conservative Party’s got stuck in a place, stuck in the past, where it now seems conservative with a small ‘c’ about no change in our energy system. That seems to be where we’re stuck now.

LH: Being constructive and knowing the outlook and worldview of the current Tory administration, what is a constructive suggestion of what a policy replacement could be? What could you see or suggest that would fit in their world view and still deliver? Some of the goals you want to see?

CB: Well, there’s some real levers that need to be pulled. Conservatives have an interesting history and relationship with regulation. So, in one sense, the impression we get is that Conservatives are anti-regulation, and, you know, that’s undoubtedly true in one sense. But it’s also true that Conservative governments in the past have introduced regulation quite quickly and effectively when they’ve been convinced of a problem. It was a Conservative government that introduced the Clean Air Act. It was Margaret Thatcher who, when she was convinced of the problems with ozone depleting chemicals and CFCs, very quickly moved to regulation to deal with that problem. She didn’t propose some complicated trading scheme, or propose some other complicated measures on that. And I think, actually, what Conservatives can do is when they introduce regulations, when they are finally convinced to introduce regulation, they can be quite good at introducing efficient and effective regulation. And there’s a lot of business will say to me, on a lot of these issues, energy efficiency is a good one, the simplest way to do this is through good, efficient regulation. So when I was in my previous career I was running the Corporate Leaders Group for almost four years, and that was around the time that the previous Labour government was looking at introducing the carbon reduction commitment. Absolutely fascinating period where the government’s view at the time was: we want to deal with energy efficiency in this sector, the retail sector and so on, light industrial sector, and we know that business doesn’t like regulation so we want to introduce a trading scheme. And at the Corporate Leaders Group we went to the government and said: actually, you know, the Corporate Leaders Group thought that emissions trading was good, Friends of the Earth has a slightly different view there, but Corporate Leaders thought there was a role for that. But they absolutely thought it was overkill for the light retail sector and so on. And they were saying that very clearly to the government at the time, but the government was saying, “well, that’s very interesting, but we know you want a trading scheme,and we’ll give you a trading scheme”, and the Corporate Leaders would say again: “no, we don’t want a trading scheme we want just straightforward regulation”. And the government at the time – this was the Labour government – was putting its fingers in its ears, “no, you’re business, you obviously hate regulation, so we won’t give you regulation”, even though business was asking for it. So let’s be clear here, if they’re scrapping the carbon commitment reduction, Green Deal and so on, what I would like to see the Conservative government replace those with to deliver energy efficiency is really simple, straightforward regulation, to deliver a step-change in energy efficiency, and a very clear pathway and policy framework to deliver that step-change in energy efficiency. They could look at countries like Japan, that have for many years had their top-runners scheme, where they consistently regulate out and ban the products that are the least efficient in their class, and then every year or so, they move that bar up, so that that whole product class gets ever-more efficient. And that’s what’s driven a lot of product efficiency in Japan.

Now you were asking me before: how on earth – with the Friends of the Earth interaction with the DECC models and so on – how on earth are we going to deliver such big leaps in efficiency, resource efficiency and efficiency of consumables and so on? It’s perfectly doable if we have the long-term policy frameworks in place, if we can be bold and ambitious, and if we do it in a step-by-step way, and set that path out, then business will respond and provide the innovations, and move us forward, and we will see massive changes. Look at the changes that we get in efficiency when we move from old lightbulbs to LEDs. You know that’s not just an increment of efficiency, that’s a huge efficiency. We can get that in transport, we can get that in buildings, we can get that in buildings, we can get that in lighting. And that’s just looking at point efficiency, let alone when you start looking at system efficiencies as well. So the opportunities here are even more huge, as I said before, that removes the big peaks in energy demand, that makes it much easier to run a grid 100% off renewables. Yes, we need some storage, but we’re getting better at that all the time. It’s perfectly doable. Why is it that you have such a big part of the energy policy wonk world, and the political class that do not seem to have any faith in engineers or technology any more, and don’t seem to believe that innovation is going to help us here?

LH: Just before we move on to a slightly different topic, just to wrap up one other energy option, which is often debated in environmental and energy policy circles, which is what’s happening at Drax with biomass imported from North American forests etc. When people talk about renewables in the UK, many people think wind and solar, but I don’t think many people realise, actually, that quite a decent chunk of the current mix is what’s going on at Drax. What’s your view on that, on the use of co-fired biomass?

