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Inside the energy transition | The world needs to switch to renewable energy. But the transition is being held up by misinformation and negativity. Over six episodes, this new series will explore our bright energy future.

Episode 4 – A global transition: from China to Sub-Saharan Africa

Episode 4 – A global transition: from China to Sub-Saharan Africa


Is the energy transition only truly happening in the West? Politicians like to point fingers at those who “aren’t doing their bit”. But every country – from China to Kenya – is going through their own transformation…


With thanks to Harsh Vijay Singh, Isabel Hilton, and Rose Mutiso. This episode was produced by Phil Sansom.


Giles Whittell: Late last year, in 2021, the eyes of the world were on Glasgow: the city that hosted representatives from almost 200 countries as part of the global climate summit known as Cop26. 

Lucy Yu: We witnessed two weeks of vigorous handshakes, tense negotiations, and complex geopolitical disputes. And out of it all came an agreement called the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Giles Whittell: The Pact, for the first time, made explicit plans to address coal – the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels. But the final wording of the document is weaker than was originally planned…

An agreement was finally reached last night. But there’s controversy over the pledge about coal, which now says its use should be ‘phased down’ rather than ‘phased out’…

Jane Hill, BBC News

Lucy Yu: Fingers were quickly pointed at India and China, who reportedly led the dissent that resulted in this last minute change to the Pact .

Giles Whittell: And the situation appeared to have reduced Cop President Alok Sharma to tears…

I apologise for the way this process has unfolded, and I am deeply sorry.

Alok Sharma at Cop26

Giles Whittell: This story added fuel to already-burning international disputes over energy. And to an extent there’s some hypocrisy here – because since, Cop26 we’ve seen fossil fuel projects continue to be approved in the UK as well as North America.

Lucy Yu: But many people in the West still think it’s not worth moving on renewable energy because they argue countries like China and India just aren’t doing their bit.

“And their national plans so far reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency.

Barack Obama at Cop26

Giles Whittell: So what’s really going on? Is the energy transition only happening in the West? Or is the truth something very different?


Lucy Yu: Hello and welcome to Inside The Energy Transition – a podcast about the bright future of green energy. I’m Lucy Yu, CEO of Centre for Net Zero…

Giles Whittell: …and I’m Giles Whittell, the editorial lead on climate and sustainability at Tortoise. In this series we’re exploring the biggest questions, and debunking the most commonplace myths, about the energy transition: one of the defining goals of our time. 


Giles Whittell: So Lucy, if there’s one thing I’ve done in my underutilised long years at the coalface of work, as it were, it’s burned much too much jet fuel in flying around the world. And I can’t help thinking that the reality is a bit more complex than the idea that the transition is just happening in the West, and not happening anywhere else. What do you reckon? 

Lucy Yu: I’m sure you’re absolutely right, Giles, and that’s what our guests here are going to discuss today. 

Giles Whittell: Excellent. So I suppose the question is then: if this is a myth, what’s going on everywhere else in the world? And here to help answer that is Harsh Vijay Singh from the World Economic Forum. He leads on their Energy Transition Index, which ranks different countries around the world according to their progress in adopting renewable energy. Harsh, welcome!

Harsh Vijay Singh: Hi, thanks for having me.

Lucy Yu: Let me start by asking you what you would say to someone who told you the energy transition is only really happening in the West?

Harsh Vijay Singh: It’s an interesting question. We need to start by understanding that there is no single energy transition – rather, there are energy transitions. Countries pursue energy transition pathways that are unique to their circumstances, that leverage local core competencies, and also address local problems.

Energy, as we know, is a critical enabler of modern economy and societies. It has been a pillar supporting economic growth and development for more than a century. So what we need is a new clean energy mix, which is available to everyone at all times, and at a price that everyone can afford.

This is where the trade-offs come into picture. So while environment and sustainability is indeed paramount, we want to achieve that by making sure that the transition balances the needs of economic growth, universal energy access, and energy security.

