Nick Mabey is chief executive and a founder-director of E3G (Third Generation Environmentalism), a non-profit European organisation dedicated to accelerating the transition to sustainable development. In addition to his management role, Mabey leads E3G’s work on European climate change policy, climate diplomacy and foreign policy, and the security implications of climate change and resource scarcity. Mabey is also currently vice-chair of the European Alliance to Save Energy and sits on the steering group of Norstec (the industry-led alliance for offshore renewable energy) and the Global Stranded Assets Advisory Council. Among other appointments, Mabey has served on the Advisory Board of Infrastructure UK, the independent UK Green Investment Bank Commission and the Advisory Council of the European Technology Platform for Zero Emission Fossil Fuel Power.
What first pops into your mind when someone mentions the REC?
Great hospitality is honestly the first thing that comes to my head. Also my exploration of the ruins of the Comecon-looking building near the REC offices after a flood. Not to mention a lot of shared experiences.
How did you first become aware of and involved with the REC?
E3G and the REC have been cooperating for about the past 10 years, and the REC played a key role in the partnership at the very beginning. E3G’s first major project was funded by Corrado Clini, who was also a big funder of the REC. We were building a series of pan-European and “beyond Europe” meetings, looking at the future of Europe and at Europe’s place in the world. Senior politicians and policy makers and the REC were essentially the key support for us to build those conversations in Hungary and in Turkey, and also to draw on the REC staff’s knowledge and input, which turned into a pamphlet called “Europe in the World” — sort of the foundational pamphlet for E3G’s work and also translated into multiple languages by the REC. This was about 2005 or 2006. It was a quite involved partnership that was instrumental in our becoming engaged with Central and Eastern Europe and Turkey.
Since then we’ve been mostly involved with the REC in relation to engagement with Turkey on a fairly wide range of issues. It was very valuable to have a partner that could get us out of the Western European “ghetto” and make sure that we had a view of the whole continent and beyond, rather than just a traditional “green capital” perspective.
What were some of the dynamic differences you found between this region and your own?
There was obviously a focus on EU accession and the early implementation of European law. Our focus was to get the new member states to think about the Europe they wanted, as opposed to the Europe they were being asked to join. One of the keys during this period was looking forward and asking “What do you need from Europe?” “What do you need Europe to be good at over the next 20 years to help you meet the challenges your country faces?” The first main challenge was trying to deal with European directives and it was sometimes hard to see very far forward, but in places like Turkey we were able to have really good conversations about what they thought about the club they had wanted to join, and about how they could envision themselves as full members, capable of influence rather than just taking on the DNA of previous members. And it took quite a lot of effort to take the conversation to a forward-looking place. It was the first time that people had asked their opinion, as opposed to telling them what the rules were. So, yes, this was challenging but very productive. And the REC was helpful in identifying the types of people that could adopt this forward-looking approach.
What are you and E3G working on at the moment?
About 50 percent of E3G’s work is inside Europe, mainly focusing on energy policy — anti-carbonisation, European energy policy, European efficiency policy and finance for the all-round reform of economic, finance and energy markets to support a carbon-resilient future. We also focus on Europe’s role in climate resource diplomacy, particularly around the Paris agreement but also more broadly. The rest of our work is basically in major developing countries — Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Chile, South Africa, China — mainly developing a financial strategy for low-carbon and green development. We’re very much building on the work we’ve done on these issues in Europe, but also learning from these countries and reflecting that back. So that’s the majority of our work at the moment. We hope to work more strongly in the European neighbourhood in the next few years in other areas like climate resilience, which we’re working a lot on now.
This work is related as well to some of the conclusions published in the New Climate Economy report, right?
Yes. Again, these are things we’ve been working on for a long time, but the low-carbon economy initiatives do reflect the current focus on economic reform, which is essentially the core agenda of E3G and what the New Climate Economy was basically making a case for. It’s all about mainstreaming this into good economic and political governance in mainstream sectors, not just a set of policies on the side of economic development, and that is essentially the focus of E3G’s work.
In a video interview in which you discuss the New Climate Economy report, you mentioned that the “time for action or inaction has passed”, and that we’ve entered a period in which we will make “either an orderly or disorderly transition”. What are some of the ways in which countries can assist in making an “orderly” transition in the near future?
First of all, it’s about having a conversation about the consequences. This involves accepting a mandate from the people who are going to suffer most from disorderly transition — and not just citizens, but city authorities, long-term investors, pension funds and large companies who have assets that are fixed in geographic areas that will suffer from climate change and bad resource management or poor decisions taken over infrastructure or stranded assets. These are key constituencies who currently are not in the debate. Their interests are very weakly represented. Companies and interests with highly mobile assets that aren’t so fixed — such as oil and gas companies — are much more firmly engaged in the debate.
One of our responses to this is that we’re advocating for national climate resilience assessment, which is about building a much more systematic approach towards looking at the risks but also engaging with communities and other key areas and embedding this in parliamentary processes — taking this out of the executive and making it much more into building a social contract around transition so that you get a much more active engagement of parliamentarians. It’s also important to involve the judiciary as well because there are lots of issues like liability and who bears the risk and who has to protect. There needs to be a positive approach to transitioning where high-carbon industries are making sure that the regions where they’re based have the opportunity to benefit from the low-carbon transition through, for example, policies like “low-carbon zones”, which we have pioneered in China and which have lots of application, particularly for Central and Eastern Europe. It’s really about being able to take control of your own destiny, to say: “We’re moving in this direction, so let’s make sure we do it in a way that minimises the amount of stranded investments that we have.” So you have to send very strong signals to investors. It’s about managing the pains and maximising the opportunities of transition.
One of the things that we’ve found in Central and Eastern Europe is that because there’s been a bit of a denial — as if “If we go slower, it will be better” — they end up doing activity to cut carbon but failing to get the opportunity to address the issues of energy efficiency, air pollution or fuel poverty. One of the things we’ve done in the UK is to form a broad coalition of fuel poverty groups, children’s groups, owners’ groups, environmentalists and businesses to advocate for a mass retrofit of the whole country — every single house — over a 20-year period, which is GBP 150 billion worth of investment. In order to solve our cold winter crisis we’ve got to deal with the worst housing stock after Estonia in all of the EU. We have 26,000 premature deaths a year from cold. So there’s a broad coalition around several issues — health issues, children’s issues, old-age issues, environmental issues — trying to make big choices about how to invest. That’s the type of thing we need to do in making an orderly transition. We have to make those big choices — early — so we get all the benefits, rather than dragging our feet and being saddled with a larger bill further down the line. Flexibility is not always the cheapest way.
The main message behind the New Climate Economy report is that if you do things right and early, then you’re pursuing really good economic policy. But you need to make the choice, and that choice is political and requires, in its own way, decisions on which type of infrastructure to build; on who makes the choice about which types of energy we have; and on how the general public, and which constituencies, are actually involved in these decisions — which mainly involve elites and special interests. It all raises core issues about who makes critical decisions about a country’s direction, and who bears the risks of making the wrong decision.
Certainly one of the areas we’ve decided to move into is the whole role of corruption, whether that’s political corruption in terms of people channelling money towards political supporters, or direct corruption. Because with political corruption, which adds 10 percent of the cost to a piece of infrastructure, people might go, “Well, that’s just the price of doing business.” But if political corruption means you’ve built the wrong infrastructure, and the whole of that infrastructure becomes stranded — like a new gas pipeline — then that’s a huge cost to the economy and the people to reverse that decision. And that’s where we are with climate change. That’s the difference between orderly and disorderly. It’s going to be a bumpy ride anyway, but we can at least try to minimise the bumps.