CB: Well, it’s interesting because there have been these kind of attacks over the last few years on environmental groups about how we’ve got to look open-minded at the solutions and so on. And biofuels, actually, is an area where, certainly Friends of the Earth and others maybe, ten years ago absolutely looked open-minded, because we’re always looking for the solutions, we’re always trying to find the solutions that we can get behind. And 10 years ago, or so on, we had an open mind to biofuels, and maybe they had a role to play. The interesting thing is that – when the evidence started coming on stream and when we were able to look at the hard evidence and data about biofuels and whether they delivered carbon savings or not – it became very clear that in many cases they don’t. At best, they sometimes deliver very small carbon savings over fossil fuels. In some cases, and actually this is the case according to DECC’s own data, in the case of wood being imported from the United States to burn at Drax, sometimes it can be worse than coal, the carbon footprint of those. So when faced with that evidence it’s very clear that the position of Friends of the Earth should be to oppose those as a false solution. The interesting thing is just how slow the government machine is to address that. So on the one hand you have DECC understanding with the data that this is not delivering carbon savings, it’s not helping reach climate budgets, and, on the other hand, government’s been very slow to change the policy framework to address that. And I think obviously the mistake Drax made, the big cost, is it just looked at it on a very micro level without looking at the whole supply chain and considering all those impacts, and considering beyond the climate impacts, as well. And I think in the biofuel story there’s a real lesson for environmentalists, but also for people that are obsessed with climate change – as we all are because climate change is so important – but if you look at climate change just through the lens of climate change, without, say looking at biodiversity angles as well, you often can get the wrong solutions, because if you look at the full story there – and as we’ve seen that problems of indirect land-use change in the story around biofuels – then that can look very different from just a very quantitative, narrow, focus on biofuels.

LH: I just want to read out a quote of yours, a recent one, which is: “We were campaigning on climate about parts per million and percentage points reduction, but I wish 10 years ago we’d spent more time pushing community energy. There’s a way of talking about climate change and we got out of touch, we didn’t connect with people’s lives.” So, how do you propose to fix that around the need to communicate, the need to act on climate, given what you identified as, perhaps, mis-messaging previously?

CB: So the kind of example I was thinking back to then is 10-15 years ago Friends of the Earth campaigning very strongly on onshore wind and we were absolutely right to do so, but how we talked about it was this is essential to tackle these percentage reductions and parts per million and so on, and the missed opportunity – by us and others – 10-15 years ago now with the benefit of hindsight, and when you see what’s happened in Germany, would have been for us to push for the community energy model. So talking about all the other benefits that can happen from these technologies. It builds on what I was just saying…

LH: …that it has local buy-in?

CB: And local buy-in so that people can have a stake in the future. But I’ve also said recently about how we’ve missed a trick – the whole environment sector – about linking to the health debate. And, you know, in the discussion between climate and energy policy wonks, where we’re always talking about parts per million and so on, actually we often forget that one of the biggest problems with fossil fuels is air pollution, and the fact that, according to the government’s own data, it’s around 30,000-50,000 people dying prematurely from air pollution in this country every year. Now, it’s obscene that you’ve got 30,000-50,000 people dying prematurely because of air pollution in this country, and that’s principally caused by fossil fuels.

LH: But does that mean that air pollution becomes, essentially, a Trojan-horse way to talk about climate change? So, you don’t actually even need to talk to your constituency, or members or the public, without even mentioning climate change? So you’d talk about local air pollution, and because the way to fix that is getting off coal, or whatever it maybe, that also, by extension, helps solve the climate problem? Is there a situation in which climate change is a term and a concept that’s best not talked about?

CB: No, I think we have to talk about climate change, and Friends of the Earth will continue to do so. Down the years you have different phrases and terminologies come and go in fashion and so on. Friends of the Earth was actually the organisation that coined the phrase “rainforest” back in the 1980s, before that they were known as tropical moist forests and people didn’t get very excited about that. So in a North London pub one night, as I understand the story goes, some Friends of the Earth people came up with the term “rainforest” and suddenly captured the [public] imagination. We’ll always need to look at new ways of framing debates and discussion and fashions comes and go, and history moves on, and so on. So we need to find new ways of talking about these issues. But, you know, clearly, we also don’t want to pull punches, we want to tell the truth, just how serious climate change is. I think people are talking very openly about it.

