Amid a summer of heatwaves and wildfires, GZERO Daily spoke with Eurasia Group Vice Chairman Gerald Butts to see how far humanity is from reaching net-zero emissions.
Butts spearheaded Canada’s transition to green energy, helped craft the Paris Climate Accord – the first legally binding international treaty on climate change – and pioneered Canada’s national climate plan. As principal secretary to the premier of Ontario, he facilitated the replacement of all of the province’s coal plants with renewable and nuclear energy, creating a blueprint for green energy transition used by governments around the world.
So Butts closely follows the work of UN climate summits and is keen to see progress made at this year’s COP28 in Dubai this November. He was less than impressed by this week’s news that the host, the United Arab Emirates, has said it would prefer not to discuss some sensitive topics, including fossil fuel burning, at the summit.
“COP has become almost a parody of itself,” Butts says, noting he hopes “the whole thing doesn’t blow up” ahead of this year’s edition. But he also shares reasons for optimism, from falling renewable energy prices to the potential for younger generations to expedite the progress started by the Paris Climate Accord.
Riley Callanan: Over the past four to five years, what do you think is the most important thing that's been accomplished toward combating climate change?
Gerald Butts: The most important thing is that renewables are being proven as an economic replacement for fossil energy. That isn't happening at the scale or the speed that it needs to, but since I started working on this, you know, many moons ago, renewables have come down in price by 90%, and there's every indication that that price curve will continue to go down.
Callanan: Are there areas where humanity is heading toward danger?
Butts: All over the place. I think the physical manifestations of climate change are proving to be every bit as difficult to deal with as scientists warned us they would be.
And they're only just starting. I think we're at about 1.3 degrees of warming now, and that's half of what we're probably on track for if we don't expedite the retirement of fossil fuels and fossil energy systems.
No matter where you live in the world, you're feeling it. Whether it's the wildfires in Canada or the floods. In the last three months, my home province, Nova Scotia, has been beset by both wildfires and floods like they've never experienced before. Everywhere's feeling it: India, Africa, the southern United States are all baking this summer.
I think the hard thing for people to wrap their heads around is that we tend to think of weather as episodic. But if you can think about climate change mathematically, it's like changing the statistics of weather so that the baseline gets higher. The high temperatures get higher, low temperatures get higher, and as a consequence, you have many, many more, events that are really difficult for humans and other living things to deal with.
Callanan: What is the state of global cooperation on climate change right now?
Butts: This is something that I think that's poorly understood in our circles and geopolitics. The genius of the Paris Climate Accord was that everybody kind of came together and made a series of commitments to reduce their emissions over the same baseline year and that they would all go home and figure out the appropriate way to do that for their own economies. Then they would come back and share what they were doing. The theory was that best practices would get shared around the world. Like the coal retirement in Ontario, or, you know, solar at scale in China. And it's mostly worked.
It's worked, but not fast enough. And there are very few governments that are going to meet the targets that they set out, but at least it bent the curve of emissions in the right direction. It's like putting a chain on a bike. When the chain comes off the bike, you can't go anywhere until you get the chain on. But once you do, then you can start pedaling. I think the Paris Accord was really about putting the chain on the bike to reduce carbon emissions. Now we've got to pedal faster and faster.
Callanan: Do you think that that is what COP summits have been? The chain starting to move from the Paris Climate Accord? What do you think of the next one, COP28, being hosted by the United Arab Emirates?
Butts: I think COP has become almost a parody of itself. This year it will definitely be worth watching, given where it is and who the host is. The activist community is very unhappy about it, for understandable reasons.
There are generally two schools of thought. There are those who think that you need to take gray or black industries, like oil in the UAE, and turn them green. And there are others that say that those industries need to be left as relics of the past. And they both describe themselves as pragmatic, but it depends on how you look at the issue.
At this year’s COP, I can see the reasoning behind both camps, so those two arguments about climate change are really going to come to a head.
Callanan: Is there anything specific or any policy promises that you hope come out of COP 28?
Butts: I hope the whole thing doesn't blow up, frankly. I hope that there's some kind of tangible bridge building between the North and the Global South, as imperfect as those terms are. But, look, the wealthiest people in the world are responsible for this problem and understandably people, in poor countries are not happy about bearing the consequences.
So the best thing and the potentially combustible thing about COP is that you have all of those countries together.
Callanan: How do wealthier nations like the US and China, which are also huge emitters and largely responsible for the problem, have productive conversations with poorer countries? And especially with rapidly developing countries like India, which have so much incentive to use cheaper energy, but are also acutely exposed to the effects of climate change?
Butts: The first thing that wealthy countries should be doing, I think, is to get their own houses in order and reduce their own emissions more quickly because they have the capital and the knowhow to do it.
And the theory proven by the Chinese experience with renewables is that the reason the cost of renewables has come down so much is largely because of the scale effects achieved by the Chinese solar, wind, and battery storage industries.
So wealthy countries should be doing everything they can to decarbonize their own energy, their own economies, and export that technology, and help finance the spread of that technology around the world.
The other really pernicious thing about climate change is that it doesn't matter where you burn carbon, where you emit a carbon atom into the atmosphere, a molecule into the atmosphere. It has the same impact because it spreads around the planet. So, whether it's in Abu Dhabi, Atlanta, or Brazil, or you name it, it doesn't really matter.
Callanan: What do you think is the biggest roadblock to global cooperation right now?
Butts: I think it's mostly the dynamics you described. Countries like China see it as a break on their own economic development and that's a problem. It's a huge problem. I don't necessarily think it will be in the long run, but it's hard to argue that it isn’t true in the short term. And people think short term – especially politicians. So it's a challenge.
Callanan: How do we balance the need to invest in adapting to climate change while we're also investing in transitioning to green economies?
Butts: That's a fantastic question. I think people really underappreciated how much money is going to be spent on making existing infrastructure more resilient to climate change.
And it's not a tomorrow problem, but it's not far from being tomorrow's problem. We're going to have to deal with sea level rise, which will eventually become the most expensive consequence of climate change.
When you look at most countries, their major cities are on their coasts, and in low-lying areas for obvious reasons. So these are going to be huge challenges felt in Baltimore, in Miami, up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada.
But I do think there's one thing I should mention. I think that the real underappreciated consequence of climate change, which is arguably already happening, is forced human migration. We're simply creating a climate, in between the tropics in particular, where most of humanity lives, that is going to be really hard to live in. It's going to be hard to grow food. It's going to be hard to maintain reliable sources of fresh water. And frankly, it's just going to be too hot for people to live comfortably. And that means they're going to be moving.
You look at the relatively modest human migration events we've had to deal with over the past 10 years, whether it be the consequences of Syria's internal conflicts, what's happening in Central America, or what's happening with the migration of Africans to Southern Europe, we do not deal with that situation very well. Not very well at all. And the politics are going to be really difficult.
Callanan: Are there any reasons for optimism?
Butts: I'm an optimistic person by nature. I think that people react to changes in their environment in a way that's long-term positive. The real difficulty is that there's no time. There's just no time.
But people are resilient and adaptable. I just think that we didn't spread all over the globe over the last 10,000 years by accident.
The kind of balancing upside is demographics. There were like 3. 8 billion people on the planet when I was born in 1971. And there are 3.5 billion people in Gen Z alone, 90% of which are in emerging markets. So I have a lot of faith in people strategically representing their own interests and I think that we're just seeing that beginning to happen on climate.
I'm not a doomer. I don't believe that this is the end of the species. I think that it just means we've made life a lot more difficult for ourselves and for the people who will look at us as ancestors than was really necessary.