25: Making sustainable energy available for everyone

16 November 2022

In this episode, Nick Ash, Associate Director at Arup joins Global Sustainability/ESG Partner Anna-Marie Slot.

Nick covers the importance of providing fair access to energy for the population as well as market frameworks that enable that change.

Nick also shares the shift he has seen in the energy space over the past eighteen months and what he'd like to see come out of the discussions at COP27.

This is the twenty-fifth episode in our 30 For Net Zero 30 series. In each episode, Ashurst Global Sustainability/ESG Partner Anna-Marie Slot speaks with climate action champions across the globe about real steps to take now towards 2030 goals.

The information provided is not intended to be a comprehensive review of all developments in the law and practice, or to cover all aspects of those referred to. Listeners should take legal advice before applying it to specific issues or transactions.


Hello and welcome to our latest episode of 30 For Net Zero 30. I'm Anna-Marie Slot, global sustainability and ESG partner here at Ashurst, and we're speaking with 30 change makers around the globe about actions to take now to deliver on 2030 goals. Today we're very pleased to be joined by Nick Ash, associate director at Arup in the advisory services division in Arup, and focusing a lot on energy transition. Nick also has a really interesting background in where he comes from and where he's worked. So Nick, thank you so much for joining us today. Could you tell us a little bit about your own background and then also what you do and then we can take it from there.

Hi Anna-Marie. Thanks for having me. It's great to speak to you today. So as you mentioned, my area of interest is in the energy sector and my career is focused on making sustainable energy available to people and organisations around the world. I studied engineering and also did energy economics and policy. So I like to work on the challenges that occur at the intersection of the technical aspects and the market aspects of the energy sector. And most of my time is spent thinking about the challenges around making energy affordable for everyone, but in a clean way so that they can use that in preference to fossil fuels. In the energy sector, the move from fossil fuels, away from that towards clean energy has become known as the energy transition, or some people have gone so far as to say an energy transformation because of the pace of change that is required.

I grew up in South Africa, and that's where my career started. Then I had a few years in Singapore, working in Asia, and now I have the pleasure of working in Arup's office in London. For those of you listeners that don't know Arup, it's a multidisciplinary firm of advisors, designers, and engineers dedicated to sustainable development in the built environment based in offices around the world. Having said that, though, the opinions that I'm sharing today are my own and don't necessarily represent those of Arup's. So I've had the privilege through my career then of working on clean energy projects in developing countries in Asia, in Africa, as well as South America. So this show being about ESG matters, automatically when I think of ESG my thoughts tend towards the mitigation of climate change and providing fair access to energy for the population as well as market frameworks that enable that change.

Interesting. And a really interesting kind of boots on the ground way of looking at it, particularly this year, COP27 being the Africa COP, I think bringing that viewpoint in of having lived and been in both Africa and Asia is a very different viewpoint from people who haven't actually worked and lived on the ground there. You've been in the energy space for a while now. Have you seen a shift over the last 18 months, two years around it, and in particular there always becomes a frenzy around the COP each year about what people are doing, but in particular for this COP, as I said, the Africa COP, what is it that you would like to see come out of COP27?

Well, as you say, I think it really is significant that COP is being hosted in Africa this year. Really exciting. It's in Egypt. And as we've seen top of the agenda for the COP presidents this year has been compensation from developed nations to developing nations, particularly with the focus this year to help those developing nations to adapt to the negative effects of climate change. And energy obviously has a big role to play there because energy and fossil fuels have been the source of most of the stock of greenhouse gas emissions that we've managed to put into the atmosphere. So energy will be key to moving towards a net zero society. So this idea of the compensation from developed nations to developing nations, it really is a key issue for African nations and also Asian nations, in fact developing nations generally. And it really comes to the heart of this issue of climate justice that the countries that contribute to the fewest greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere historically tend to be the ones that are least equipped to be able to deal with the fallout from the negative effects of climate change.

And one just needs to look at our news feeds from the last few months. The flooding in Pakistan, Nigeria, Mozambique, and then on the other hand, record droughts in places like the Horn of Africa in China, and in large parts of Europe as well, those horrible extended heat waves in India. All of these things really do show the impact on developing countries. Now, I'm not COP aficionado, but I understand that the official parlance for this idea of adaptation and increasing resilience in the face of climate change is loss and damage. That's the formal term for it. So it comes down to those societies' ability to adapt to and be resilient in the face of the significant adverse effects of climate change.

And it really does get to the human side of climate change as well as the environmental side. So with my background in the energy sector, I'm biased to think primarily of greenhouse gas mitigation when we talk about COP, when talk about climate change, but adaptation and resilience is also really important because we are already seeing those negative effects and we need to help countries not only reduce their dependency on fossil fuels and move towards net zero, but also prepare for a world where climates are different because of the negative effect of the greenhouse gas emissions that are already in the atmosphere.