And depending upon country-specific circumstances, these trade-offs lead to countries adopting different pathways. And these differences essentially materialise in terms of choice of the technologies, policy instruments, as well as the ambition or the pace of decarbonisation in their specific country.

From our own experience benchmarking countries for the Energy Transition Index, which we have been doing for a decade at the World Economic Forum, we do see that more than 80 per cent of the countries that we benchmark have improved their overall scores on this Index over the past decade, and the countries with most improvements are some of the emerging economies.

So I would say that it’s not something that is only happening in the West, but it is something which is quite universal and has been happening in every part of the world. 

Giles Whittell: Harsh, some specific examples would be really helpful to sort of see what you mean.

Harsh Vijay Singh: Sure. So let’s take a few countries, for example. I would pick Sweden first, which has consistently ranked among the top three countries on our Index over the years.

Policymakers, businesses, and consumers in Sweden have taken a series of steps in the right direction. This includes having lawful climate change targets, environmentalism being prominent in political discourse as well as a high level of consumer awareness, and also reducing carbon emissions at a fast pace over the past three decades.

However, Sweden also benefits from attributes such as access to hydropower, which provides half of its electricity production. It is a heavily industrialised country, a sophisticated economy, an educated workforce, and has a relatively small population with high per capita income.

So these factors act as tailwinds in support of transition to a low carbon energy mix in Sweden. The scale of challenge there is relatively small, and there are sufficient resources to invest in the transition and to take risks that many other countries may not be able to take right now. 

For example, let’s take India – a country of more than a billion people, a fast-growing economy with a rapidly expanding middle class, where per capita energy consumption is still low.

India needs more energy at affordable prices for both households and industries. So the focus of energy transition in India so far has mainly been to prioritise proven technologies, such as solar PV and wind.

So this is a fundamentally different pathway from what Sweden might be taking, which is taking more risks, where it’s a failsafe strategy in case of India

Now if we were to talk about countries that export fossil fuels, such as many of those in the Middle East, where fossil fuel export revenue has been a major component of their GDP… take UAE, for example. It has been prioritising technologies such as green hydrogen, carbon capture, and nuclear.

These choices leverage their existing core competencies in operating heavy industries – oil and gas has been a mainstay of UAE’s economy for a long time, so there is both legacy infrastructure, workforce, skills, know-how for heavy industries, so they have chosen technologies that leverage these kinds of competencies.

Looking at these three countries, I think it gives a fair amount of insights into how different countries are making different choices when it comes to energy transitions.

Lucy Yu: And Harsh, given what you’ve said about the differences between different countries’ respective energy transitions, does it still make sense to rank or to benchmark different countries? 

Harsh Vijay Singh: The purpose of rankings like ours is not to say that every country needs to be like Scandinavian countries.

What we try to do through our benchmarking is to help countries leverage best practices from other countries who might be in similar socioeconomic circumstances, and hence offer good practices which can inform policies, reforms, investments in other countries.

So the benchmarking is useful, but it is not to say that: just follow the north star and everybody be like Scandinavia, but it is to learn from your peers and also to learn from your past.

Giles Whittell: I think it’s fair to say there’s quite a lot of finger pointing in the West at big countries like India and China.

Even though we know that on a per capita basis, energy consumption is low – in some cases it’s very low – the sheer scale of the countries, and they’re dependence still on certain fossil fuels, means that they are by any standard a big part of the problem. But is it fair to be pointing fingers, given history, at India and China?

Harsh Vijay Singh: India and China are the most prominent examples, but the story is pretty much the same across all emerging economies. What we need to understand is that climate change is a collective action problem. And pointing fingers is not really going to get us anywhere.

For India and China, it is true that coal continues to be a part of their energy mix, but the scale of challenges in India and China is vast. China perhaps adds more renewable energy capacity annually than the entire power generation capacity of several countries. And it has been doing so consistently over many years.

Similarly, the share of renewable energy in power generation in India has expanded rapidly. And both of these countries have essentially offered that kind of scale which has led to cost reductions across a range of renewable energy technologies, that might not have been possible otherwise.

