Here's What the Future of Climate Change Looks Like

DORIE CLARK: Hello this is Dorie Clark and I am here on behalf of Newsweek. We are doing a special series on creating the economy of the future. And this week our topic is the global challenge of climate change. We are interviewing Dr. Fatih Birol. He is the executive director of the International Energy Agency. And we're going to be talking about the latest developments and ways that we can all prepare for the challenge of climate change in a special series presented by the government of Japan. Dr. Birol, welcome and great to have you here.

DR. FATIH BIROL: Thank you very much. Thank you.

CLARK: Excellent. So I'm looking forward to a wide-ranging conversation with you about climate change. The very first question that I have is as a layperson, I know that a number of years ago, there was a big drumbeat, political gathering, saying that we should all try as a culture, to reduce our carbon dioxide in the environment to 350 parts per million. And that if we, if we did not reduce it to that level, basically, we were all going to be in really dire straits. Now, as I understand it, even in 2020, when, when people weren't driving, people weren't flying, people weren't going places, because of the pandemic, the amount of carbon dioxide in the environment rose to well above that. I believe it was 412 and a half parts per million. So are we completely in a dire situation here? Is there any way out of this? What is your perspective on this?

BIROL: Thank you. So, we are definitely not on the right path for our planet because when we look at the numbers, which we do at the IEA, our emissions year on year, they are increasing. And they are increasing and reaching dangerous levels.

What does it mean dangerous levels? It means we will see much more extreme weather events. And those extreme weather events will be much more intense than what we had before. This will affect everybody. This will affect Africa, this will affect Asia, North America, across the world. And the weather events will be unpredictable. And here, energy sector plays a central role.

Why? Very simple. The 80 percent of the emissions causing climate change comes from the energy sector 80 percent. So it means without fixing the problem in the energy sector, without reducing the emissions drastically in the energy sector, we have no chance whatsoever to have a planet, which is more or less like today, in the next few years to come. And a huge challenge for this but also next generations.

The way to solve this problem goes to finding clean energy technologies, clean energy choices for producing and consuming energy. So this is the challenge we are facing today.

CLARK: Thank you so much. We're here with Dr. Fatih Birol. He's the executive director of the International Energy Agency. You can learn more about their work at IEA.org. And Dr. Birol has has a great distinction, this is one of my favorites here for the Financial Times named him the Energy Personality of the Year. So that's got to be one of the cooler honors in the energy world. Congratulations on that.

So Dr. Birol, one question that I have for you, you're mentioning that 80 percent of these emissions are coming from the energy sector. One of the things that's of course, been in the news recently is Russia and the conflict in Ukraine. There's a lot of speculation that this may end up disrupting the global energy supply. Already gas prices in the United States are going up pretty dramatically. I believe that the price now is over 3.50 per gallon, which is quite high and about $1 per gallon more than it was even just a year ago. And we recently have seen that Germany is cutting off the Nord 2 pipeline. So it seems like there's going to be some real potential for disruption in the marketplace—given geopolitical events. How do you see things shaking out in the near future?

BIROL: So energy prices are high, not only in the United States, but also in Europe, in Asia, India, Japan, Korea, everywhere. And this is mainly driven by the very fact that after COVID, you mentioned the COVID crisis, global energy demand increased very, very strongly. And the increasing demand was not met with enough production supply, oil and gas.

For example in Europe, we have huge gas prices, natural gas prices. The reason is very strong demand coming after COVID economic activity became stronger, strong economic activity means more energy. But there was not enough gas delivered to Europe, mainly by Russia. Russia is the main exporter of gas to Europe. But as a result of the Russian policies, Russian exports to Europe declined. Why one wanted to see even higher than previous levels, it was much lower than the previous levels. As a result of that we have seen an artificial tightness of the markets and this bumped the price up.

So while we had an energy vert, why we had a major challenge of climate change, now we have another problem, which is the geopolitics. The recent messages and actions of Russia meant that the energy and geopolitics may well be much more interwoven in the next months and years to come. And it will definitely complicate the energy questions in a difficult way.

CLARK: Thank you, Dr. Birol. This is Fatih Birol. He is the executive director of the International Energy Agency joining us as part of our special Newsweek series on creating the economy of the future. I'm Dorie Clark. And if you're tuning in live, please feel free to type into the chatbox and let us know who you are, where you're dialing in from, and any questions that you have for Dr. Birol on the global challenge of climate change.

Now, Dr. Birol, one question that I have is nuclear in the role of nuclear power. This is something that for decades has divided environmentalists some people say that this is really critical to the path toward clean energy. Other people scarred by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl say that it's just too dangerous. What do you think about the role of nuclear power in climate change?

