Jonathon Porritt wears many hats. A pioneer of green politics in the UK, sustainability campaigner, media personality and writer. His latest book, The World We Made, is an environmental thriller set in 2050. Porritt spoke with Pradip Saha about his futuristic take on some of the sustainability issues we face today
What’s the difference between writing an essay about 2050 sitting in the present while pretending you have lived through nearly forty years in future, and a more usual narrative?
It's massive. I have written nine books. The plot of each begins in the year I was writing, moves to the next five years when things turn bad. In the next 10 years, matters get depressing so I find ways to cheer people. This is how most green books work. They start with the problem and then go on to the solution. We are living in a dreadful world and, honestly, the solutions do not match the scale of the problem.
I started this book differently, with a year that is not distant enough to be science fiction, but far enough to afford scope for big change. Beginning in 2050 allowed me to liberate from the depressing problems and start with the premise the world has managed to make itself sustainable for the 8.5 billion people. The different start also allowed me to begin by saying that the world witnessed some very bad shocks but recovered from them. We learnt from the shocks. We do not do so at present. It was liberating to locate the narrator, Alex Mackay, in 2050 and then look back at 2013.
Is Alex a completely fictitious character?
Alex is completely fictitious. I was a teacher for 10 years, taught English and drama and loved being a teacher. So I have huge affinity with teaching and am a great believer in young people, and educationists and teachers being at the heart of a change process. So I wanted my character to be a teacher. There is a little bit of me in there. Yeah’s its my voice, but it's in 2050
Is it about things you thought of doing but could not?
Yes. Especially improbable things like the Republican Party in America becoming the leader in climate change. I cannot make that happen.
You have made a lot of predictions. Some of them are in form of statistics, graphs. Is that serious research, or is that intuitive?
I spent a lot of time researching. I checked data, looked at all the projections people have put together and then extrapolated from them for infographics. There are brilliant projections by the Food and Agriculture Organization about global fish catch. A lot of people think that fishing industry will collapse because we are abusing the oceans. I extrapolated from where we are today, built the collapse scenario, and then gradually showed the oceans recovering as we put in place intelligent management regimes. Some might say it is optimistic. But then, it is premised on a very big shock which persuades us to approach things differently.
Every infographic is backed by research. The projection of 90 per cent of the energy from renewables is derived from a lot of my research. The International Energy Agency (iea) and the World Bank have very interesting projections on some renewable energy issues. I have built on their projections. It is a careful research, which took me two years to complete.
You spend a chapter on solar revolution. Do you see that revolution happening. Are there enough knowledge and finance for that?
I see the revolution happening on many counts. I see it happening from the perspective of photovoltaic. The photovoltaic revolution in China that has devastated solar business in many parts of the world, including India, paradoxically, has had a brilliant impact on people’s expectations. I met China’s two big solar manufacturers and told them that they are doing well in reducing costs and improving efficiency—they have reduced the cost to one dollar per Watt. They said there is no technological impediment to photovoltaic reducing to 50 cents per watt. At this cost, photovoltaic will be competitive anywhere in the world, be it grid or off-grid. I do not think people have thought about its implications.
I have also done research on concentrated solar power, or cspcspcsp. I talk to a lot of people in the energy world and they say there is no reason PV should not go at 50 cents a Watt. I don’t think people have thought through the implications of that. Take concentrated solar power (CSP). I have done a lot of research on that. There are lots of people who think CSP is very exciting and there are also many who think it will never go to scale because its too expensive. It’s fascinating. The biggest CSP is in the process of being commissioned in Arizona in the US. It's a 380 MW plant with molten salt storage facility built into the CSP plant. The economics still does not add up. It’s still too expensive. But if you can continue to get that scale, and you can crack the storage problem, you can begin to get the cost coming down.
Then look into what I call the innovation pipeline. When I see experiments to enhance efficiency using nano technology at the Fraunhofer solar institution, I am pretty confident that that this technology is capable of doing so much more than what it is doing today.
What about revolution in off-grid?
I think the solar revolution will start in off grid. I see no reason why it should not start in countries like India because there are so many people in India who are not connected to the grid. A combination of solar, bio, mini hydro and wind with mini grids can provide rural communities not connected to the grid all the energy resources they need to improve their lives. It’s a bit like mobile telephony. Nobody now says we need a fixed line telephone system. Likewise people are going to say we don’t need the grid—with all its transmission losses. Just read what the World Bank's latest report on the potential for distributive energy systems for poor communities. The Bank is speaking the language that we begun using 15-20 years ago. It took the Bank lot of time to understand this. The IEA also talks of distributive energy now.
Do you see support from banks or other investors? We are talking of large investors?
I do and I think India, very paradoxically, is extremely well positioned for that. You have more rural development banks per head of population than any other nation in the world Now for me, off grid renewable underpins every form of rural development: agricultural productivity, water management, waste management.
Financing is still difficult to sort out at the scale you talk of. But the potential is there, given what the rural votes mean to Indian politicians. Rural votes don’t count for much in most countries. But in India, they do. So I am hopeful on that count.
Just a side story. You talk about resource theft in context of solar. Fundamentalist organizations creating a problem
Well they are…I have been following the Desertec story for a long time. I know the people who set up the organization and I am fascinated by the consortium of companies that have now come in to make it work including those who work on high voltage lines that are key to a lot of CSP story. They are naïve about it. Every single electron goes to the North. To Europe. So, I ask really? The North Africans will say we are the ones who need it. So I have this provocative scenario in the book. We have the Chinese building a set of strategic alliances across Africa . They build huge solar manufacturing capability in Africa. I would say; bring that on. I would like to say China have a go at making electricity available to poor communities in Africa.