So while most emerging economies are dealing with complex trade offs, and the seeming lack of progress might be there, but it is not due to some ideological differences or lack of intent. I don’t think this is an ‘us versus them’ problem, and it wouldn’t help us to point fingers at certain countries 

Lucy Yu: And Harsh – if I may – you’ve looked at energy transitions around the globe. What makes you most optimistic? 

Harsh Vijay Singh: So I would point to two things. One is the potential of technology. For an industry of this size, this old, and this complexity, the pace of change that we have seen in the past ten years is unprecedented.

The second thing I would like to point to is the youth. They are more affected by the current problems, and given the speed on scale of awareness and mobilisation of the youth that we see across the world, I think they would provide the much needed solution to this problem by not having the legacy mindset that the current generation has.

When the youth of today take charge of the state of affairs in future, then I think they will deal with this with a radically different mindset, and that will lead to faster problem solving.


Giles Whittell: Let’s zoom in now on China as a crucial case study. It’s the world’s largest country, and as a result the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Now many commentators like to blame China for inadequate action on climate change – especially in the wake of Cop26.

But if you look a little closer the picture isn’t quite that simple – and here to break down the subject for us is Isabel Hilton, a veteran journalist and founder of the climate news site China Dialogue. Welcome Isabel!

Isabel Hilton: Thank you. Good to be here.

Giles Whittell: Isabel, is it fair to point the finger at China when it comes to the global energy transition? How should we be thinking generally about China’s role in this?

Isabel Hilton: Well, it’s fair to the degree that as everybody knows, China is the world’s biggest emitter.

China would say it’s not fair in the sense that China has followed a development path which was essentially laid down by the British industrial revolution, and has pretty much been followed by everyone else who’s industrialised ever since.

The problem now is that we know about climate change, and anything that China does is on such a scale that the impact is very large indeed.

And thirdly, that China has fueled its industrial revolution substantially by coal. So that combination means that China is, if you like, an easy target.

Now China has always participated in global climate processes. It was a signatory very early on to the UNFCCC, to the Kyoto Protocol. It’s never left, unlike the United States. And for much of that time, as a developing country, it was not obliged to take any mitigation action. 

That all changed with Paris. And since Paris, we’ve seen China take – at least on the surface – a much more progressive approach towards climate. It hasn’t shown up substantially in the emissions yet, although there is a lot of action in China which is climate related. 

Giles Whittell: Can we just be clear about the targets that they have set themselves? They’ve set themselves some targets since Paris. Are they adequate, or weak compared with what’s required and compared with the rest of the world?

Isabel Hilton: In Paris they promised to peak emissions by 2030, and that was regarded even then as a pretty loose target. And that’s back in 2015.

At the UN General Assembly nearly two years ago, Xi Jinping made ‘two significant promises’, as he would put it. One was to reach net zero by 2060, and the second was a reiteration of the 2030 peak.

Now it’s quite clear that the 2030 peak is not Paris-compliant. The later you leave it, the harder it is to scramble down to net zero. And because it’s such a big emitter, to peak before 2030 is pretty essential for China to reach that target.

I mean that said, China’s not alone in this. It’s just, as I say, China being the world’s biggest emitter, it’s not terribly reassuring that we’re not seeing slightly more urgent action. 

Lucy Yu: Isabel, how important is China to other countries’ energy transitions?

Isabel Hilton: Probably China’s most important contribution to date is its capacity to bring industrial manufacturing at scale to bear on the technologies of the energy transition. And this happened for two reasons.

There comes a point in the high-emitting, high-carbon, rapid development model where you essentially run out of steam. And if you look at the trajectory of the other Asian Tigers – at Taiwan, at Japan, at South Korea – they’ve all essentially followed the same model.

So you bring your population in off the countryside – you have surplus labour in the countryside – you bring them into factories. You start by making very low added value goods. It’s all relatively inefficient, but it gives the kind of boost to the economy that you need to begin development.

And there comes a point when those wages rise, you price yourself out of that particular market, and you have to get smarter. If you don’t get smarter, you get stuck in the middle income trap. And there are many countries… most countries get stuck in the middle income trap.

