Books about climate action are piling into the market, but Mike Berners-Lee’s contribution, first published two years ago, remains essential reading for businesses, policymakers and the general public.
In an updated version of There is No Planet B, Berners-Lee, founder of Small World Consulting, an associate company of Lancaster University in the UK, reiterates his call to action to rid the world of fossil fuels. Berners-Lee avoids any kind of grandstanding, instead offering readers a comprehensive set of practical, data-backed questions and answers. His wants to steer companies, politicians and the rest of us as quickly as possible onto a more sustainable path.
Berners-Lee is good company, maintaining a chatty, conciliatory tone, but he knows how to pack a well-aimed punch too.
The culture of a company is just as important as its energy policies if net zero is to be reached, he insists, commenting: “In the 21st century it is totally unhelpful to have organisations that exist primarily in order to make a profit.”
He ends his book with 14 points every politician should understand “before they are fit for office”. Even most climate policymakers have yet to “get their head around” the fact that any real dent has yet to be made in the carbon curve or that all fossil fuels now need to stay in the ground, he says.
The original version of There is No Planet B was published two years ago. Why did you decide to update it now?
The energy transition and climate action is a really fast-changing scene. The new edition is an opportunity to talk about some big shifts that were taking place even before the pandemic. These changes happened, at least in part, because kids, partly inspired by Greta Thunberg, were taking to the streets to demand climate action. The rise of Extinction Rebellion [XR] and the UK tightening its carbon reduction targets are two examples.
Perhaps more surprising is the ton of calls to my consultancy from the asset management community wanting to know how to ensure their funds are really sustainable. In the last two years, the stampede for net zero has really begun.
You mentioned the UK tightening its carbon reduction budget, but it has also just approved a new coal mine. Where does the UK really stand on the energy transition?
Post-Brexit and post-Covid, the UK has the opportunity to become an energy transition leader. The Climate Change Committee, in its latest 1,000 pages of advice to government, spells out the economic opportunities of a proper green transition and the need to make the Covid recovery really deep green. We need a recovery plan that makes the world a better place and creates green job opportunities.
The approval of a new coal mine is beyond belief. The arguments around it are totally bogus; it is a bit of Trumpism in the UK, an example of fiction triumphing over fact. Top climate experts, steel experts and economists gave evidence refuting the case made in the planning application.
All companies need to take a holistic approach to the transition to sustainability. With Facebook, for example, we look at what they are doing on democracy and truth as having more climate impact than their own emissions.
By 2050, the European steel industry won’t use coke any more and the coal mine will be left high and dry. The level of emissions over the coal mine’s lifetime will be equivalent to the UK’s total annual emissions. We will look stupid at the COP  if the project goes ahead, but I remain hopeful that no coal will come out of the ground [a judicial review is planned].
However, the fact Robert Jenrick [the UK communities secretary] didn’t call it in shows the government is still conflicted over what it thinks about climate change. In ruling that the mine was a local decision, Jenrick showed he either hadn’t grasped the basics of the case or was dishonest about his reasons.
The UK is looking pretty stupid over many issues at the moment, but we have a chance to look good and have some standing around climate if we get it right before and during the COP.
Could this include the City becoming a sustainable finance centre?
There is a new seriousness and new demand for transparency from the finance industry, and an increasing yearning from asset managers for trustworthy funds that push the global energy transition.
In my consultancy, we are developing frameworks to help asset management companies assess the extent to which they are really pushing for systemic change and be better able to thrive in a changing world.
All companies need to take a holistic approach to the transition to sustainability. This is not just about measuring carbon footprints. With Facebook, for example, we look at what they are doing on democracy and truth as having more climate impact than their own emissions.
That all companies promote a culture of truth and intrinsic values, such as respect and care for the world, will be necessary for humanity to thrive in the years ahead.
We need to create a culture for business in which it is embarrassing to be seen to be careless with the truth. And we need a discerning public and a discerning media so we can create a society where standards are high and we can all be better at telling fact from fiction, and minding more about the difference between the two.
Are the worlds of business and finance really changing?
If we are to get big systemic change, we need a big push from politics, business and the public. I thought asset managers would see me as a bit nutty if I talked about XR, but not at all, most people can see the space it has been opening up. I can now use the phrase “climate emergency” with companies and not be seen as a hippy.
A simple, essential principle is that business responses to climate change need to be coherent with science. This approach includes dealing with emissions and energy use in their own operations and also in their supply chains.
Brewdog [a Scottish-headquartered brewery and bar chain] is the best example I have worked with of a company where people get this. We worked with them to set up a strong decarbonisation programme for both operations and supply chains, including the commitment to take carbon out of air through carefully vetted and ecologically sensitive forestation schemes, as well as a wider communication programme.
Companies need to agree to high standards where there is no trading-off through bogus offset schemes.
What are the main messages from your book you want readers to remember and act on?
There are a few simple messages that are still not properly out there:
If you looked down from Mars, you would say people hadn’t noticed climate change yet. Nobody has got anything to be self-congratulatory about. Even growing our renewables to the size of today’s global energy supply will do us no good whatsoever if we stay on today’s energy growth trajectory. To give renewables a chance of replacing rather than augmenting fossil fuels, the world needs to leave fossil fuels in the ground. This is much easier if we can stop growing our energy demand.
Efficiency on its own won’t solve our problems, it will only help reduce energy use and emissions if coupled with better constraints on total resource use. Efficiency gains tend to be accompanied by an even greater increase in output. In the 1800s, when the UK started using coal more efficiently, it wanted more, not less of it. We see the same dynamic everywhere.
There are lots of storylines from oil companies that need flushing out. Shell’s energy transition pledges go hand in hand with plans to take ever more fossil fuels out of the ground. We urgently need a working global agreement to leave fuel in the ground – extracting and burning fossil fuels has to become too expensive, illegal or both.
The easiest way of making fossil fuel too expensive is to have a big global carbon price. It probably needs to be a few hundred dollars a tonne quite soon. This can start on a regional basis provided it is accompanied by taxes on imported, embodied carbon. In the end, we will need a global arrangement, however.
All companies need to include scope 3 emissions [all indirect emissions in the value chain] in their decarbonisation plans and ensure that science-based targets are attached to supply chains as well as their own operations. They have to make it clear: “If you want to be a preferred supplier, you have to sort out your carbon.” In this way, they can create a snowball effect.
Philippa Nuttall Jones, based in Brussels, has over 20 years’ experience as a journalist and communications expert covering environmental issues, energy and climate change from the UK, France and Belgium.