No, exactly. And we talked a little while ago with another podcast person, which was John Lang, who has some really good infographics that shows the cumulative effect of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the fact that there are changes already afoot, as you mentioned. And I think really it's an interesting time to talk about adaptation because that hasn't been a big topic up to now. People are really much more focused on transitioning to clean energy, which is more of a mitigation, but that doesn't address the fact that there are alterations to the climate that are happening at the moment. And as you say, Africa and Asia are on the front end of receipt of a lot of those extremes in terms of drought and weather and heat. You're right, I think that's going to be a huge topic of conversation, not the least of which, even if you don't think of it as compensation for other countries, it is a global problem, and the wealth of the existing wealthy nations has been built off the back of a fossil fuel economy.

So those two things kind of went together and countries who haven't achieved that wealth yet should also should be growing their countries. Everybody wants to grow their country. So then how do you do that in a way that on a global basis is beneficial for everyone? And I think that's going to be a huge topic around how do we work together then to develop prosperity but also in a way that all of us can continue to exist on the planet? So in terms of specific actions that you're seeing or that you think you'd like to see in terms of that conversation or the wider questions about net zero, what is it that you think could be a real game changer for companies and for organisations to really deliver on that transition?

So if it's okay, I'd like to maybe shift the focus from adaptation and resilience to mitigation now, because you mentioned net zero and when we talk about net zero, we are talking about reducing the amounts of emissions that we're putting out into the atmosphere now and into the future rather than adaptation. And that's an area where I've been specifically focused. So we are already starting to see encouraging results from developed countries in achieving greenhouse gas emissions reductions. There's always some nuance to the story, but we seeing in countries like the UK and the US and the Eurozone that they generally appear to be on target to achieving their net zero aims by mid-century. There's a lot of press of sure we're not doing enough quickly enough, but those countries and regions really are demonstrating good progress and that is encouraging.

However, it's a different story when we look at lots of the developing countries, countries like China, India, Indonesia, those that are quite near the top of the largest emitter lists, and China being top, if I'm not mistaken, there's not only a risk of them missing their targets for net zero, but currently the trajectory's in the wrong direction, that they're still increasing year on year. There's a really telling graphic in last week's edition of The Economist, which shows how emissions continue to increase significantly in China, Indonesia, Russia, despite their targets for net zero around mid-century. And it seems like that is true of other developing countries. And I think there's good reason for that. And you've mentioned that in your introduction that the rich world has now managed to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. For a long period they were very much correlated, but now the rich world has found a way to grow economically while still reduce those carbon emissions.

But this has not happened in developing countries. I suppose a lot of reason for that is because developed nations have been able to move more to a service orientated economy. They're not as reliant on the industrial sector and those heavy emitting areas. So in developing countries we're seeing that increases in prosperity are still associated with corresponding increases in emissions, and even more so crucially, the industry that's powered by fossil fuels tend to have a really big role in those economies as well, sustaining jobs, creating supply chains. So it is something that needs to be looked at very, very carefully. A good example is in my native South Africa where the emissions associated with power generation are among the highest per capita in the world because of the country's reliance on coal.

But when you look at coal mining and the coal power sector, they are really significant providers of jobs in the country. And that's important in a country where unemployment rate is around 34%, give or take a few percent at the moment. So any talk about reducing reliance on coal in South Africa is extremely politically sensitive and fraught. So again, coming back to this issue of climate justice, I think there is a moral obligation on countries that have been able to increase their prosperity through the use of fossil fuels through the Industrial Revolution to help developing countries to find ways of increasing their prosperity without adding to the stock of greenhouse gas emissions as much as they had.

And developed countries have made some significant pledges to do this as well. You can think back to the commitment made in 2009, I believe it was at COP in Copenhagen, where developed nations committed to providing a target of up to 100 billion per year in finance for climate action by 2020. Okay, that target was missed. The OECD says that they only achieved about 83% of that in 2020, but they've pushed back the target, and there was talk last year at Glasgow about achieving that as soon as possible. We've seen that that's being mobilised through a combination of public funding, bilateral, and multilateral funding, export credits, but then also the private sector investment that's crowded in through those interventions as well.

So to me, the effective distribution and the responsible implementation of this funding will be that game changer. It's not just about throwing money at the problem and creating infrastructure. It's needing to really address the underlying fundamentals of how these economies are structured, providing capacity building for decision makers, for regulators to provide training, transfer of lessons learned from developed nations. All of these things are going to be required and it's going to take time, it's going to be nuanced specific to the needs of each country, but it's a really important step in process for helping developing countries to chart their path to net zero.

