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27 July 2022

Pascal Lamy on the climate crisis: “We have to go way back to find a global picture as depressing as today”

Cop27 in Egypt must focus on bespoke solutions for the host continent, says the former WTO head.

By Philippa Nuttall

Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organisation, likes to keep busy. At 75 many of his peers are settling into their retirement. Lamy, by his own admission, wears “25 hats”. Our video call at the end of July is to discuss his work with two of his hats: the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which works on governance and leadership in Africa, and the Climate Overshoot Commission. He also coordinates the Jacques Delors Institute, a think tank, and sits on the board of the European Climate Foundation. My personal favourite is his position as president of Mission Starfish, an EU initiative to restore oceans and seas. These are just the positions he names during our discussion. The full list includes more environmental NGOs, cultural organisations, European think tanks and academic positions.

Lamy, a graduate of France’s prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, is a well-known figure globally. As a member of the French government in the 1980s, he advised Jacques Delors, the finance minister, and served as deputy head of the cabinet under Pierre Mauroy, the Socialist prime minister. When Delors became president of the European Commission in Brussels, Lamy became his chief of staff. After a foray in the private sector as director-general of the French bank Crédit Lyonnais, Lamy became EU trade commissioner, then served two terms as director-general of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, finishing in 2013. 

Lamy attributes his interest in climate change and the environment to his age and the influence of his grandchildren, who live in Australia. “The Australian government has a lot to catch up about the environment, but the country’s school system vaccinates children against any environmental damage from the youngest age,” he says. “It’s very different from what we have in Europe. It’s very impressive. The contradiction between what Australia has not done and the way kids are educated about climate change and biodiversity, about birds and bees – it is striking.”

The specific focus of Lamy’s climate concern is currently Africa and ensuring that Cop27, the next international climate meeting that will be held this autumn in Egypt, gets results for the host continent. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which was created in 2006, published a report this month insisting that climate solutions agreed for Europe, the US and even China should not be copied and pasted for Africa. Cop26 last year, in Glasgow, was heralded for its agreements to end deforestation and phase down fossil fuels. Countries in the Global South, however, made it clear that the lack of financing to help them decarbonise their economies and adapt to the impacts of climate change was massively disappointing

[See also: Is nuclear energy a sustainable solution to climate change?]

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The outcome of Cop26 was “not great, to say the least, for African countries”, says Lamy. The failure of Western leaders to listen to and respond to their concerns was another example of “Covid apartheid”, he argues, referring to Western countries’ hoarding of coronavirus vaccines instead of sharing them with the Global South. But it is not only Western leaders that need to change tack. The foundation “first and foremost” wants “to convince Africans to get their act together” and address with one voice the climate-related issues specific to their continent.

The big issue in Lamy’s view is the emphasis by richer countries on reducing emissions, “mitigation” measures, rather than on helping countries to adapt to the impacts of a warmer world. “Africa’s urgent problem is not its emissions,” he said. “Economic and political growth means the continent’s demand for energy will double or treble by 2050.” Africa must switch rapidly from fossil fuels to renewables, but countries should also be allowed to use natural gas as a transition fuel to develop, he argues. It should also be remembered that Africa accounts for a very small share of global greenhouse gas emissions, 3.8 per cent, compared with China’s 23 per cent, the US’s 19 per cent and the EU’s 13 per cent, as calculated by the environmental non-profit CDP.

Renewables are the main source of electricity for almost half of Africa, but they alone are unable to address the continent’s energy gap, according to the foundation. Cop26 commitments to end international public fossil fuel financing are “a major obstacle to exploiting Africa’s natural gas wealth, which is still mainly untapped”. It is particularly hypocritical of EU countries to pledge to end financing for gas when they have agreed that gas should be considered a sustainable investment, says Lamy. “If we have a green taxonomy, so should Africa. Otherwise, it looks like we are pulling the ladder out from under them.” The continent won’t accept such “negative discrimination”, he says.

The other issue certain to cause tempers to flare in Egypt is financing, not least the failure by richer governments to stump up the €100bn they promised poorer countries years ago to help them decarbonise. Lamy, however, is more interested in private money. The creation in November 2021 of the International Sustainability Standards Board is a “real breakthrough”, he believes. “And I’m not just saying this because I’m a good friend of the chair, Emmanuel Faber.” The logic is that by providing global standards, the organisation will encourage private investors to move away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy projects. Another “game changer” would be the introduction of global carbon pricing to make polluting technologies and goods more expensive than cleaner alternatives, though Lamy admitted that getting consensus on this subject is unlikely to happen tomorrow.

Lamy is also examining the question of adaptation through the Climate Overshoot Commission. Hosted by the Paris Peace Forum, it is yet another organisation over which he presides. The commission’s work includes an investigation into geo-engineering, which sits at the most radical end of the adaptation spectrum. Despite all the talk of keeping global warming below 1.5°C, climate scientists quietly agree that managing this in reality is increasingly unlikely and at least some degree of “overshoot” is probable. The World Meteorological Organisation, a UN body, said in May that there was “a 50:50 chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level for at least one of the next five years”.

With this in mind, “we have to look at other options”, Lamy believes. His team will consider controversial technologies such as reflecting sunlight away from Earth to reduce temperatures, introducing small particles into the upper atmosphere and brightening clouds above the ocean. Geo-engineering raises “large governance problems” and would need “some sort of international agreement” so that such technologies were used “fairly”, he acknowledges. Opponents of such technologies are concerned not simply about the potential implications of fiddling with the planet’s natural processes, they fear too that rich countries could decide to invest in such technologies instead of helping poorer nations adapt with more low-tech solutions to the impacts of climate change.

The chances of any kind of success at Cop27 look grim, given the war in Ukraine and global food, energy and cost-of-living crises. “The world is in worse shape than it was last year, and last year it was in worse shape than it was the year before,” laments Lamy. “We have to go back quite a long time to find a global picture as depressing as the one we have today.” Nonetheless, he believes the glut of troubles facing the world could be the occasion to “crack nuts which have not been cracked before”, including the tough nut of helping Africa to simultaneously decarbonise and develop.

[See also: What is on the agenda at Cop27?]

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