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Waiting for the world to have its climate change moment

12 Nov, 2021

Everyone’s climate change moment is different. For those who haven’t had theirs yet, it’s the moment when you become viscerally aware, and almost fearful, that our planet is warming too fast and the consequences will be devastating.

For Statkraft CEO Christian Rynning-Tønnesen, that moment came in 2010, when the warnings of scientists and environmental experts finally hit home.

“I had just taken on the role as CEO of Statkraft, and I felt I had to re-educate myself. I was reading everything I could about energy related topics including climate change, which sparked a lot of questions. I hosted a series of roundtable discussions, arranged by Statkraft with the best experts I could find, and it was during that second event that I truly understood that this was real, large and serious,” he reflects.

Christian Rynning-Tønnesen
Christian Rynning-Tønnesen has been Statkraft's CEO since 2010

Over the past years, company outsiders have borne witness to the spreading of Statkraft’s wings under Rynning-Tønnesen’s watch. The company has strategically hatched out of its comfortable Norwegian hydropower shell to find its place among the global renewable energy leaders. Statkraft is quick to claim that the energy transition is the best weapon we have to fight a steadily warming planet, but as Rynning-Tønnesen puts it, we still have a job to do to make people feel the urgency of the matter.

“Climate change still hasn’t had its Covid moment,” he says.

“That’s because it’s creeping. It’s gradual. But at some point, it will come to a head. There will be a point of broad global acceptance, like with Covid, but we’re not there yet.”

High climate hopes at COP26

The road to accelerating global climate change action has been paved in part by a series of UN Climate Conferences called COP. COP26 has officially concluded – the reviews of which are mixed. There is positive news and reason for hope: The methane pledge, the agreement of more than 40 countries to eliminate coal power, and the unexpected US-China climate declaration. On the other hand, youth activist Greta Thunberg declared the conference a “failure”, decrying the participants of the global gathering as the “same people who got us into this mess.” Rynning-Tønnesen’s review on the outcome of COP takes a more pragmatic approach.

The most important part of the COP process, he says, is to make progress on targets that are visible and measurable. The event in itself is a means to gather decision-makers and hold them accountable for the pledges to which they are publicly committing.

“This is what will drive the most change,” says Rynning-Tønnesen.

“The dominant part of the change ahead of us (as we decarbonise) will be driven by regulation, not individual choice. The regulations will decide more than the individual, and naturally this will lead to all individuals on the planet collectively changing their way of living and their source of energy consumed.”

Hydropower will play a crucial part in enabling the necessary energy transition.
Hydropower will play a crucial part in enabling the necessary energy transition.

Not enough green choices today

Today, neither companies nor individuals normally have the luxury of choosing A or B, green or not green. There are no simple decisions because the green alternatives are in short supply. But if year after year, more regulations are put in place to transform even the most hard-to-abate industries, then the greener decisions for the individual become easier to make.

“We have an obligation as individuals to be engaged. But we don’t have an obligation to be angry or sink into despair. We are facing a global problem that requires visible, measurable solutions on an international level. There is no other way than having the major nations move first, and then the others will follow.”

More renewable energy is required to reach global climate goals. Solar power is expected to be the world's largest power source already by 2035.
More renewable energy is required to reach global climate goals. Solar power is expected to be the world's largest power source already by 2035.

We have done this before, Rynning-Tønnesen adds. Similar, global agreements in the past resulted in the ban of chlorofluorocarbons that were thinning our ozone layer (Montreal Protocol) and a global effort to eliminate lead from gasoline to protect human health and premature death – an effort that has taken 50 years but finally reached an end in August 2021 when Algeria was announced as the last remaining country to make the unleaded switch.

Global agreements in the interest of the common good have been reached even in times of regional wars, tension, conflict, disasters, and economic downturn. It’s a sign of hope that despite whatever is playing out on the geopolitical stage at the moment, mankind can overcome anything when it concerns saving the planet on which we depend.

“Of course, the magnitude of climate change is much greater than anything we’ve ever faced, and the consequences of it are even larger. But we still need to do the same things to solve the problem. International agreements, regulations, and stimulations. We have almost all the technology we need, but it needs to be deployed on a massive scale. We’ve recognised the crisis and we have started to set targets,” he asserts.

“This is what makes me positive.”

Group photo from Statkraft's Climate Roundtabl at Vang går, Norway, in 2014.
Group photo from Statkraft's Climate Roundtable at the company's conference centre at Vang gård, Norway, in 2014.

What it takes to solve the climate challenges ahead

Coming from the renewable energy sector, it’s natural to assume that Rynning-Tønnesen finds his business to be central to solving the climate challenge. He’s quick to confirm that clean electricity is the most important thing, but it’s not the entire solution. Energy that can be transported in large quantities, such as hydrogen, biofuels and green ammonia will also be essential. And we will need to tackle other, big looming problems like deforestation, too.

“Every year, the regulations are getting more practical. Targets are being set by just about every country in the world. And we are starting to hold each other accountable,” he explains, giving greater credence to his hopeful side rather than focusing on fears.

“If we can get the incentives right, deploy technology at scale, use digital communication to speed things up, and work together in global tandem to tackle the greatest problem we will ever face, like we do at COP, then there’s nothing that we can’t achieve.”

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