Adair Turner traces his passion for protecting the planet back to his teenage years.

The former head of the UK's financial regulator was 12 years old when his father became planning officer for Argyle County, Scotland, and his family moved to a remote country farmhouse.

"I loved the west coast of Scotland with its marvellous views of the sea and mountains," he recalls. "I've always wanted to preserve landscapes, to preserve species, to preserve beauty."

Today, as Chair of the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), the 61-year-old is trying to make a difference to how the world uses energy.

Founded in 2015, the ETC is a group of industry, finance and environment leaders. It is co-chaired by Ajay Mathur, former director of the Indian government’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency. Its commissioners include Rachel Kyte, who is the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Sustainable Energy for All, and Chad Holliday, Chair of Shell.

The group is funded by organisations including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Shell, the European Climate Foundation think-tank and the United Nations Foundation.

The ETC aims to advise policymakers on concrete actions that could help the world meet the ambition of the Paris agreement to limit global warming to less than 2° Celsius, while ensuring economic prosperity.

Its first major report, "Better energy, greater prosperity", launched earlier this year, suggests actions that governments and business leaders could take to achieve the ambitions agreed in Paris.

Gaining insight

The commissioners base their insights on thorough analysis of evidence relating directly to quantifiable numbers on energy and emissions. Subjective, emotional arguments that ignore evidence are discouraged. "We must ensure that people debate facts and logic; not simply argue their own assertions," Turner says.

Despite the ETC’s diverse mix of experts – from across the developed and developing world and ranging from investors to academics – all share a broad vision of how the transition to a low-carbon world can be achieved.

Their report sets out ambitious but realistic pathways for limiting global warming, while stimulating economic development and social progress.

Rapidly falling costs of renewables and battery storage could enable a significant increase in clean electricity supplies, such as from wind and solar, backed by natural-gas fired power plants, the report says.

By decarbonising power supplies and increasing the role of clean electricity in the wider global energy supply system, the ETC says the world could achieve half the carbon emissions reductions needed to limit warming of the climate to well below 2° Celsius, as agreed in Paris in 2015. But governments and business leaders need to co-ordinate actions.

"Technology provides us with the tools to achieve this transition at a low cost but we have to have public policy co-ordination," Turner says. He adds that while renewables are falling in price, oil and gas prices are also expected to remain low due to plentiful supplies of shale oil and gas. Low fossil fuel prices could slow the pace of investment in renewables.

Turner says electrification alone won’t be able to limit carbon emissions quickly enough to meet the Paris goals. "We have an optimistic story about the power system but we have to pay a lot more attention to heavy industry."

The electrification of sectors like road freight, aviation, concrete and steel manufacturing is still a long way off, he says, and cost-effective ways of decarbonising them is lacking.

The ETC urges government and business decision-makers to support the development of technologies like carbon capture storage (CCS) and alternative energy sources like hydrogen and biofuels, because they could offer cost-effective ways to achieve further reductions in emissions.

Addressing scepticism

And what about those who say the ETC will effectively amount to little more than a talking shop? Turner laughs. "We won't have everyone agreeing on everything. The world doesn't work like that," he says. "But we can get everyone to be part of the debate with a single goal in mind. There will be a workable, scrappy deal between all stakeholders. It won't be utopian. It will be real."

The ETC will use its commissioners' networks to engage directly with governments and businesses, urging them to take the co-ordinated policy and investment actions needed to facilitate change.

For example, over the next 12 to 18 months, the ETC will bring together a range of senior Indian stakeholders to study ways to achieve power decarbonisation across the country, including looking at the role of coal. Turner hopes that changes in energy use in India could influence policies in other developing economies, which are critical to achieving the Paris goals.

The ETC has also launched an in-depth analysis into decarbonising heavy industry and long-distance transport. This analysis will investigate energy efficiency, electrification, fuel substitution and CCS. It will also focus on ways to reduce demand for carbon-intensive materials. Turner says solutions could include digitalisation of economies and the recycling or regeneration of resources.

Lord Adair Turner

Career: Corporate planning at BP (1979); Chase Manhattan Bank (1979-1982); McKinsey (1982-1995); Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (1995-1999); Vice-Chairman of Merrill Lynch Europe (2000-2006); Chair of the Overseas Development Institute (2007-10); Chair of the UK Climate Committee (2008-2012); Chair of the UK Financial Services Authority (2008-2015).

Favourite film: Casablanca.

Interests: Opera, playing the saxophone, reading about history, technology and science.

Five people (living or dead) I'd invite to dinner: Former US President Barack Obama, Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, wife Orna Ní Chionna, opera singer Maria Callas and scientist Albert Einstein.

The world ahead

And what of President Trump's decision to pull the USA out of the Paris agreement? The USA is the world's second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind China. Calling this choice "deeply regrettable" and "economically flawed", Turner says technology and the determination of other countries, companies and US states and cities will help ensure Trump does not derail progress towards a low-carbon economy.

"Paris has not collapsed. Instead we are seeing incredibly strong commitments from India and from a range of governments and companies in the USA. They're all still in," he says.

Lord Turner believes his lengthy career in the public and private sectors has provided him with the experience needed to navigate complex challenges.

He was, after all, the first chair of the UK Climate Committee from 2008 to 2012 and chair of the UK Financial Services Authority after the 2008 economic crisis, until it was replaced in 2015 by the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

"The financial crisis was entirely the result of self-inflicted stupidity," he says. "Climate change has been destined to be a challenge for humanity ever since the start of the industrial revolution."

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