Interview: Steve Howard, The Climate Group – “I’m obsessed with this problem”

The Climate Group has been formidable in putting climate change issues on the G8 agenda. Erik Jaques talks to its founder Steve Howard, a man driven by a sense of purpose who wants the work of the organisation to make him 'personally redundant'

This is an opportunity. This is an Apollo mission. We suspend normal life and get permission from our families; we will just be relentless.”

Steve Howard, CEO of climate change catalysts extraordinaires The Climate Group, may not be charting a course to infinity and beyond – but considering the magnitude of the task he may as well be.

Instead, he’s promoting Breaking the Climate Deadlock, a partnership launched last year with longstanding Climate Group collaborator and former UK prime minster Tony Blair to ascertain what the architecture of a global agreement on climate change might look like. It is hoped that when world leaders convene at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December, the initiative will have injected sufficient political momentum into the negotiations to ensure a constructive outcome.

In its first report, issued in June last year and written by leading climate change experts, it called for a 50% cut in emissions by G8+5 countries – the “maximum that is politically realistic and achievable at this time” – which would adjust according to periodic reviews. It includes not only “building blocks” for an international framework acceptable to the major emitting countries, but also implementation strategies and detailed economic analysis of the resultant impacts and investment needs.

While proud of Breaking the Climate Deadlock’s compelling clarity and logic, Howard is keen to stress that the second stage – obtaining high level engagement with politicians, businesses, non-governmental organisations and opinion formers – is critical.

This is where the advocacy chops of Blair, who laudably put climate change on the G8 agenda in 2005 and who clearly has unfinished business with climate change, comes in.

“[Blair’s] a consummate politician and one of the world’s international statesmen now,” Howard points out, adding that positive meetings have already been held with everyone from President Obama to premier of the People’s Republic of China, Wen Jiabao.

“He understands global politics as only a few figures in the world do and he’s developed a sophisticated understanding of the climate change challenge. He’s a fantastic ally.”

Howard’s own leadership credentials are not too shabby either. Congenial and utterly devoid of artifice, he oozes charisma and confidence, and possesses the ineffable knack of making the unfathomable seem solvable.

By his own admission, he’s driven by a formidable sense of purpose and his own sheer relentlessness; one can imagine even the most jaded suit being fired up by his discourse.

It is no surprise to learn that he unwinds from the daily grind by training for and competing in triathlons. “I’m obsessed by solving this problem [of climate change],” says Howard, who, pre-Climate Group, did corporate social responsibility for ERM and was founding director of the Global Forest and Trade Network for WWF International.

“I’m also obsessed with The Climate Group making a contribution; not just doing something nice in this space, making a difference on a global scale. So you set the bar pretty high in terms of what success looks like, and it means you fail sometimes, but it also means when you succeed, you succeed big.”

The non-profit Climate Group was formed in late 2003 with start-up money from the deep pockets of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and certitude that it would offer something entirely new. “I was really astonished at the time that there was no international, not-for-profit that was focused exclusively on climate change and its solutions,” he remembers.

“Especially one that was seeking to engage business and government; It was a huge institutional gap. So, I asked my wife ‘can I make this rash move?’ and she said ‘you’re a mission driven individual, we can live humbly off my salary if it all goes horribly wrong. Go ahead’.”

From the moment when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair presided over the organisation’s UK launch in 2004, in direct defiance of the obdurate climate change stance held by the Bush administration, it has been a good call.

The Climate Group now claims to be the world’s largest public-private partnership fighting climate change; a “coalition of the willing” that doesn’t just talk big, but actually delivers evidential solutions.

From bases in the UK, US, throughout Europe, Australia, Hong Kong and – crucially – China (and, imminently, India), it engages partners within sub-national governments and big business to identify and implement sustainable technologies, stoke emergent markets and effect genuinely affecting policy changes.

As of December 2008, The Climate Group coalition’s visionary collaborative heterogeneity has involved more than 50 of the world’s largest companies and sub-national governments, as well as several partner organisations such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and World Resources Institute (WRI).

“If major companies, the largest states and regions, energy secretaries, prime ministers, presidents of the larger countries; if they decide climate change is a solvable problem that we all need to address, the problem gets solved,” Howard states bluntly.

