In this episode of In Our Hands, Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Akshat Rathi, author and London-based senior reporter for Bloomberg News, author of the book Climate Capitalism, and podcast host of Zero: The Climate Race.
Ramanan and Akshat delve into the fascinating realm of capitalism's role in tackling the climate crisis. Discover how the synergy of government policies and clean technologies can contribute to a sustainable future while exploring the evolving social responsibility of corporations and the media's crucial role in aligning with progress.
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Akshat Rathi [00:00] Progress is not based on consumption. Progress is based on fundamental developments of metrics that aren't always tied to consumption.
Ramanan [00:10] Welcome to In Our Hands, a podcast about the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crisis. Each episode features a new thinker at the front lines of the battle to save our planet. Join us as we delve into the complexities of this global challenge and seek actionable ways to build a sustainable future.
Hello everyone. Welcome to the next episode of In Our Hands, where we interview leading climate thinkers. Today we have something new and exciting, the first climate journalist on our podcast series. Akshat Rathi is a London-based senior reporter for Bloomberg News. His first book, Climate Capitalism, tells the stories of people building solutions at scale to tackle climate change and will be published later this month (October 2023).
Previously, Akshat was a senior reporter at Quartz and a science editor at The Conversation. His writings have been published in The Economist, Nature, The Hindu, the Guardian, Ars Technica and Chemistry World. He is also the host of an awesome weekly climate podcast, which we urge you to go listen to, which is called Zero for Bloomberg Green. And, he writes an equally awesome weekly newsletter on climate solutions. He lives with his wife in London, the United Kingdom. Akshat, thank you for being with us.
Akshat Rathi [01:27] Well, thanks for having me.
Ramanan [01:28] So, I love your background. Well, I love your background for many reasons, but one reason I love your background is you are a journalist who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Can you talk us through? And for a lot of people when they hear organic chemistry, their heart sinks and they begin to quake. But so, if you've done a PhD, you're a different order of human being than most people. Can you talk us through that transition and where your interest in climate came from?
Akshat Rathi [01:55] Yeah, I'm sure somebody's thinking, "Damn, what a wasted place in Oxford studying chemistry that's now being used only for journalism." It wasn't a straight path, as you might tell. Growing up in India, it's sort of like if you have any interest in math and science, you are studying engineering, and if you have any interest in engineering, you're going and doing an MBA and getting a degree that will earn you money, right?
Ramanan [02:21] Right.
Akshat Rathi [02:21] But somehow I bent the MBA rule and I was at an institute where I felt like I wanted to go and study more and was fortunate to get a place in Oxford University, at which point, my parents really could not protest that you shouldn't study more. And so, Oxford allowed me to bend the rules a little and go and do a Ph.D. And then when I turned around and I said, "Actually, turns out, this whole professor thing is not that much fun. I'm going to try and do something more fun, which seems to me to is journalism because I like writing, and why not?" By that time, I had a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Oxford University and my parents were like, "I guess, you can do what you want now. We are happy you've succeeded in life. I hope you get enough money to support yourself, and if that is the case, be a journalist."
Ramanan [03:16] And, here you are. Thank you for that. So we're going to dig in. The meat of this podcast is going to be about your newest book, Climate Capitalism, which will be released this month. Bill Gates has praised the book as “an important read for anyone in need of optimism about our ability to build a clean energy future.” But this question, I'd said earlier, this is your first book, but you have a first edited book before this, United We Are Unstoppable, published in 2020. And, this question of finding stories that inspire optimism and hope was also the focus of that book. Your views on the importance of optimism and hope in conversations about climate?
Akshat Rathi [03:55] I come less from the point of view that I need to give you some hope or optimism, I come more from the point of view that I need to correct public perception — I come from the point of view that we should correct public perception, which is usually there's a gap between reality and what people understand. And if that gap is too large, then we are moving in the wrong direction. And my hope with the book was to showcase what sounds like a dire situation to be in, where heat records are being broken every day, where climate impacts are happening every week with more ferocity in many different parts of the world. And what looks like a dire situation, is actually a whole set of people, machines, and policy, and technologies that are moving in the direction of trying to tackle this problem. It's not a false hope. A corrective that we are not doing enough to deal with the problem, that we are off track so much that we can never solve this problem.
Ramanan [05:06] That's just a very, I would describe it as, and it's very similar to our view here at Amasia, which is “let’s neither jump up and down or wring our hands, let's just get some things done here. Let's be pragmatic and let's move forward.” Once again, the book's name is Climate Capitalism: Winning the Global Race to Zero Emissions, and you tackle a difficult and polarized subject with many people questioning whether net zero, which is in itself a very fraught term now, whether it can be achieved and at what cost. For this audience, can you give a brief overview of the thesis and your views on the connections between capitalism and climate?
Akshat Rathi [05:41] I start from the point where, at least, in a big chunk of the environmental movement, there is a strong feeling that continues to be and perhaps growing in some sectors, that without appending the economic system that exists, there is no way out. That there is just a fundamentally broken system with incentive structures that are never going to align with what the planet needs, and what people need, and will be essentially run for concentrating capital in the hands of capital owners.
