It’s only the beginning of climate crisis – Nobel Peace Prize laureate

With more violent hurricanes and scorching heat waves advancing, can we really get our act together and do something about climate change? We talked to Rae Kwon Chung, Nobel Peace Prize winner as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change and a Global Energy Prize International Award Committee member.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Mr. Chung, thank you very much for being with us today. It’s a great pleasure. Lots to talk about. I want to start with climate change. It’s such a huge topic and people are divided on it. For instance, this summer, the world went through another breaking heatwave records. And each summer in Europe it seems to get worse and worse. Is this climate change in action? Is this what it looks like? 

Rae Kwon Chung: I have been following the climate change issues for more than twenty years. And we have been giving the warning from 1990s that the climate change will be coming. But now I say that it has already arrived. This year in Seoul it was about 40 degrees. We never experienced this kind of heatwave. But it’s not only in Korea. Even Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, but also Greece, Portugal and even the United States are suffering from terrible draught as well as wildfires. Now I think, the Earth is really showing its anger and fury to the world that they are really getting serious climate change. So it is only the beginning of the new risk of the climate crisis.  

SS: I’ve heard the UN Secretary General saying for the millionth time that we have to do something about it right now. So why can’t the UN do something about it - or can they? 

R-KC: Many people think UN can do something about it, right? But in fact the UN is just a platform for countries to come and unite to take a joint action. So UN alone cannot take any action. UN has been facilitating the countries to take actions. That’s been the role the UN has been playing.   

SS: That’s a scientific point of view. Scientists say that the whole world has to come together and we should all be together in this process. But is it a little naive to think that each nation is going to jump head forward into this process of saving planet? It doesn’t seem to be No.1 priority on many nations’ agendas. Is it naive to think that people will just come together? 

R-KC: It is a very puzzling question for me because if you think your life is in danger many people will take an immediate action to save their own life. But if the danger is coming in a slow fashion, people are not aware about the danger which is coming sooner or later. For example, I’d like to tell you just one data, many people still have doubts, many people still deny climate change. But it’s a geological fact that eight millions years ago when the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was about 400 ppm, at that time there was no ice in the North Pole. And 40 millions years ago CO2 was 700 ppm, and at that time there was no ice in the South Pole. Now we’re already over 400 ppm. So sooner or later we will have no more ice in the north. Maybe some people will say that it’s good news for Russia. But sooner or later the sea level will go up. And if we go over 700 ppm (and many people project we will go over 1000 ppm by the end of the century), if it’s 1000 ppm then it will get 6-7 degrees hotter. The sea level 40 million years ago was 100 meter higher. So this is a geological fact. And if this kind of thing is really happening with no ice on north and south and the sea level is going up this is a matter of our survival. But still people don’t take it… 

SS: That’s what I’m saying - these facts aren’t secret, it’s an open information. People keep saying and stating them  - scientists and well-respected people like you. And then people somehow aren’t convinced. For instance, Mr. Trump - he doesn’t seem to think that climate change is real, and half of Americans do not. I just don’t understand, how come smart and educated people - and I do think Trump is smart and educated - still have doubts about something so obvious? 

R-KC: My comment is that we live in the world where we’re so obsessed with short-term profit, the short-term interest and making fast money. Last year typhoon hurricane Irma was hitting Miami, and that day they were telecasting it online in real time. The telecasting of climate crisis was like as if it was just a game. But it’s not a game, it’s really happening. The stronger hurricanes and wildfires are coming.   

SS: Do you feel like the PR things like Nobel Peace Prize or Al Gore doing the documentary on environmental change shame people into doing something? Is it a good approach to, for instance, shame Trump or shame governments into taking action?  

R-KC: I’m taking a different approach. Just arguing that climate crisis is coming is not enough. The basic reason why these people are not taking any action for climate change is because, for example, the reduction of CO2 emissions is going to damage the economic growth and jobs and my money. That’s why they are not taking real actions. I’m trying to say that in reality if we take action for CO2 reduction like energy efficiency, the renewal energy, it will actually generate more money, more jobs and even higher economic growth. So I want to change the storyline that climate action is not bad for economic growth or your money, but climate change will be beneficial, good, positive, making money for you. That’s the kind of story. 

SS: So if you tie it down to money, will people take action? 

R-KC: That’s right. 

SS: Maybe, I’m thinking, if it becomes fashionable it can become a trend. You know, Americans are very prone to big movements like this #MeToo movement that absolutely revolutionised America. Maybe something like that should happen in terms of climate change that all Americans should come together saying that climate change is real? 

R-KC: Actually, it’s happening in Europe. If you go to many European capitals and cities, like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, so many people are riding bicycles. They refuse to drive a car and they’re already riding bicycles. This kind of movement can happen in the United States as well. But the design of cities in the United States is not really good for riding bicycle. So this is a more fundamental problem. But also in some other parts of the world, like China or other developing countries, they are now throwing away their bicycles, they are jumping into their cars now, they want to enjoy the benefit of the economic growth.     

SS: Then you have the serious treaties like the Paris agreement that was supposed to regulate it. But what you see is that these talks are stalled because nations are bickering on who is going to pay more or less for cutting carbon emissions - if treaties like the Paris agreement are not effective then what is?  