So China was reaching the point in the early two thousands where these processes were beginning to kick in. It had had two decades of extremely rapid growth. This had caused a lot of environmental damage to air, to water, and of course climate damage. But it was also beginning to run out of steam.

At the same time, by 2005, China was the world’s biggest carbon emitter. And it was well understood in Beijing that this was not a good look diplomatically, and it would threaten China’s leadership of other emerging economies – as China liked to position itself as kind of a leading country in G20, as representing the poor of the world in confrontation with the rich, but many of those poor countries were suffering from the effects of China’s carbon emissions.

So these two things come together in the middle of the first decade of this century, as China starts to rethink its industrial policy and rethink its climate policy. And they come together in massive investments in the production of renewable technologies.

And in fact, all the technologies that the world will need for a carbon transition – that includes electric mobility, includes batteries, wind, solar, and nuclear – all of those China begins to invest in.

And as a result has brought down the price, for the rest of the world, of those technologies, to the point where it is cheaper now in most geographies to build a renewable energy system than to build a fossil-dependent one.

And that has altered the economics of the energy transition for everybody. And that is a contribution that I think we should recognise that China has made. 

Giles Whittell: Isabel, can I just jump in there? Because unlike the Asian Tigers that you mentioned, China’s is a command economy. The country is still run by the Communist Party.

Do we have a paradox here that the capitalist world, in a sense, owes communist China a debt, because it’s a command economy which has been able to take these huge decisions that have delivered huge economies of scale, in wind and especially solar?

Isabel Hilton: Yes, you could say that. And certainly it ought to be acknowledged. I don’t think it lets China off the hook of its own emissions. But it’s absolutely… and it’s been an enabler of an energy transition, if others will take the policy decisions to pursue that energy transition. So yes, there is a debt.

Of course, I think that there is also a downside to China’s approach to manufacturing, which is in the role of state subsidies, for example, to manufacturing industry; putting other countries’ sectors out of business; and certainly some questionable IP practices, before we get too overwhelmed with gratitude.

But you know, it’s nevertheless… we are where we are, and this has been an important contribution. 

Giles Whittell: What’s a reliable headline number for China’s current reliance on coal? And I mean, I’m assuming it’s a big number… what are they going to replace it with eventually?

Isabel Hilton: So the percentage of coal currently in China’s energy mix is about 58 per cent. And that has to come down to zero in effect, unless there’s a miracle over carbon capture – which I personally don’t believe in.

And the plan – insofar as the plan is elaborated – there is, again, a massive increase in renewable provision in China. China has already got the largest installed capacity of renewables, and it has big nuclear plans, and it does have already big hydro.

So those are the basic elements of China’s energy transition. But it is going to require a great deal more storage, a great deal more wind, and a great deal more solar to bring it to fruition.

Lucy Yu: Isabel, when we start peeling back the layers of the onion here, there’s an awful lot of nuance to this topic. What do you think the media often gets wrong about China’s energy transition?

Isabel Hilton: Well, I guess one of the problems is that, given that the geopolitical tensions are now so high, China’s climate policy tends to be read through a geopolitical lens.

And that’s not entirely untrue. I think the geopolitics have raised concerns about energy security. And if you are concerned with energy security in China, then you might be a little more reluctant to let go of coal than you would otherwise be.

This is not a moment as far as China’s concerned to take risks, because other than coal and its own installed renewable capacity – including nuclear and hydro – everything else is imported. And it’s imported mostly still by sea, a lot of it through the Malacca straits.

And China has, for nearly ten years now, pursued a policy of diversification of supply – which includes building pipelines, and building things like the new port in Gwadar in Pakistan, which will be an energy port – all these things in order to try to spread the risk of the Malacca straits.

But it’s still there. China is still dependent on imported energy to keep things going. Now that means that when tensions are high, policy becomes more conservative. And I think we don’t really make much allowance for that when we’re looking at China’s own capacity.