LH: A very good, a very topical example, which you’ve written about this week is the issue of the refugee crises, which is obviously dominating, rightly, the media and the political discussion, not just in this country, but globally to some extent, certainly in Europe, and President Hollande, Juncker, Paddy Ashdown, yourself, have all made the point…

CB: I said it before them. I just want to clear that up [laughs]…

LH: It’s a nuanced point, and it’s a difficult point to make in many ways because you don’t want to attribute what’s happening right now to climate change, although some people do, and it’s a complicated argument, but certainly presenting a vision of the decades ahead, saying if climate change does play out, as the way scientists are projecting, then this is a foretaste, perhaps, of what we might see. So that’s potentially a messaging opportunity, and many people, including some high-profile politicians, have made this point this week. Is that an opportunity, or is it a risk, perhaps, a messaging risk not an opportunity?

CB: No. The thought process I went through last week when the refugee crisis was all on our screens and those appalling photos were shocking people everywhere was that I could remember Friends of the Earth saying in the 1980s and the 1990s that if we don’t tackle climate change we’re going to be seeing millions of refugees coming to Europe in the decades ahead. I think if the first time Friends of the Earth had ever talked about refugees had been last week, that would have been cheap. But the fact is we were talking about it two or three decades ago. And not just us, plenty of other people. I mean the BBC had, very famously, a drama screened in 1990 – 25 years ago – called The March, which told the story of 3 million refugees marching from Africa, following years of drought, marching on Europe, which was very prophetic, really, in terms of what we’ve been seeing on our screens just the last few weeks. And, incidentally, I think the BBC should re-screen that this Autumn, 25 years later, in the context of this. So, when we saw the calamity and the tragedies unfolding in the refugees last week, I thought, I don’t want anyone to think that by saying this is Friends of the Earth chasing. There are risks and I knew that there would be some people that would pop up and criticise me for saying that. I knew when I wrote that article for the Guardian I would have to write it very carefully. But given what I’ve just said, I think it would be negligent of Friends of the Earth not to point out that the scientific evidence is clear and it’s been clear for a very long time, that if we fail to tackle climate change – and, let’s face it, broadly at the moment, we still are as a global community – then there’s going to be a huge, much bigger refugee crisis in the future. And we owe it to those future generations, and in some cases not just future generations, but people just within in the decade ahead to be clear and honest and tell the truth to power even if people don’t like it, about what the consequences are of not tackling climate change, because it’s critically important. Because, again, to be clear, if governments in the 1990s, after the screening of that documentary, and after the warnings in the 1990s and 1980s about refugees, if they had started tackling climate change much more seriously in the 1990s and the early 2000s, if we’d been bolder back then, not only would it have been cheaper to tackle climate change, not only would it have been a much smoother transition than the one we’re going to have to go through, not only could it have been fairer for everyone involved, actually it would have reduced the suffering of millions of people that are already suffering the impacts of climate change. And we have to tell that story.

Friends of the Earth also has to join the dots between these issues, we can’t see climate change over here, refugees over here, economics over here, and food and agricultural issues over here: a really important job for Friends of the Earth is to join the dots and to join up the bigger picture for people. And to come back to one of your previous points, then, about the air pollution, for example, Friends of the Earth was campaigning on air pollution in the 1970s and the 1980s and so on. There are plenty of very good environmental reasons why we would campaign on air pollution it would be crazy to suggest that we would only campaign on it as some kind of Trojan horse. But, actually, the way I do see it is on air pollution, for example, we’ve got an opportunity there to not only relieve people’s lives, and to make life better for people living in crowded cities, but, yes, that would also drive the change in the transport sector that is needed and help us move on from fossil fuels which would be critically important. The biggest problem we face, across all of these sustainability issues at the moment, is inertia. Industrial and economic and cultural inertia. And that is what’s holding progress back.

LH: Can we just talk about Paris? We’re a couple of months away from [the] Paris [climate conference]. A big moment after Copenhagen that we’ve spent six years building up to. What are your hopes for Paris? But, maybe more significantly, what are your expectations? How do you think it is realistically going to land in Paris?

CB: I think all of us that are close to this debate know: Paris is not going to deliver a global deal that is going to deliver anything like what is required by what the science says is necessary…

LH: So will it fail then? That’s a failure?