R-KC: The Paris Climate agreement is just a voluntary pledge and just a review. So there’s no mandatory implementation or imposition of any commitment. This is just a voluntary mechanism, this is a weakness of the Paris Climate Agreement. 

SS: But why can’t we make it mandatory, like you’re saying? Why can’t nations come up with a treaty where everyone is obliged to somehow participate? Certainly people seem to agree when it comes to nuclear weapons, why can’t they agree on cutting down on carbon emissions? 

R-KC: That is the question everybody’s asking from climate circle. But the answer is because nobody wants to accept that kind of obligation from top-down. They want their freedom, they want their short-term interest. This is the situation. That’s why I think it’s more important to present to them that CO2 emissions reduction will generate more jobs and money for you. I think, that’s the better way of persuading them to take action.   

SS: So now America pulled out of the Paris treaty - do you think it killed the treaty? 

R-KC: I don’t think it killed the treaty. As you know, it’s going on, for example, countries like China, India and Europe, they are going ahead with their actions. The main reason why they are going ahead with it, for example, for China  - China believes that solar and wind power is going to stimulate and create more jobs, economic growth and even electric cars. Half of electric cars in the world are in China. China believes that renewable energy has a future. So they are thinking that investing in renewable energy and climate action will stimulate their economic growth. So there are different attitudes about the same issue. We will see sooner or later who will win.   

SS: Do you feel like America will return to the Paris treaty some day? Or is it a done deal and whoever comes after Trump isn’t going to change the policy? 

R-KC: I think, sooner or later some other president who will come later, if he finds that climate action is creating more jobs and making more money, I think, they will change their policy then. 

SS: Again, I’m going to quote the UN Secretary General saying that “we are on the edge of the abyss here”. Meanwhile, the politicians always argue about budgets and no progress being made. But can you blame poorer countries for not contributing in fighting climate change? I mean, they’re barely making ends meet within their countries… 

R-KC: No, I believe, that blaming the developing country is not the solution because the per capita emission of CO2 is much higher in rich countries. They drive their SUVs, so they spend a lot more energy and have more CO2 emission. So you cannot blame the poor countries - their per capita emissions are very low. In India is just 1 or 2 tonnes now. The issue is how rich countries can change their lifestyle and how they can do better job for the disasters that they created in their own history.    

SS: I know that there’s an upcoming climate change conference in Poland and big business leaders have been invited. Do you feel like if politicians can’t take real action then private sector can change things? 

R-KC: Now, very interestingly, many businesses like British Petroleum (BP) and Shell - those are leading oil companies - are also joining forces in taking climate action because they believe renewable energy has a future for them. They cannot only focus on fossil fuel. They have to think about spreading the risk that they are trying to invest in the renewable energy as well. Many companies in the private sector are changing the attitude, they’re even asking for clear policy guidelines to take an action. They are saying to the politicians: “We are not denying the climate action, we  want clear schedule, then we will meet the target.” That’s the attitude of the private sector. But the politicians on their side are still afraid of losing the votes. People voted for them and they don’t like higher prices for energy, electricity. So the politicians are afraid of losing their vote. That’s why they cannot take action. So we cannot blame the politicians because we voted for them. And actually we have to blame ourselves. Because we have to vote for somebody who can take actions.      

SS: Let’s talk electric “supergrids”. This will actually allow power to be transferred far and with minimal losses. For instance, places like Mongolia with lots of space and sun and wind will transfer energy to China. Could that be an answer to coal - something we still heavily rely on? 

R-KC: I think, it is a very important technological breakthrough. Because as you know, the renewable energy like solar and wind, they have certain limitations. Countries like South Korea or Japan - we don’t have enough land space to install enough solar panels. So linking those remote areas like Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and also Kazakhstan I’m promoting the idea of the Silk Road supergrid of installing huge scale of solar and wind farms in Kazakhstan, and linking all those countries along the Silk Road and exporting and sharing renewable energy. I think, this will be a game changer, the quantum jump of generation in renewable energy because now we have incremental change of renewable energy growing. But the speed is not enough at all. The speed we want has to be like 30-40% every year, but now it’s only 6-7%. That’s not enough to meet the target. So to make a quantum jump in renewable energy we need this kind of technological breakthrough like supergrids.          

SS: That could be a game changer in other ways too: the project like supergrids is a private investment project. You said that there’s a Japanese businessman who wants to invest a quarter of a trillion dollars into the project. It’s a wonderful plan, but to some it would seem eccentric. Do you think if eccentric people would put that much money into the project that could become a trend and then others will follow suit? 

R-KC: I don’t think he’s doing this because he’s crazy or he’s philanthropic, no. He calculated and he found out that it makes sense economically. He has already calculated that, he can make money. That’s why he’s investing, so he’s not crazy. This is very important. The reason why I’m promoting this is because, first of all I’m very supportive of the supergrids, it can generate money and create jobs not only in Mongolia, but in countries like Kazakhstan because if you invest on a larger scale the cost of electricity goes down and down, getting even cheaper than coal-fired electricity. Coal-fired electricity is about 5-6 cents per kilowatt. Now, the cost of electricity from solar panel already went down to 4 cents in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But in Kazakhstan and Mongolia it can go down to 4 cents. So it’s already even cheaper than coal. This is why this technology can be a game changer. We only need larger spaces of land. But it’s not only in Kazakhstan or Mongolia’s Gobi desert, but even in Siberia.  

