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Book review: Five Times Faster, by Simon Sharpe

Book review: Five Times Faster, by Simon Sharpe

By Jeremy Williams

Every week there are steps forward on climate change to report. There is movement. Things are happening. “The problem,” writes Simon Sharpe, “is the pace of change.” It’s all moving too slowly, bogged down in glacial decision-making processes, held back by institutional inertia and the power of vested interests. The carbon intensity of the global economy is decreasing at 1.5% a year, and the science tells us it needs to be 8% a year. “In other words, we need to rip fossil-burning out of the global economy roughly five times faster this decade than we managed over the past two decades.”

That’s the premise of Simon Sharpe’s book Five Times Faster: Rethinking the science, economics, and diplomacy of climate change.

The first thing to know about this book is that it’s got an unusual author. There are lots of climate books written by activists or journalists. Books from diplomats, civil servants and policy makers are rarer, presumably because they’re too busy getting stuff done. This is one of the few. Sharpe has worked at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, on climate policy at the Foreign Office and on the UK’s industrial strategy. He was a director on the government’s COP26 team, and spent ten years as a diplomat, including in India and China. So this is someone with a rich personal experience of how change happens at the highest levels – or doesn’t happen, as the case may be.

The book has three sections, and Sharpe brings his experience to each one. We start with climate science, and a blind spot around risk assessment. In other fields, such as security, finance or health, governments draw on teams of risk assessment experts and intelligence analysts to interpret findings and make decisions. This has never really been developed in the climate world. The focus has been on refining projections of what is likely to happen, rather than on the worse case scenarios. That means governments are making decisions without really knowing what it is they’re trying to avoid, and so the climate crisis hasn’t been treated with the urgency it deserves. Sharpe tells the story of how he drew together experts from around the world to commission a climate risk assessment of his own, which you can find here.

Part two investigates economics, where Sharpe observes that government understanding often leans heavily on out-dated economic theories. Long debunked ideas somehow endure. “Theory that should have been discarded a century ago is still being used to inform policy decisions,” and the book spells out some specific ways that economic ideas have shaped goverment response to the climate, for good or ill. Drawing on economists such as Steve Keen, Eric Reinert and Mariana Mazzucato, the book argues for a view of the economy that is more like an ecosystem than a machine. It advocates systems thinking (something explored in my book The Economics of Arrival too), and strategic approaches to accelerating technology transitions and positive tipping points.

Finally, part three gets stuck into climate diplomacy and the drawn-out processes of the annual COPs. Here the focus has been on top-level national targets, and Sharpe argues that “the fundamental mistake was to try to agree on everything at once.” There are faster ways to cooperate internationally, testing solutions, sharing learning and working together in key sectors or regions. For example, the EU, China and California write emissions standards for half the world’s car market. “Coordinated action by those three could shift incentives for car manufacturers everywhere.”

In what was my favourite part of the book, Sharpe explains some of the campaigns going on around COP26 that creates opportunities for exactly this sort of cooperation. They include setting targets for phasing out fossil fuelled cars and moving beyond coal, and it’s full of hopeful examples of countries working together in ways that we don’t normally hear about.

As someone who reads a lot about climate, what I really valued in Five Times Faster was the inside perspective on how change happens, why it doesn’t, and how inertia can be overcome. There’s a lot to learn here about how to speed things up, and the future of civilisation really depends on us learning those lessons.

First published in The Earthbound Report.

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