There have been reports predicting with scary accuracy the amount of CO2 emissions we would have in the atmosphere since the 80s, why were they buried for so long? Why is there so much propaganda around renewable energy, supply chains and batteries that lead people to question the technology which is a huge part of what’s going to save us? And in the doom and gloom, how can we stay optimistic?
Big questions that we are deep diving into with Assaad Razzouk, a Lebanese-British clean energy entrepreneur, investor, commentator and host of The Angry Clean Energy Guy Podcast.
I first had the pleasure of meeting Assaad Razzouk at a friends place for dinner. I was instantly intrigued by his sharp wit, commentary and deep understanding of climate change and the issues surrounding it. Afterwards, I became one of the biggest fans of his podcast – where he rants about things that make him angry but also helps to remove all the noise and confusion around some of the biggest issues of today.
Whoever named it, ‘natural gas’ instead of ‘highly explosive climate change, accelerating fossil fuel gas’ deserves a branding award.
Assaad is the CEO of a few companies building and operating renewable energy projects around Asia, and looking to digitise and democratise renewable energy among many other things. He is a high-profile thought leader on climate change, clean energy and the UN climate talks with more than 138,000 followers on Twitter, 100,000 on Facebook and 135,000 on LinkedIn.
We chatted on the Live Wide Awake podcast, which you can listen to in full here, about the information fog finally lifting, the clean energy revolution, why we need to be more aware of the propaganda, and why optimism is the only way forward. Below are some of the highlights.
On propaganda in oil & gas…
The deception really has had two dimensions. The first is the lying. And the second is the shifting of responsibility on us, the consumer and the citizen. This basically started in the early eighties, with Exxon mobile who had an internal scientific paper, which very clearly laid out what would happen if oil and gas continued producing at the rhythm that it was expected to and projected emissions in 2019. A year ago (in 2019), we pretty much ended up exactly as they predicted in terms of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
What happened post-1984 is the interesting bit, they deliberately and effectively buried that information, and emerged with a strategy to confuse, deflect and push back against any link between burning oil, gas, and coal to a worsening climate scenario to the rest of us. And that was done by throwing in enormous money at it, which is estimated today at about a billion dollars. This obfuscating of the truth is very subtle. For example fake think tanks and fake consumer groups that were set up, pushback across communication outlets, politicians that were influenced etc. Moves right out of the tobacco companies playbook. And the result of all that was quite nefarious because it invariably confused the consumer and made them feel like it was their fault because they bought the plastic because they drove the gas-guzzling cars because they took the flight because they eat beef etc. All of which are devices to ensure that oil and gas companies did nothing and that we felt guilty and tried to do something.
On the wall of money…
You can’t take away the fact that burning oil, gas and coal is something that we have been doing for 150 years and that people and societies are used to it. But you also have to realize the amount of money that’s mobilized around it because it’s not just the burning, it’s the refining, the transport (we have millions of kilometres of pipelines transporting this stuff), multi-billion-dollar refineries, petrochemical plants, the infrastructure and the vested interests in the space are enormous. That wall of money basically defended itself more or less to the death, using all the tools at its disposal, including propaganda lying and lobbying.
On the plastic branding award…
Plastic is the other branding award. I mean, can you imagine that today we have scientific papers with titles such as human consumption of microplastics? I mean, who would have thought that we would have scientific papers talking about how we’re eating and drinking and breathing plastic. But plastic is oil. So the word itself is manipulative in the extreme. It’s 99% oil, but for most of us, it’s a very comfortable word. And this is only changing now, as people are becoming more aware of what it is. But imagine if consumers worldwide looked at their fast fashion, for example, and instead of polyester, saw that it was made of plastic derived from crude oil and produced using chemicals, including carcinogens. You wouldn’t buy that sweater. But that’s not what it says. It says polyester, which is nice and comfortable and you just buy it. It’s the branding and the perception by the consumer that this is safe. And then there is the recycling con, the impression that people have that because they threw that bottle in a recycling bag, it’s going to be recycled, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. About 93% of global plastic has not been recycled.
The good news is that we are becoming aware. The truth has come out, it’s just going to take us a bit of time to adjust and get there. And we have to keep getting the truth out about all these products and pushing back against the propaganda, such as the plastic industry, pretending that it was the hero of the coronavirus crisis.
On the energy shift…
It’s shifting now around the world and effectively what you can expect is one of the fastest probably deepest and profound disruptions of the energy sector for over 150 years. What will happen is that the combination of solar power, wind power and batteries will continue to get cheaper. Eventually, we’ll generate pretty much 100% of the electricity that we need. And then that will trickle down into the hydrogen space, for example, which will allow us to make things like clean steel, but also to fly electric aircraft. And as we do that, the price of environmental pollution will hopefully increase because people will be a lot more aware of it. And if it does plastic will start to recede from our lives because, to put it simply, if a manufacturer of plastic was obligated to build the recycling infrastructure, that’s needed to deal with their plastic, then the price of plastic would go up. And if it goes up enough, it will be replaced. So we’ve got to combine citizen and consumer efforts, with government efforts, with market signals in order to change all that behaviour across the board. Oil and gas assets will become increasingly stranded and as people lose money in the sectors, they’ll shift their money, which will accelerate the transformation.