You predict that by 2016 Sweden will be the first oil free economy. What is your research that makes you say that?
Sweden set the target of being fossil fuel free nearly10 years ago. Unlike countries that set very ambitious targets, Sweden set out with a route map. At the last count they were doing reasonably well, though they were not on target. Sweden’s continuing use of nuclear in the short term and import of Brazillian ethanol—which is controversial—has made that possible. The development of Sweden’s own biofuel industry is also interesting. Sweden has accelerated investment in ethanol from its own forests. If Sweden can keep pushing on harder, it has a reasonably good chance of getting there. Like everything in this world there are going to be reminders.
And what is the Gothenburg story about the first carbon-neutral city?
I have visited Gothenburg number of times and talked to its city planners. Gothenburg is a progressive city. Its planners have an ambition to do what I have shown them doing in the book. So I thought if you have to pick one city that is going to there, Gothenburg is the one.
Won’t some cities in Germany get there first?
Not fossil fuel free. Germany has done a great job about renewables. But it’s grid decarbonising is some way away. That has been made difficult by Germany's decision to get rid of nuclear by 2022 before the operating life of the reactors ends. I am not a nuclear fan at all. But I have to be honest the decision to take out a big chunk of low carbon generating capability at a time when you are trying to make renewables do the heavy lifting for your economy does not make sense to me.
You talk of 10 million people dying in 2025: a crisis with both financial and ecological aspects. Don’t you see any way we can avoid this?
No. You can see that I am not a gloomy person. But we have made so many mistakes. We have focussed endlessy on wrong things. GM for example. A far serious issue is dealing with food waste. If there is one issue we need to get sorted to avoid food crunch, it is food waste. But I hear politicians obsess about GM food. I never hear politicians talk about reducing food waste. About 30-45 per cent of available protein is wasted in some countries. If we crack that we don’t need to double our food production by 2013. Because we have got so much more efficient in our use of protein. I get worried about politicians going on and on about hi-tech solutions when a majority of our farmers are subsistence farmers. We don’t talk about how to free ourselves of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s model of monoculture.
Your prediction is that it will be a microbe creating havoc with agriculture
I spent a lot of time talking to agronomists and there are fears the kind of agriculture we practice will cause an outbreak of diseases. Monocultures are a breeding ground for pathogens. Agronomists are most worried about our inability to keep up with adaptation in different pathogens to think new crop selection techniques to address issues about changing vectors of diseases. So the UG 99 story in the book is not my creation. I took the word of scientists covering rust based diseases in crops like wheat.
Capitalism has created a brilliant method to maximise profit. We undervalue nature so that our surplus goes up and we make profits. There is a nexus between politicians who make policies and business which makes money. How do you think it will break?
When people ask me is the book about everything you like to see in the world today, I tell them that is not so. I would like to see people getting good at protecting nature and valuing ecosystem services. Not because we say put monetary value on them but because we realise our lives depend on it. We have not got to that point. So in the interim we have to be good at valuation through monetisation, than through wisdom. That for me is most regrettable because it means we have not internalised the kind of relations we need to have with nature. But then we have no other way that will make us have the kind of relation we want with nature. I have come up with this somewhat improbable example of soya farmers in Brazil who at the moment are the most rapacious destroyers of natural capital. They have two terrible droughts, which rouses them up. They say rain forest equals rain—sort of overnight. They become ardent advocates of saving rainforests. It’s a crude way of talking about valuing ecosystem services. But I couldn’t think of a more telling example of one of most powerful industries realising that if we don’t have management systems in place our human economy will be biggest victim.
So there are two camps. One people making money in traditional manner and others who are saying hey let's monetise nature. It seems the second group is still not strong in lobbying and campaigning.
Its growing. I spent a bit of time with Pawan Sukhdev in Mumbai who has worked on valuing ecosystems and natural capital. He is detecting a distinct shift in corporates. Business leader are realizing that just as you don’t erode your capital assets, long term resilient business means investment in natural capital. I see a different quality of business leadership now who are not just waving away nature, but looking at the degree at which their business depends on those natural assets. The language is kind of offensive. But I don’t care if a business leader says that I want to go out, become a champion of protecting natural world because my business depends on it. Fine.
You talk of achieving MDGs and make a point that rich nations don’t have money to take care of their people. This has been a problem with climate change because we want technology and financial transfer, because there is a historical crime here. So will those guilty for such crime go scot free?
I haven’t gone into details about getting rich industrial nations to pay reparations for decades of abuse of climate system. I have jumped to the point where all nations understand they have to work together on this. Collectively this means changes in system in the rich world would be more than that in the developing and emerging world. I am bit tired of the old debate, where India, China and other countries say we won’t do anything till you sort things out. I have tried to go beyond that, to a place where we all understand that we have bungled and need to put in place a different way of understanding. It does mean that in the end West will pay more. So there is some reparation yes. But I have not fronted that in the book, its true, haven’t used the language of environmental justice that is big part of my campaigning.
Can I call your book political fiction?
I will go with that. I have understated that because lots of people don’t like books about politics. I haven’t made it a book about agitprop radical activism because lots of people don’t like that. But of course this book is about politics. Superficially this book is about technology. But what is technology without politics.
Pradip Saha works with DamageControl, a research communication consultancy