The other thing I think that people get wrong when they look at China is that they assume because China is a one-party state, Xi Jinping can essentially do what he likes: you pull a lever in Beijing, and something happens in a distant province.

And you forget that China has politics too. It’s just that it’s not very visible. It doesn’t behave the same way as democratic politics. The leadership is spared the electoral cycle every four or five years. But it needs to maintain legitimacy nevertheless with its population. And that is substantially through performance legitimacy.

So the pressure to keep delivering jobs, to keep delivering economic growth, in the absence of political liberties, is quite strong. You can’t run a country entirely on repression. You run it on very positive messaging and on delivering a better way of life, or a better standard of living to people.

So that’s the pressure that comes from China’s political model. And I think that we tend to underestimate how strong that pressure is.


Lucy Yu: We’ve heard how each country has to go through their own energy transition, and how that transition will look very different for China, for example, than it will for the UK.

But what about for countries that are still very early in their development? How are the world’s poorest countries doing when it comes to their own energy transitions – and how do they align their economic needs with environmental ones?

Rose Mutiso has spent much of her career asking these questions. She’s currently Research Director at the Energy for Growth Hub, working in particular on energy transitions in sub-Saharan Africa. Rose, it’s great to have you with us.

Rose Mutiso: Thanks so much for having me.

Lucy Yu: Let’s start with a bit of scene setting. When it comes to low- and middle-income countries, what’s happening in relation to the energy transition? Are they going through their own transitions?

Rose Mutiso: Yes, definitely. And the energy transition in low-income countries – especially in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, which I think about a lot – this transition is really about four objectives.

So the first is achieving universal energy access. So hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia simply lack electricity or access to clean cooking. And this is scandalous and shameful in the 21st Century, and we need to solve this basic problem.

The second objective is powering economic growth in productive sectors. The third is building climate resilience. So a changing climate means massive infrastructure development to adapt to extreme weather, droughts, extreme temperatures; and a lot of this is energy-intensive, so think air conditioning, irrigation, desalination.

Finally, the fourth objective is obviously locking in low-carbon infrastructure in the long-term. Poor countries… we are working towards a net zero future. Greenfield sites are an opportunity to avoid mistakes and to do things differently.

And the one thing that you’ll notice that is missing from this ‘objective list’ is: emissions mitigation in the energy sector is not an immediate concern. There’s just no emissions to cut.

Giles Whittell: We know that in many contexts, it’s dangerous to generalise about a huge area with nearly 50 different countries, but insofar as you can about sub-Saharan Africa, what are the unique challenges that they face in the energy transition? 

As you say, almost nothing to cut at the moment, but one way or another that’s going to change, isn’t it?

Rose Mutiso: Yeah. I think each of these objectives on that list… it’s just a massive list if you were to work on it one at a time, and we have to optimise for all of these things. And this will involve some trade-offs.

In many poor countries, natural gas will be an important transitional fuel. But then the international community is increasingly hesitant to support any kind of fossil investments in poor countries, and imposing finance bans in some cases.

Interestingly, these very same countries are obviously investing big time in natural gas for their own domestic use, but anyway…

This kind of climate hypocrisy is constraining poor countries because you have to make decisions for the short- to mid-term. And those needs are so pressing.

You have to lift people out of poverty, you have to adapt in a very difficult situation, but then you also have to keep the long-term. You don’t want to lock in infrastructure that is not part of the future. And you need to rely on international partners for financing that also have their priorities, and want to dictate X, Y, and Z.

So this is just one classic example of the delicate dance that these countries are having to do. 

Lucy Yu: And Rose, you opened by talking about four objectives for these energy transitions, and that each of those objectives was really a very large challenge in its own right. Could you give us an example of the scale of the challenge – say in Kenya, perhaps, a country that’s been a focus of your work? 

Rose Mutiso: You know, it’s often actually great to be from Kenya if you’re in the energy sector, just because thanks to our unique endowment of resources we’re already generating 90 per cent of our power from renewables.

A lot of this is geothermal. So in the Kenyan Rift Valley we have a lot of renewable potential, and this actually extends into the entire horn of Africa. And if you go into countries like Ethiopia, you have a lot of hydro, you have a lot of geothermal.