BIROL: Yeah. So, when we look at the future, we have of course, in the future, we will have still oil we will have still gas will have other energy sources, but future is electric. Electricity will dominate the way we use energy, we consume energy. And where will the electricity come from? So, I would say a big chunk of the electricity will come from renewable energies, solar, wind, hydropower and others. But I also see an important role for nuclear power in the countries where it is accepted.

The issue with nuclear power is it can generate electricity, uninterrupted electricity, with no emissions released. It is a clean electricity generation source. And as you rightly mentioned, as a result of several incidents, the last one being Fukushima, we have seen nuclear energy— appetite for nuclear energy went down. However, as I have recently stated, I see nuclear is going to make a comeback, strongly.

First, there are countries who have now prioritize nuclear power in their energy plants, United States, Canada, France, where I live if President Macron came with a very strong nuclear program, but also Netherlands to new governments and Netherlands, in a China, India and several European countries are pushing the nuclear power. Also driven by the volatility of the natural gas markets, it also reminded the several policymakers and also citizens that nuclear power, if you have it at home, you are not a part of the geopolitical games we are seeing. But in addition to the traditional nuclear power, we have the systems power plants we have, there is a new nuclear technology, which we call small modular reactors. What does it mean? It means they are, their size is much smaller, easier to build. Their waste issue is easier to tackle. And also they are much easier to finance in a short period of time.

One of the biggest challenges of nuclear power, in addition to what you said, there is a there was a bit of a hesitance from the citizens in some countries not everywhere, but in some countries. This is in addition to that challenge, the nuclear power plants, the classical nuclear power plants are difficult to finance because they require huge amount of financing. And they to construct those nuclear powers you require many, many years. But with these small modular reactors, I mentioned to you, their construction time will be much shorter, and you need less finance to bring them to the market.

So I expected that nuclear power will be an integral part of the future electricity mix. Even though the lion's share of our electricity generation in the future, will be belonging to renewable energies and I see a good marriage and a happy one, I should say, between renewables and nuclear power.

CLARK: Thank you very much. We're here with Fatih Birol. He's the executive director of the International Energy Agency. And this is a special series by Newsweek on creating the economy of the future. I'm Dorie Clark.

So Dr. Birol let's turn for a moment to renewables. Now, for many years, the challenge with wind power with solar power was that it was just too expensive. And it costs too much to create energy from those sources to be economical without a lot of subsidies. That situation seems to have changed dramatically. And the costs have really come down. Can you talk a little bit about the current state of renewable energy and how that factors in to some of the energy mix that you're seeing for the future?

BIROL: Yeah, you're right. Wind and solar were very expensive 10 to 15 years ago. But as a result of, as we call it, learning by doing. So the more we bring new solar electricity solar panels to the markets, the company's manufacturers learn to produce them cheaper. Today, solar energy is one of the cheapest source of electric generation in many countries. Ten years ago, when we talk about the solar, it was more or less a romantic story. What does that mean romantic? It's a main business in many countries and in fact, when we look at the numbers, last year, about 60 percent of all the new power plants built in the world were solar, followed by wind.

So this is not necessarily to address the climate change issue. It is basically because of the cheap source of electricity generation. So I believe is solar and wind will be key drivers of the future electricity generation everywhere in the world, in Africa, in India, in Asia, in North America and Europe. But the challenge with solar and wind is their availability is nature bound. So if you don't have sun, you don't have electricity basically, to put in simple terms. If you don't have wind, then you don't have electricity.

Therefore, nuclear can play a good role here to complement the solar and wind latest generation. Because for nuclear, you just push the button and it generates electricity for you 24/7. And I think a while the renewables will have the lion's share nuclear, in the countries where it is accepted, it can play an important role as well.

CLARK: That's really interesting. Thank you very much, Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. He also chairs the energy advisory board for the World Economic Forum. So a question that I have is, I would love to hear more about your perspective on experimental strategies around both energy and climate change. We sometimes hear ideas that sound appealing, although a layman may wonder how technically feasible they are about things like burying carbon dioxide deep in the earth, or perhaps newfangled methods of energy creation. Can you talk a little bit about what you see on the horizon, both in the energy sphere and with regard to protecting against climate change?

BIROL: So there are numerous such candidates of breakthrough technologies. Some of them see the light of today, many of them don't. But a is some of the rather promising ones, you mentioned one of them, which is capturing the carbon and putting it under the earth. We call it Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technology, which could be very helpful to use fossil energies in an environmentally friendly way. Because the issues today, why coal or gas and oil seem to be creating challenges for climate change, because they are emitting carbon dioxide emissions. If this technology, the carbon capture technology, during this process, why you use oil or gas or coal, can suck up the carbon from them and put it under the earth if they can be used in an environment-friendly way, we could have a major advantage in terms of our energy sector at the same time addressing climate change.