CB: Without question, according to any kind of scientific assessment, it will fail. [Pause] If we get some progress there that we can then build on, that will be useful. But, as Friends of the Earth, and other NGOs as well, two years ago we were looking at this and making sure that we don’t have a re-write of Copenhagen. I don’t just mean about in the negotiations, but actually how we lost people’s hearts, really, when Copenhagen was such a disaster. Two years ago we could have written the press-release for the final days of Paris, and if we had done then, it probably would look the same as it would do now. I bet it will be the same on the final day of Paris; they’re not going to agree a deal that’s going to do anything like what’s being required by the science, or indeed the equity that’s involved here. The message, therefore, that we’ve got for people with Paris is that we still think those international negotiations are very important, but we don’t think it’s suddenly all going to be solved by Paris. It’s very slow progress, but maybe we get progress through those deals. The important thing is the leadership is now coming from communities, and communities around the world can show and highlight the way here, to the international negotiations that are behind the curve here on the communities…

LH: So is the UNFCCC a busted flush then, after Paris? If you’re already calling it, saying it’s not really going to deliver on what the scientists and others have been saying for years, or decades, in terms of what needs to happen on the global level. Does it mean that, effectively, you walk away from the UN process and you see other things like the divestment campaign, the papal encyclical, the solar revolution.. In a global sense, is the idea that you redirect and move beyond that [the UNFCCC]?

CB: They’re part of a package. The really important thing here, as Al Gore said it, there’s no silver bullet here. What we needs is a silver buckshot – that was his phrase. And, you know, Friends of the Earth is a strongly internationalist organisation. We believe in the need for democratic, international, multilateralism to help deal with these big global problems. And so we absolutely want to see the UNFCCC move forward and have countries working together to try and deliver a fair and equitable and binding and scientifically robust climate deal. What’s principally required for that to happen is for the rich countries to be much bolder and more ambitious in the emissions cuts that they pledge, and, of course, in the financing, the technology transfer of financing and adaptation for loss and damage for the poor countries that have not been part of the problem and yet are suffering on the frontline of climate problems. So, if we want to see real progress in the UN climate negotiations, it’s those rich countries that have to offer a lot more, and open up the politics to enable that to happen. But my point is here is what’s wrong is to think the solution to climate change is either here, or here, or here; it’s in all of these places. We need to see the international frameworks that can set the agenda or set the context for lots of small action to join up together. But, in the meantime, it doesn’t mean that the community action on renewables, or energy efficiency, or all those other things have to wait for that. In fact, actually, it’s by having success on divestment campaigns, on renewables, on energy efficiency, on leaving fossil fuels in the ground and stopping fracking. That’s what changes the context that makes a really strong global deal more likely. So it’s a much more dynamic relationship where all these different elements of the debate relate to each other. And that’s why for us, as Friends of the Earth, the message we’re saying to our supporters as the moment, is that we want them to mobilise with us, and they’re coming together in London in October, and again we’re then taking hundreds of supporters to Paris for the mobilisations in Paris, mobilise with us to make clear messages in the run up to and during the Paris negotiations about what they expect from global leaders. But let’s be planning now also the mobilisations we’ll do in January and in spring and across next year to carry that sense of momentum through, and not just think, as Tony Blair and others tried to pretend in Copenhagen, that there was going to be this magic deal that’s going to solve this.

LH: You’ve mentioned the climate justice angle: the rich world helping the poor world o adapt, etc. Environmental NGOs, including, I think, Friends of the Earth, have obviously called for 1.5C, not the more generally recognised “below 2C” target. Given the latest IPCC report, pretty much saying that 1.5C has gone – 2C is hard enough, but 1.5C has gone – when do the environmental NGOs, including Friends of the Earth, say and admit that 1.5C has gone, and that there’s no point calling for that now?

CB: The first thing to say is to understand why 2C is hopelessly inadequate for dealing with this. In the shorthand, governments and negotiators and everyone talk about it being a 2C target, but, actually, in the smaller print, it’s a 50/50 chance of stabilising at 2C. A 50/50 chance is not very good odds for something that’s very important. In the kind of classic phrase: you wouldn’t get on a plane that had a 50/50 chance of crashing, and yet what these negotiators and countries are finding hard to agree now is a 50/50 chance of keeping climate change at 2C, which is only really a rough guess, and even then a political guess really of where you might need to stabilise the climate to avoid those really dangerous feedback loops that might lead to so-called runaway climate change. So, for the sake of ecosystems, and ecological functions, it makes a lot more sense to try and stabilise at 1.5C, and it’s right that we would tell the truth about that.