But I would say, still, despite our great endowment in Kenya, our big challenges in the power sector is stuff like modernising our grid infrastructure. We need to improve transparency in sector governance. We need to attract public and private sector finance at scale.

And another interesting thing is in poor countries, you also have to stimulate demand. You can’t just do it the ‘white elephant’ way and build a lot of infrastructure. There needs to be existing demand. And stimulating that requires a lot of macro- and microeconomic factors to be correct.

So right now in Kenya, the per capita consumption is about 168 kilowatt hours per person per year. And this is less than the annual power consumption of a fridge. So your fridge at home is consuming more power per year than the typical Kenyan.

So this means that we are completely missing energy-consuming, productive sectors. Those are what generate jobs and growth. And so we really need to stimulate demand. The energy infrastructure we’re hoping to build has to be met by demand, or there’ll be a massive mismatch.

So a bunch of other poor countries face the same challenges of updating infrastructure, stimulating demand, but often with this added constraint of a less than ideal energy resource endowment, 

Giles Whittell: Rose, you talk about stimulating demand. That will have to be met by energy that is affordable. How important is it that the price of renewables is coming down? It’s been coming down fast, and we assume it’ll go on coming down. Will that lead to an alignment of the priorities that you set out at the beginning?

Rose Mutiso: Definitely. The dramatic falling costs of solar, wind, batteries, et cetera over the past couple of decades: this has been a major game changer.

And for this reason, decarbonising the power sector is actually one of, I think probably, what people think of as the easiest problem to solve. And this is why everyone is like: “let’s electrify everything, because we can make the power system green.”

We hope to see similar trends in how to decarbonise sectors like transport or industry, though this will take a lot of investment in innovation. I think what’s important to remember is that many of these optimistic narratives around falling costs for green tech fail to account for broader infrastructure and ecosystem costs.

So there’s a whole range of really unsexy stuff, like overhauling dilapidated power grids, to figuring out how to ensure that this transition doesn’t displace a lot of livelihoods for people. There are all of these other kinds of squishy, non-tech challenges that are just as important, sometimes more so, than the buzzy tech narratives.

So I always say: yes, technology, innovation is great. The pace is really impressive and that makes all of this possible. But there’s more than tech to the problem.

Giles Whittell: On that: in Kenya, for example, is there – if we’re being optimistic about this for a second – potential of creating whole new renewable energy industries, which create whole new categories of skilled, well-paying jobs?

Rose Mutiso: Exactly. So I think this is why these energy-poor countries are so interesting, because it’s really in many ways a massive greenfield site

South Africa, our neighbour to the south, is looking very much like one of the Western countries, because they have this massive coal economy that is completely entrenched. And so their transition questions are really focused around displacement. 

In Kenya it’s all about opportunity, building up the skill set. And actually interestingly, geothermal is a really, really interesting example where Kenya over the past five or so decades has built a lot of depth on geothermal, not just scientific research, exploration engineering, and now we are actually exporting experts to other parts of the region.

And so I think that there’s a real opportunity to build that in all of these other kinds of green economy sectors. But that will… again, that’s the kind of thing that is not reflected in the charts that show solar prices going down, that you need to kind of build the workforce.

Lucy Yu: I want to talk now about justice. Countries such as Kenya have been at the mercy of imperial nations for centuries, so some people would argue that in a just world, they should probably get much more leeway when it comes to their energy transitions. Do you agree? And is that happening? 

Rose Mutiso: No. And as I laugh, I’m also crying. No, it’s not happening. 

The truth is we just simply don’t have enough leverage and bargaining power on the global stage. And this is just like Geopolitics 101 – that’s just how it works, you know.

But I would say in the energy and climate space, this is changing, slowly – I think as a result of increased solidarity, not just between African countries, but these natural blocks that are forming between other low-income countries – where you will find, for example, small island states that in the geopolitical world of leverage and bargaining power would have none, but are finding ways to really exert outsize influence.