Well yeah, and a real opportunity for them to leapfrog over things that we know won't be working in the future and to put in place that more resilient, that more sustainable future proofed, in a sense, way of doing pretty much everything, I would've thought, across the industries and across the economies. We always ask, because this is a question not just for companies and organisations, but also for us as individuals in our own lives, as investors, as consumers, as stakeholders in various organisations, any commitment on your own around net zero or sustainability?

So from a personal perspective, I suppose when you're asked questions like that, we tend to think of those big expensive interventions that you can make like replacing your petrol car with an electric vehicle or installing solar panels on the house. Now I think that those things are great, but in the same way they can also be quite daunting or difficult, particularly in the current economic environment. So I think that we also underestimate the small, more manageable changes that we can make to our lifestyle that can have a positive effect on our carbon footprint. So in aggregate, those small things, across the population, they can result in significant emissions reductions, and they can also save us money as well. So just thinking, for example, you mentioned our role as consumers. Simply buying less stuff means that we automatically reduce our carbon footprints associated with our consumerism.

So I've started to ask myself those key questions, "Do I actually need that new pair of shoes or that gadget that I think's going to improve my life, but will it really at the end of the day?" And then we need to buy and buy things for ourselves, but when we do, say, buy clothes, for example, are we steering clear of fast fashion, for example, and going for more durable clothing which would last longer? With things like gadgets or tools or those types of things, can you buy it secondhand or maybe borrow from a neighbour rather than get it new? So applying basic circular economy principles to our lives.

Another area is thinking about our diets as well. Having grown up in South Africa, which is very much into eating meat and eating dairy, I've been thinking recently about can I cut down on those things and replace it with less carbon intensive products? More fruits and vegetables and non-meat products. So I'm trying these range of measures, I'm trying to weave them all into my life in different ways, and I'm having more success in some areas than others. One of the things that is admittedly most difficult to do living in the UK is thinking about fewer overseas trips, flying overseas, and thinking about more local holidays because one does enjoy the warmer weather every now and again. So there's always this tension between wanting to live a comfortable life but also not have an outsized impact on the environment as a result of that.

No, exactly, exactly. And really end of December, beginning of January, there's plenty of reasons to leave the UK, including the dark nights and the dark mornings and everything else. I understand that. And it makes a really good point. And it's also a point for companies and for organisations and for people who are running those companies, people are wanting less of things, and especially here in this macroeconomic environment we're in at the moment, companies need to be making things or doing things, but companies also need to rethink what they're making and how they're doing it because that revenue is going to be shifting over time as people become more aware of the impacts, those wider impacts, real huge opportunities for circularity for those companies. So Nick, just one last thing, a takeaway for listeners, something that think they can take away from the end of this podcast, walk back into their regular lives and think about every so often that might help us all accelerate along this net zero pathway?

So I suppose the key takeaway is related to what I've just said, in this theme of keeping it manageable, not making it too big a task that you never actually get round to it. Quite a simple thing to do is I would suggest go online and calculate your carbon footprint, the carbon footprint of your lifestyle. There's a number of useful tools out there. And for those of your listeners that have got children, they've probably done it as part of their science class already as well. When our clients come to us at Arup and ask us where do they start for reducing their emissions on their path to net zero, we always advise them as the first step is start with the baseline. What is your current emissions profile looking like? And you start to see some interesting things and you can see areas where there's some low hanging fruit where you can reduce relatively quickly.

So admittedly, I hadn't done one of these carbon footprint tools until recently, but there were some really unexpected insights for me and my family. So we mentioned flights earlier. So one return flight for me to go and visit family in South Africa is more than double the annual emissions from my energy use in my house, which for me was hugely surprising. And then we were also talking about consumption earlier as well. So my family's annual consumption just of groceries, food, drink, clothing, those things on an annual basis is then more than double what the climate impact of my flight to South Africa is again. So these insights are just hugely interesting to get. So that would be the key takeaway.

I think the hope is that in the future as society as a whole and supply chains move more to net zero and we decarbonize the various things we do, our own carbon footprint is not going to be linked to the amount that we consume, but we're still quite a long way from that. So in the short term we can have meaningful impacts by looking at our consumer behaviour. And a good way of getting an insight into that is doing a carbon footprint calculation.

Excellent, excellent. So you can go back and everyone can do their carbon calculation and then compare it over lunch, it'll be probably more interesting than the calorie count. Thanks so much, Nick. I really appreciate your insights, really appreciate coming from having been in Africa, in Asia, and understanding what it looks like from that perspective. So really appreciate your time today.

Great. Thanks for having me Anna-Marie, it's been a pleasure.

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