LH: So the IPCC are pretty much saying that’s bust, that’s now behind us that moment…

CB: But, again, I would say that that doesn’t mean that we should say that, “oh well, it’s ok to do 2C then”, because what do we do then? Then they will say “let’s go for 2C”. Then if they don’t reach that and they say, “oh well, that’s bust, so let’s go for 3C”. You know we have to be really clear here that we need to aim at 1.5C. And I think again what’s characterised by the whole climate and energy debate at the moment is a belief that this isn’t kind of possible based on current technologies. But the amazing thing about change is it’s hardly ever linear. We see all the time in terms of social change and technological change, that when people get a sense that change is really happening you can get that herd mentality and technological change, social change, economic change will happen far more quickly than anyone ever predicted. We can give all kinds of examples about technology moving far faster than ever predicted. We can talk about it in politics and how things change. No one predicted what might have happened with Jeremy Corbyn, just a few weeks ago. The future is often unpredictable, and change is one of the most exciting things and things can surprise you on how much things change. The point is that if world leaders really got together and were really serious about this, and put the right policy measures in place, I don’t think we can predict how quickly we can decarbonise the economy. There’s every reason it could go far more quickly than anyone is currently thinking because at the moment we’re thinking about it in a very 2015 mindset where we think this is a burden. But if we can actually get to the place where we see that this is not a burden, but a huge advantage, that, in fact, this requires progress to move on from fossil fuels, to say, “thank you and goodbye” to fossil fuels, when we recognise that shifting to clean energy isn’t just good for the climate, but is so much better in so many other ways as well – it’s better for people’s health, it’s more decentralised, it’s more portable and all these kinds of things – you know once we really get into that, I think the change, technological change, social and cultural change, will happen and, therefore, the political change could easily happen far more quickly than people would ever predict. So I think from either a justice point of view or a pragmatic point of view, it would be wrong somehow to give up on 1.5C.

LH: But are you worried with 1.5C in that, again, going into the small print of the IPCC, is that you look at 1.5C and all of those models, all the integrated assessment models, all the modelling relies on negative emissions; not just some, but an awful lot of it in the second half of the century, and [concentration] overshoot scenarios, etc, and that’s nearly the case with many of the 2C scenarios as well. So if the environmental NGOs keep calling for 1.5C – you talked about the unintended consequences with biofuels – is that you wake up in 5-10 years’ time and realise that actually you’ve locked yourself into a situation where you’re essentially, by default, calling for technologies such as BECCs – which has huge social justice issues around the world in terms of land use, for example – where if you just play it forward in that scenario, so…

CB: Well, that would assume there’s no other new technology invented between now and…

LH: But then if you say OK to that, it sounds like the techno fixers’ [arguments] where you’re just relying on the engineers coming up with, you know, putting all our great hopes on that there’s a kid out there somewhere who’s going to become a great engineer in 10-15 years’ time and create a new technology…

CB: No, it’s not just about technical fixes. It’s also about, for example, changes in diet, you know, and a lot of the work we’ve done has shown that one of the quickest, simplest ways for us to cut carbon emissions, certainly in the UK, if not globally, is to move to a low meat diet, certainly to cut out red meat, so…

LH: That’s a wedge, though, isn’t it? It’s one of the many wedge options you can have…

CB: Yes, but it’s not a technology wedge. That’s the important thing. There are many wedges here that aren’t about technology. I’ve been talking to you about technology because you’ve been asking questions to me really about technology, but there are many wedges here, if you like, that are not about technology. It’s about changing behaviours. I mean, another classic one you see around the aviation debate in climate; all those assessments about the so-called economic case for Heathrow and so on, are all done on extrapolations of demand for aviation at least a decade ago, and they all assume there will be growth into the future of aviation, as if we’re going to carry on living in the early 2000s…

LH: And particularly with business flights…

CB: As if there’s been no change at all in telecommunications technologies and so on? The truth is, if you look at it, you start to see a decline in business travel before the financial crisis, as people, as video conferencing started working far better, Skype and so on, and actually there was a recognition of the wear and tear on executives of constant business travel.