And so I think more of this is happening, where alliances are being formed. At Cop26 we saw this faction make some really strong demands, forcing stuff like compensation for losses and damages on the agenda. And so this is changing.

And we’re hoping to see more of this at Cop27, which of course will be on our home turf in Egypt. This will include pushing for more flexible pathways and timelines for our energy transitions, and obviously support to achieve them.

But undoing these paternalistic power dynamics between the West and the rest of the world – it takes a long time, and it’s not the kind of thing that can be just handed to us. We have to find ways to create our own leverage, our own bargaining powers, and force the West and other countries to engage with us as peers. 

Giles Whittell: And what ultimately makes you most hopeful that that could actually happen – that the transition that we’ve been talking about for sub-Saharan Africa will transpire?

Rose Mutiso: I’m a massive tech nerd. And I know I just was a little bit trying to pull back on over-optimism around technology solutions, but still… I do think that the idea that sub-Saharan Africa and other poor regions have the chance to be the first ever in human history to build energy systems of the future from the ground up, is really exciting.

And I’m not just talking about this simplistic idea of leapfrogging, but just the long-term opportunity created by the limited constraints of legacy infrastructure, plus our rich endowment of the kinds of resources that will underpin this new energy future.

I think if we play our cards right there’s something there, that could, again, build this leverage I’m talking about and kind of reset the balance that the world is learning from us. And I just really hope that we don’t squander this chance.


Lucy Yu: So Giles, what would you say now to someone who told you the energy transition is something that we’re doing and other countries are failing to do?

Giles Whittell: Well, actually I’d say that sounds a bit arrogant. I mean, as Harsh was telling us, it’s really difficult to generalise. Every country’s dealing with their own set of circumstances – is in a sense on its own path.

And these sort of black and white narratives about countries like China being the ‘worst emitters’ often fail to take into account their very particular political and economic circumstances.

So for example, in China’s case, they are the biggest emitter in the world at the moment, but they also have delivered huge economies of scale for every other country in the world in wind and solar.

And I think that we’re beholden in the richer parts of the world to be mindful of the different pressures countries face as they develop, and to realise when we’re being hypocritical about green energy standards that we’d like to see applied all over the world.

I am optimistic – as Rose pointed out, it’s not a Utopia on the horizon – but advances in tech do mean that there’s immense opportunity here to unlock a greener energy future for everyone.

We’re all on this journey one way or another, and I have no problem with naming and shaming, but particularly with countries who have to be a part of a broader global effort, like China, pointing fingers isn’t going to get us very far.


Giles Whittell: You’ve been listening to Inside the Energy Transition, a podcast from Tortoise Media and Centre for Net Zero. A big thanks to our guests this week: Harsh Vijay Singh, Isabel Hilton, and Rose Mutiso.

Lucy Yu: Find out more about Centre for Net Zero and what we do on centrefornetzero.org. 

Giles Whittell: And if you’re new to Tortoise, we’ve got a weekly newsletter called the Net Zero Sensemaker, which tells you everything you need to know about getting to net zero. To sign up for that and more journalism from our newsroom just go to tortoisemedia.com/invite and use my code Giles50 for 50 per cent off membership.

Lucy Yu: Tune in next time when we’re talking about decentralisation of energy generation. We’ll learn how ordinary people can own part of a wind turbine or a solar array, what the consequences are for local communities, and whether these tech-enabled platforms are really the future!

Giles Whittell: This episode was produced by the superlatively patient Phil Sansom, with support from Izzy Woolgar. The executive producer is Ceri Thomas.

Lucy Yu: If you enjoyed it, please do leave us a review, or recommend us to a friend. Thanks for listening and see you next time!

Next in this file

Episode 5 – Reclaiming energy: the changing relationship between people and power

Episode 5 – Reclaiming energy: the changing relationship between people and power

Could the future energy system be owned and shaped by ordinary people? In this episode, Lucy and Giles are finding out how digital technologies are providing new opportunities for people to source clean energy – and invest in the green infrastructure of the future…

5 of 6