Another one came in several years ago, many people thought it will not be a good solution, which is the electric cars because they were very expensive. But today, we are seeing the electric cars are becoming a mainstream transportation instrument in many countries.
In China, 20 percent of all the cars sold last year were electric cars—the same in Europe, about 20 percent. I expected in the United States very soon, we will see electric cars will be seen more frequently on the roads because several car manufacturers now prioritize electric cars as the next model they want to put in the market. So there are many disruptive technologies. Some of them, we see the light of today, some of them will not. And the criteria here is whether or not they're economic and they make the life of the consumers more comfortable, more convenient, and at the same time whether or not they will be part of our fight against climate change.

CLARK: Thank you very much. We're talking about the global challenge of climate change as part of a special Newsweek series on creating the economy of the future. We're here with Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, you can learn more about their work at IEA.org. Dr. Birol has been named by Forbes one of the most influential people in the world of energy.

And Dr. Birol, I'm curious about the role that the pandemic played in all of this. We all know that, especially during 2020, parts of 2021, for most of us, fuel usage, energy usage went down. We weren't driving into the office, we weren't flying and traveling as much because there were global travel bans. Certainly, that impacted in many ways, energy usage. Did that actually allow for a bit of a reset? Or what would you say are the impacts of the pandemic on these issues? Have we already rebounded to where we were before? Or, has this allowed us to begin to take stock in some way?

BIROL: To be honest with you, the bad thing about my job is I have to be realistic. I have to believe in numbers rather than the hopes and the feelings during the pandemic. When the emissions went down, because of the reasons you mentioned, we didn't travel. The economic activity event down, and therefore emissions went down.

Many people thought, many commentators, now we have seen that we can save the planet, we learn from this and it will be a gain and we'll look at the future, it will be such a life. And I said, unless governments take the necessary measures, people will go back to what they were doing before. Not that I don't have trust in the human beings, but this is the unless you give a signal to the human beings they behave, what is the best solution for them. And today, in fact, unfortunately, emissions today are worse than before the pandemic—much higher than that. But to balance it with an optimistic note, I also see that as a result of what is happening in renewables. What is happening with the electric cars. What is happening with the lack of efficiency, digitalization measures? What is happening with these small modular nuclear reactors, I see that a new global energy economy is emerging.

So this is, you cannot stop this. So, I believe the next chapter of the global economy will belong to clean energy technologies. And the countries, or companies, who are not able to read the game, what is happening, the transition here may very well be in a disadvantageous position, and may be locked in with the obscure, absurd technologies, and will not be part of the new chapter of the clean energy system of the future. So we have to see what the future is what today's, and what the past was.

CLARK: Really good point. Thank you. We have a question from a viewer and if you have questions, please feel free to type them into the chatbox for Dr. Fatih Birol. We're talking about the global challenge of climate change. But Adnan was curious. Do you think that the Russia and Ukraine conflict will cause countries to reimagine their energy policy? Might this actually be a net positive? Because countries that are faced with a specter of disruption may decide to make different long-term choices? What are your thoughts?

BIROL: Adnan, this is an excellent question. Russia's act in the last few days. Of course, this is not good news for the peace. This is not good news for geopolitical stability. This is definitely not good news for the Ukrainian people, also for the Russian people. But this may bring a shock for the European governments, especially for Europe, which may lead them to redesign their energy policies. Because the gas is used a lot during the winter times for heating purposes, we are coming slowly back to the end of winter. But next winter will come. And if Europe still is depending 40 percent of this gas from Russia, next winter, we may see the same movie again.

Therefore, it is now time for Europe, is an important wake-up call, to redesign and reprioritize their energy policies—look at the other options that they have. Here, again, come back to the renewables, hydrogen, nuclear power, energy efficiency, all of these options, which on one hand the improve the energy security, but on the other hand, prepare those countries' economies for the next chapter of their energy systems.

So at the end of the day, while it's very bad news, what's happening today in the geopolitical context for the people of Ukraine and Russia and elsewhere. It may provide a silver lining for the European energy policy playing a wake-up call, a very strong wake-up call, for the governments for the energy policy design.

CLARK: Really helpful. Thank you very much Dr. Fatih Birol. He's here for a special series that Newsweek is doing on creating the economy of the future. I'm Dorie Clark, and Dr. Birol we have a question that came in from a viewer. Eric is actually curious and wants to know if you can speak a little bit more about hydrogen fuel cells. For those who are not familiar with them, what are hydrogen fuel cells? And what role do you see them playing in the future of clean energy?