LH: And growth has come from leisure travel…

CB: Yes, but what I’m saying here is I think it’s absolutely wrong to assume these straight line extrapolations of the future. You can have change in demands and you can have change in habits and so on, and so people moving to eating less meat and particularly to less red meat, that’s a very clear trend that we’re seeing in several western societies now. I’m not suggesting that many of those people are doing it for climate reasons, probably most of them are doing it for health reasons, but all the same, arguably, it might deliver far greater reductions in climate emissions than a lot of the climate policies are delivering. It’s just people moving to low meat diets. Across this whole climate and energy debate you find lots of people queuing up to tell you that something can’t be done. At Friends of the Earth we see lots of solutions and lots of open doors about things that can be done. What we need is some real political leadership to open the door to enable this to happen. The leadership is coming from people and communities at the moment. I just wish that sometimes the politicians would get out the way a bit.

LH: Just on a final question, back to communications really. It’s this balance between speaking to the choir and the converted versus winning over new – I think you’ve already touched upon in previous points – members, but also winning the argument with new people in the wider community. So you previously compared climate sceptics to slave owners and you’ve also said the new Tory government has declared ideological war on renewables and all things green. Does using what some would argue to be inflammatory language like that help in the long term in the wider communications goal of trying to convince more people of your argument as opposed to the kind of, for want of a better term, converted greens?

CB: I think first and foremost we have to tell the truth. It’s a really important role that Friends of the Earth plays in the public debate. We are independent, we can say what we think, and we have to tell the truth, whoever that is to: to power, to vested interests, or to the public. We have quite a sophisticated approach to understanding different audiences and how we can use different language in different approaches to talking to them. What you’re doing is reading out language that was in interviews that would have been to, perhaps, core audiences, the kind of people who are reading those articles are core audiences, and I think it’s right to make those comparisons we made and to tell the truth about those. Is that the language we put on communication materials reaching out to brand new audiences? Probably not. And I think we’ve been pretty good at Friends of the Earth over the last little while in working out we have some campaigns and some discussions that will go to some audiences and some to others.

When I started in policy and campaigns, we were doing a lot of campaigns on climate and energy, and one of the decisions I made then was that we had to have a big campaign out there that was not on climate and energy, to reach to people that weren’t so interested in these issues, but to bring another way into the broader sustainability and environment debate, and thought early on that one of the ways to do that was connect people back to wildlife and nature again. I looked around, thought about it, and thought let’s have a campaign, we need a campaign that talks about the critical importance of biodiversity of ecosystem function and ecosystem services, without using any of those words, and that’s what led to the evolution of our campaign on bees, which was an incredibly successful campaign and has brought in whole new cohorts of supporters to Friends of the Earth, and from new audiences, not just from the choir, as you would say. So I think we do absolutely have a range of campaigns and approaches and conversations with different segments of society. That’s very important at Friends of the Earth, so we’ve got that diversity of audiences and supporters working with us. But I don’t think for a minute that we should hold back from telling the truth, particularly to our core audiences that want to know the truth.

LH: You’ve got climate as number one on [a framed poster on] your wall, as the priority for Friends of the Earth. What will be in 5-7 years’ time – as you’re looking back at your tenure and period as chief executive – your markers for success to know that you did a great job on climate over that time?

CB: What I really want to do is connect these issues up to people’s real lives. I think there’s a story that as the modern environmental movement grew and became very successful – and it is only 40-50 years old, the modern environmental movement – but as it grew and became more successful, it professionalised and that was all good stuff, but then it was very easy for us to get stuck in Westminster, Whitehall, and spend a lot of time with policy wonks and going to warm white wine receptions, as I previously described and so on, and getting stuck in that world. Now, we kind of have to be there, we have to be in there, but, actually, the most useful job we can do is to make the environment real to people, and to really help people understand and get passionate and take action on the environment, whether it’s around climate change and nature, or resource use, and so on, in ways that are real and matter to them. And, actually, for us to demystify some of these issues and join the dots between them. To show it’s not a silo; that you’ve got a climate change issue here that is separate somehow from nature here, that is separate from economics here, that we can find a way of joining that bigger picture and connecting that back to politicians. So that our role is when we are going on those excursions into the Westminster Whitehall bubble, that actually we’re taking messages in there on behalf of communities, on behalf of people, and trying to change that debate.

LH: Brilliant. Thank you very much.

Main image: Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends of the Earth. Credit: Rosamund Pearce/Carbon Brief.

The interview was conducted by Leo Hickman on 10 September 2015 at the Friends of the Earth office in London.

Sharelines from this story
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