On the energy propaganda…
The standard objection to clean energy and electrification is ‘what are we going to do with all these solar panels and wind turbines and batteries at the end of their lives? And what about the mining practices of manufacturing to produce them?’. That is just another form of out of context criticism, which isn’t very substantive. The crux of it is really very simple – the green industry is built from very different DNA from the oil, gas, and coal industry. The oil and gas and coal industry never really cared about its externalities and its pollution, and never really built the infrastructure around it to protect from that pollution. For example, when an oil company today goes bankrupt, you’re left with everything that they’ve done, emitting gases and leaking effectively for decades. The green energy industry, by contrast, is developing a hundred per cent recycling strategies across solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. Which means that we will use less material than we’re anticipating, we will recycle all of it in a circular economy approach, and it will be all done in a safe environmental way.
On mining, of course, this can be very controversial because a lot of mining is done in countries where there are no robust rules and regulations. Mining is an industry that repeatedly breaches safety, environmental, but also human rights and child labour norms, and we’ve been doing that for 150 or 200 years. However, once again, the green industry is paying much greater attention to mining practices. And what it’s doing is a massive improvement over what the rest of the mining industry is doing because its DNA is different. It’s DNA is about actually watching its entire environmental, social and human footprint. And the signs across that industry are actually very promising from that perspective. I think we will do things much better than they have ever been done before,
On the current climate agenda…
Look, I think things are looking up after Corona Virus because. The fact that we’re all getting asphyxiated through the virus means that the consciousness around clean air, for example, has gone up. And what we’ve seen are moves to actually build back greener in Asia. For example, China said they will be carbon zero by 2060, Japan followed right behind it with carbon zero by 2050, then South Korea tagged along with carbon zero by 2050. These are very big, very significant moves in the context of the climate crisis because a carbon-free society does trickle down across all the sectors, it’s electricity, but it’s also transportation, buildings, fashion, plastics, airlines. The consequences are, are huge. So I’m actually very encouraged at the moment with the progress of the climate agenda. Having said that, of course, emissions are still going up and a huge amount lies in the balance with the US.
On tough conversations with others…
Try to push the conversation towards the clear impact on people and facts. Because most people probably haven’t thought about things have a knock-on effect or deeply looked at the facts and science. The conversation is not always easy sometimes it’s frankly impossible. You just have to hope that the weight of the information, plus the weight of evidence in terms of impact on people will gradually over time, change opinions, and build a consensus around what we are all trying to do, which is to ensure that we have a livable planet, 50 or 100 years from now.
On the question of our survival…
We will survive. Yes, we will survive in one shape or another. We have banked some increased suffering because you have to plan on the basis that the warming vis-a-vis pre-industrial times is already going to exceed 2-2.5 degrees or even 3 degrees. This means we will have more extreme weather events, more fires, more floods, we’ll have sea-level rise, more typhoons, more hurricanes. All of these consequences already been banked because we have already emitted more emissions than is safe to protect from this increased climate impact. Having said that we are now adapting and we are moving the needle in the right direction. We will invest more in climate adaptation, to increase defences against climate, as well as transforming our societies into cleaner fueled ones. Unfortunately, there will be a lot of suffering as a consequence of our actions. However, we will survive, and I think probably thrive on a 50-100 year view, as long as these signs that we are discussing and that we’re detecting all around us, continue to gain momentum.
On staying positive…
You have to be optimistic. I think that’s the only way forward and you have to continue to fight. You have to refuse feeling disheartened because what is at stake is greater than all of that. It’s not difficult to be optimistic. You just have to look through the noise and see the change that’s happening on the ground all around you. And then find how you can accelerate the change at your own scale. And so optimism, I think is the only way forward because otherwise, you will not act effectively.
My one tip is vote. And vote doesn’t only mean at the ballot box, vote at the supermarket, vote with your car, vote with your wallet, vote with what you read. Everybody can be a change actor. Everybody can influence the direction in which the collective travels. That is why you have to maintain that optimism because you’ve got that power, the power to vote. It’s an awesome power and we have to all realize it and then appreciate it and then use it.
Three things I am taking away from this conversation with Assaad are:
1. The DNA is different between oil and gas and clean energy – and the technology and circularity is advancing faster than the propaganda can keep up
2. We have already locked in a certain amount of suffering from emissions that have already been banked, but we do have the ability to invest in climate adaptation
3. And above all else – we have to remain optimistic, its the only way forward, and we have to continue to fight
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