BIROL: So hydrogen is an old technology, but it became more fashionable recently. When I look at it, talk with the governments around the world. Almost every government has a hydrogen strategy. Everybody loves hydrogen. It's very unusual in the energy world because there are always different views. Some people like this technology, the other one dislikes it—but when it comes to hydrogen—everybody likes hydrogen. And hydrogen fuel cells can be another important alternative to our current cars.

We have in the world about 95 percent of the cars, which is which we call internal combustion engine cars, the cars we are driving around the world today. And hydrogen fuel cells can be another option in order to replace current cars around the world, in addition to electric cars. Many companies around the world car manufacturers, in addition to electric cars, they are also having some new models, which can be run by hydrogen. And this can be also another alternative to our current car choices.

CLARK: Thank you very much. So another question that comes up often when we talk about climate change treaties and international cooperation around energy is questions of equity with regard to developing nations. Many developing countries look to the global superpowers the developed economies and say, it isn't fair, you were able to build up over, over decades over hundreds of yours on the back of cheap energy of coal and other things that that are perhaps not clean energy sources, but were affordable and available. And now you're asking us to adhere to environmentally strict standards now that there is a global problem. Obviously, we all want a cleaner environment, we want to prevent climate change. But how do you think through some of these equity considerations with regard to developed versus developing nations?

BIROL: I think that point of view is a very legitimate one. The current climate problem is not a result of this year's or last year's emissions, it is an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 100 years. For example, during the Industrial Revolution in Europe, we use a lot of coal, and the atmospheric emissions—they are still there. You mentioned the 350 ppm, some of them are coming from those days from Europe, from North America, and also some of them now coming from China, and they are in the atmosphere. And now we have to clean it up. And the cleaning up means all countries should be part of the solution.

So the dilemma here is the following: One tonne of emissions going into the atmosphere from Jakarta, or from Detroit, or from Paris, or from SoCal, or from Johannesburg, it has the same effect on everybody. Emissions don't have a passport. So for example, in Europe, if we bring the emissions down substantially if the emissions are still high in the rest of the world, Europe will not be immune to the effects of climate change.

So this is a race against time and it's also a race that if everybody doesn't finish the race, nobody wins the race. So, therefore, it is very important that the developing countries' decisions in terms of energy are also preferring the clean energy options. But many developing countries do not have the means to invest in clean energy options and here, I think it is a moral duty and financially, also, it makes sense that the advanced economies rich countries provide support to emerging countries in order to help them to mobilize clean energy options, such as renewables efficiency, and other clean energy options. And at the same time, they marketed development banks, such as The World Bank, the regional development banks should provide a catalyst role in order to mobilize investment in the emerging world. Those countries cannot be left alone in the fight against climate change.

CLARK: Thank you very much. We're here with Dr. Fatih Birol. He's the executive director of the International Energy Agency, you can learn more at IEA.org We're here talking for Newsweek about the global challenge of climate change.

Now, a question on my mind, Dr. Birol, and maybe others as well, is the question of entrenched interests here. Obviously, there are many very wealthy companies that have built up over time their oil companies through gas companies, their coal companies, they make a lot of money from selling energy sources that that are not clean that are heavily polluting. I'm curious, in terms of your experience in what you're seeing out there. One would imagine that there would be a lot of resistance to making the change to cleaner sources, which may prove potentially to be less lucrative. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this transition, and what role companies are playing? Has there been a lot of pushback, or are there actually bright spots on the horizon, where companies are stepping up to help enable the transition to cleaner energy sources?

BIROL: So you're right there, oil, gas and coal companies, some of them are rather hesitant to be a part of the Clean Energy Transition. Some of them are, to be very frank, pushing it back. Because a company's job is to make money when you look at the fields of a there, but a and these companies are not only in the Western world. They are western world companies, of course, but companies in the Middle East, in Russia in, I don't know the other parts of the world, all the companies, of course, they want to make money.

However, I can assure you that no company, but no company, will be unaffected by clean energy transition. It is coming, whether they want or not. You can cut the grass, but you cannot stop the spring from coming. So this is coming. I am seeing this every day when we look at the numbers. And there are some of the companies I should be very frank, they are also trying to transform the company's budgets, strategies, to be compatible with the clean energy transitions. And we need them. Because those companies know how to manage huge, big projects, engineering projects. They have deep pockets. They have expertise on different technologies. Some of the technologies you just mentioned, for example, carbon capture and storage, it's a very complicated, but a critically important technology. If the energy companies were to dive into this, and promote those technologies, this will be good for their business, and they will be also on the right side of the history.