SS: Can they be implemented somewhere like Sahara where there’s plenty of sun? 

R-KC: Of course. They have been talking about it. But until now there have been some technological problems, that’s why this project didn’t go very well two or three years ago. But now this technological breakthrough is almost completed.  Now they say it’s within our reach. 

SS: Do you feel these new ideas about power help countries that produce solar and wind energy? Resources are a blessing for some countries and not for others - for instance, you look at Africa, those are the most richest countries with diamonds and so many natural resources and then they are so poor… 

R-KC: This is why we need supergrids. We need to link these countries with long-distance transmission lines. This is actually not only my idea, but President Xi Jinping already proposed in 2015 the global energy interconnection around the whole world with the supergrid. People are already talking about it. That’s why, I think, sooner or later this will make a big breakthrough.  

SS: The answer to the problem of dirty power is to produce cleaner power. Are there ways to reduce the consumption of power altogether? 

R-KC: I was arguing to my people in Korea and all over the world that we have to differentiate clean power and dirty power to care about our future and our survival. So the energy source like gas, which is very abundant in Russia - Russia can contribute by exporting gas which can be a bridge from very dirty to very clean, but gas is going to be in the middle and for some time in the future gas can fill in the gap until we are able to switch or transform towards cleaner energy sources. So Russia has a big role to play by exporting gas. 

SS: Then there’s a problem of balance. Obviously a lot of countries are very keen on sustainable living, but what good is this to cut emissions in Germany or Europe if China keeps polluting the rest of the world at the same time as other countries are cutting it? 

R-KC: You don’t have to forget that the per capita emission of China has been very low. Per capita emission of CO2 in Germany and China has recently been at the same level. But for a long time of 20-30 years China’s per capita CO2 emission has been very low. I only admire the Chinese action because China has been taking a very decisive action. As you might know, China has already replaced all the boilers in Beijing with gas. They have already completely closed down coal-fired boilers there. China has been promoting electric cars, they are also closing down dirty coal-fired plants, they have been destroying hundreds of them. China’s path of CO2 emissions is slowing down, faster than any other country in the history of economic development.  

SS: You’ve mentioned a couple of times during the interview that in order for people to be conscious about climate change and go forward with sustainable living it has to be tied with money. Give me your ideal picture: how can we develop a way of life that wouldn’t accelerate climate change, that wouldn’t damp economies and wouldn’t be too costly for livelihoods? 

R-KC: Ok, I have a very interesting idea - not only mine, it’s been there already - which is ecological tax reform. With the tax system we have now we pay taxes based on our income, you pay taxes from your income salary. If we change the tax system, we’ll pay taxes based on our consumption of energy resources. The more you consume the more taxes you pay. That will change your lifestyle and your production pattern. Your production and consumption pattern will change towards more energy efficient and resource efficient lifestyle. 

SS: That’s a very good answer. Do you think it can be implemented in any foreseeable future, or are we really far from taxing people for green life? 

R-KC: That’s why I was trying to find a good example. European countries have some good examples like Sweden, Denmark and Germany. They have been levying high tax on energy. Because of high taxes their energy efficiency is very high, and their per capita energy consumption is low. This is an example how the tax system can change our lifestyle. Not only lifestyle, but the city design - people are riding bicycles, European cities are very compact and densely populated. So the energy efficiency is very high. In the United States people drive to suburbs and live in houses of their own - that means much higher energy consumption. If you change the tax system it will change our urban design, our transport system and our lifestyle.     

SS: Also I’m wondering, maybe it’s a generational thing because for us, for people who are used to driving cars, living the life that we live it’s so hard to give all these things up.  Maybe this will be the next generation who will calculate on their IPhone app their ecoimprint, they will be more conscious about things like that. For them driving cars is not even an issue because in 10 years time we are not even going to be driving cars … 

R-KC: Just blaming people for driving cars is not a solution. I think we have to offer solutions to them. For example, in Singapore they have a system of discouraging people from driving cars, like charging. You have to pay by a kilometer. The more you drive the more you pay. But at the same time the Singaporean government has invested heavily in public transportation. So you have an alternative option. So without driving car you can move around everywhere without any problem. So you have to offer solutions to the people. Just discouraging people from driving cars is not an answer. In Moscow or Vladivostok I see terrible traffic congestions here. You cannot blame people because they have to go somewhere. The answer is how you can improve the public transportation system. Government has a leading role to play in making the transition towards energy efficient transportation system, urban design and tax system. It can’t be done by the market, it’s the job of the government and ultimately it’s the job of the people.  

SS: Mr. Chung, thank you very much for this interview, I hope your visions will be implemented in the near future so that we can live in a safer and greener place. 

R-KC: Thank you so much for the opportunity.