“So we’ve systematically sought to engage the world’s most influential people and organisations. There’s a phrase that is really important, it’s like a mantra for me, which is ‘success has many parents’.”

It is a dedication to this notion that has lead to The Climate Group’s central participation in marquee initiatives such as: the HSBC Climate Partnership, where direct action is taken to the heart of Hong Kong, London, Mumbai, New York and Shanghai; a UK and US consumer campaign called Together (which UK prime minister Gordon Brown praised in his first major speech about climate change); the world’s first climate change framework for finance leaders (the climate principles, which was launched last year); and the Australian Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, which aims to create 20 demonstration projects by 2020 to accelerate viable commercial deployment of the technology.

It also helped orchestrate the Voluntary Carbon Standard in November 2007, giving a decidedly ropey offsetting industry a welcome element of quality assurance.

Business successes worth shouting about include helping HSBC to become the world’s first carbon neutral Fortune 100 Company and BSkyB in becoming the first carbon neutral media firm.

Among its more notable achievements, however, is its ongoing work with sub-national governments across the world, including Bavaria, Scotland, South Australia and California. Its work with the latter, the world’s 12th largest carbon emitter, is particularly impressive and contributed to the introduction of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which legally requires state-wide greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020.

Just before the trailblazing proposal was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger and ushered in with a one-liner invoking him at his filmic best (“the global warming debate is over”), Howard chaired the star-studded Climate and Energy Roundtable in Long Beach, California, where Tony Blair and Schwarzenegger signed a statement of intent to lay the groundwork for a transatlantic market in CO2 emissions.

Howard is a tireless “big picture” proponent, delivering his message with unwavering optimism and spotting collaborative opportunities where others see nothing but gloom and doom. Take China. While large factions of the West have typecast it as one of the main villains on the climate change stage – a view that is admittedly starting to dissipate – The Climate Group was among the first to zone in on the positives and alight on some hugely encouraging facts.

Published last year, an illuminating report, China’s Clean Revolution, reveals that, despite an enormous, rightly-maligned coal-dependency, supportive government policies have been driving substantial innovation in low carbon technologies and channelling billions of dollars of investment into energy efficiency and renewable energy.

China, the report noted, was the world leader in the manufacture of solar photo-voltaic technology, is set to become the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines (with production capacity expected to reach 10GW per year by the end of 2009), and is competing aggressively in other low carbon markets.

Proof that the Chinese economic progress at any cost paradigm is changing was strikingly demonstrated by China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, recently joining The Climate Group and promptly committing to reducing the energy intensity of its £29B annual business by 40%, double the national target.

“We have reached out the constructive hand of partnership and said it is really unhelpful that people in the West have this one-dimensional view of China,” bristles Howard, who set up the organisation in Beijing in 2007, an operation that now employs 25 people.

“It’s inaccurate, ignorant and unhelpful and we want to help balance that out. Let’s not ignore the negatives, but focus on the positives; there’s now a competitive race, which the UK is struggling to enter actually, between China and the US on who builds the lion’s share of the low carbon economy.

“Three years ago I was in China doing press saying ‘even if you look out of this window on a smoggy day in south China there is a green economy that is taking off like a rocket’.”

As for The Climate Group’s own trajectory, Howard is hopeful that the end is in sight. “When I set up the organisation I was asked ‘where do you want to be in ten years time’, and I said ‘personally redundant’.

“That is now five years from now. I think that timeframe is realistic for real, credible, deep action on climate change. When that happens, the job of The Climate Group as the organisation is today, needs to be done.”

He reiterates that Breaking the Climate Deadlock is a major step in that direction, revealing that The Climate Group and Blair are currently engaged in a prodigious advocacy offensive with this July’s G8 meeting in Maddalena, Italy, in mind.

According to Howard, conditions for genuine accord have never been more favourable, with global economic implosion having focused governments worldwide, and made the mitigation bill for climate change action not seem so outlandish. “The sort of money we need to spend worldwide on climate change sounds modest relative to the money that has been thrown at the economy as a whole,” he suggests.

“There is a renewed appetite for the right sort of government intervention and looking at how we finance things, and the role of the public and private sector.

“If you then throw in the Obama bounce, I’d say we’re in a better place to get a global deal now than we were twelve months ago.”

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