And I can tell you that I see many companies, energy companies, in addition to their jobs of main jobs of oil, gas and coal production, they are an increasingly interested in the carbon capture and storage, offshore wind in solar energy and others. But if you ask me whether or not they say main trends in the energy companies, I will say no. Some companies are doing a better job than the others. But I would also warn those companies that they should really be careful. If they stick very much with their traditional business, their assets may well be left stranded in the future. And they may have some major financial losses as well.

CLARK: That's an important caveat. We're here with Dr. Fatih Birol. He's with the International Energy Agency. And this is Newsweek. We're doing a special series on the economy of the future.

So I am curious. Dr. Birol, you have actually been with the International Energy Agency for multiple decades, you've been involved very deeply in this field. I would love to get a sense from you have a longitudinal perspective. Over the past several decades, obviously, in terms of climate change itself, and we were talking earlier about the parts per million of carbon dioxide concentration, which is considered a kind of warning signal with regard to global warming. That's moving in the wrong direction. But I'm curious is everything moving in the wrong direction? How has the cultural conversation changed around issues of energy and climate during the time that you've been involved in the field?

BIROL: To be very frank, in the way I look at the last 20 years, I did not see a major change in terms of thinking as far as the climate change concern, until last few years. There was, of course, activities. There was also attention was paid to climate change, but it was not a major or determining factor when it comes to energy policy decisions, as far as climate change is concerned. But in the last few years, I am seeing that the interest in climate change is growing.

There are two reasons for that. One, the governments have understood how important it is to preserve our planet. And this is very important. And here, I should say that not all the governments suddenly discovered climate change, but there are different factors such as the youth played a critical role here, governments to think in this way.

Second, there were several extreme weather events, as a result of is designed to say climate change, climate change reminded itself to us is a major threat for all of us. And these two factors were combined with the very fact that several clean energy options are becoming economically viable. Solar, wind, electric cars, efficiency, some of the nuclear plants and others—so as a result, the last 20 years, I didn't see much. But in the last few years, there is a growing interest in the energy policymaking in terms of taking climate change into consideration when you make a decision. So this makes me hopeful for the future.

CLARK: That's certainly good to hear. And amidst all of this, it's perhaps easy for an individual to feel a little bit overwhelmed. Obviously, there's not a huge amount that one person can do to impact things like global energy usage. But I'm curious if you were advising someone who is a concerned citizen, about something that they could do some steps that they could personally take an influence that might in some way make a contribution to fighting climate change. What would you recommend for that person? What would actually be useful?

BIROL: I can give you two things, one, a political and one a daily life. Particularly I would vote for the government's political parties, who pay attention to climate change in a realistic way. So I would be, I will be taking this climate change sensitivity of the political parties when I put my vote in the elections is one. As a person, I would suggest to them what I am doing, for example, in terms of transportation, choose as much as possible public transport. And if you have to buy a car, private car, I would go for electric cars or hydrogen cars in order to reduce the carbon footprint because the transportation sector is definitely one of the most polluting sectors.

CLARK: Very helpful advice. We are beginning to wind down our conversation. We probably have time for just about one more question. This is Dorie Clark. We've been here on behalf of Newsweek as part of a special series throughout the month of February, sponsored by the government of Japan. We've been discussing creating the economy of the future and today's topic is the global challenge of climate change. Speaking with Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.
Dr. Birol a question that I love to ask policy experts such as yourself, if you ruled the world, if you had the proverbial magic wand, and you could actually make a policy change, you know, maybe not 10. But if you could make a policy change unilaterally, that you felt like would make the biggest difference in terms of improving our transition to clean energy sources, and making, you know, helping to fight back against climate change, what would that be?

BIROL: So when you say a, you mentioned Japan, for example, when I think of Japan, and the energy policies or energy history of Japan, innovation was a very important factor in terms of Japanese energy achievements. So if I get a chance, globally, I would love to see that all countries around the world would pay enough attention to research and development of clean energy technologies, and pushing the magic button of innovation so that we can have technologies, which are clean, which are affordable, and a which also helps us not to have some geopolitical tensions we have now. So I wish that the many countries around the world would provide enough funds for the research and development for clean energy technologies, such as Japan and other countries.

CLARK: Research and development is certainly going to be an important part of the picture. Thank you so much for that. We're here with Dr. Fatih Birol. He has joined us. He is the executive director of the International Energy Agency, and we've been talking about the global challenge of climate change. Thank you very much, Dr. Birol. And thank you to everyone for tuning in.

BIROL: Thank you, bye-bye. Thank you.