But what I find is that that's not the case. If that were true, and I've been a climate journalist for nearly seven years now, then I would've come to that conclusion myself. That would've been the case, I would've gone to places and found the capitalistic system is just broken and no solutions are working. And, that would've been the book I would've written.
But what I found instead was that, in fact, yes, despite the problems of the system, which there are many and they need to be corrected, there are people in places where that system is being tweaked at the margin, sometimes pretty fundamentally, to enable scale-up of many of the technologies that we need.
Solar is now cheaper than all fossil fuels, almost everywhere in the world. And, that happened under a capitalistic framework. It's true of batteries, it's true of electric cars, it's true of wind. And soon, it'll be true of hydrogen, it'll be true of lab-grown meat. These are all technology trends that are going in the right direction. They're happening partly because of capitalism. But what I did find is that none of these technologies actually just develop and become cheaper, because capital is being thrown at them.
Akshat [07:32] They are happening because governments are enabling the deployment of those technologies through policies. And, that is where climate capitalism comes in. Where now that governments are finally in that place where they understand the problem, and the scale of the challenge, and realize the opportunity it presents to be a part of a future where they can lead, they're starting to put in place policies to enable technologies to come.
Now you can quibble, it's not enough, they are not spending the money in the right way, this is taxpayer's money and there are better ways in which you could spend it. And, those are all things that are true and we should debate them. But, I think what we should not debate anymore is that capitalism cannot fundamentally be a solution for the climate crisis.
Ramanan [08:17] Well, as you can imagine, there are going to be sections of the academy where there'll be violent disagreement with that entire set of statements. But here for our audience, I want to say, I reached out to Akshat before I knew this book was coming out. And then, he was kind enough to share a proof of the book. We are card-carrying climate capitalists at Amasia. I mean, that is pretty much the one-line definition of what we do as a VC firm. So as you can imagine, Akshat, I agree with you.
You state early on in the book that, "It's cheaper to save the world than destroy it," which I just love and I'm going to shamelessly use that line in a lot of places. What led you to that conviction? The journey concluding that capitalism and fighting the climate crisis can actually work together, did that entirely manifest itself during your research process for the book, or had you been vaguely headed in that direction anyway, from a thinking standpoint?
Akshat Rathi [09:16] I started the book from the perspective of writing about the immense growth there was in energy technologies, and emission-cutting technologies because that's the place I come from. I'm a science-trained journalist. I understand technology and I'm fascinated by the history of how we solve problems using technology. But as soon as I started to unravel the story of how these technologies really scaled up, there was no walking away from the fundamental role that governments play in it. Both in the creation and in the innovation pipeline of these technologies, right from the basic science of, say, how a lithium-ion battery works to the very deployment once these are commercialized.
Akshat Rathi [10:03] I started building a framework of seeing how successful examples of climate solutions required a combination of people, policy, and technology in the right mix, in very different contexts, in very different political, but also very different economic contexts.
And once you get that mix, can start to see real fundamental change. So I have a chapter on solar in India, on electric cars in China, and wind in Denmark, but I also have chapters on law in the UK, because the Climate Change Act enabled the UK to become this economy that is now among the G7 reducing the most emissions. And, I have a chapter on finance. I take what Breakthrough Energy Ventures has done and give the story of how Bill Gates built what has now become a blueprint for many other venture capital firms to take on, where you apply scientific expertise to really understand whether a technology can deliver. You apply more patient capital so that you allow these technologies more time to be demonstrated and scaled up. And so, those combinations of systematic changes that have happened are very fundamental enabling these technologies to do the thing that they can do in reducing emissions.
Ramanan [11:23] Super helpful. My main reaction to everything you just said is every one of our portfolio company CEOs needs to be on your podcast. Let's talk, you touched on electric vehicles in China. Can you do a little science fiction for us? If you had to speculate, what do you think the future of energy storage will look like? Are there storage technologies you...You cover a lot of things in Climate, but you are a scientist. And so, which storage technologies, if any, are you most excited about?
Akshat Rathi [11:51] Oh, storage technologies, so many of them. I started looking at sodium ion as early as 2017. There were a few startups, some in California that had shown that sodium ion could work and were actually starting to scale them up, but they were just at a very early stage. Maybe the application would be in a data center or something. And now, sodium ion is in cars and could be a decent chunk of some of the cars in China. And, I'm kind of surprised that that came about.
Ramanan [12:22] That's amazing.
Akshat Rathi [12:23] I dropped the ball on sodium ion, and then suddenly, it was in a car. So it's amazing how even, as a battery nerd that I am, I kind of, not really, catch that trend happening. So, that was interesting to me. I've always been fascinated by the idea of flow batteries. I feel like they're cool, they are interesting. And yet, they never seem to work at scale.
And I wonder if there is a flow battery that could be made to work, that works. Iron is probably the closest that you could use as a flow battery metal and that would be cheap enough, that would be widely available enough. And there is a company called ESS that is doing that in the U.S., but the work that Form Energy is doing with energy storage on building iron-air batteries, that's very interesting. So, maybe we don't need flow batteries. Maybe what is happening with Form Energy is a pretty good place to be right now for what we need in energy storage.
And then there are sort of wacky ideas, which I don't know how to believe it, but as a science nerd, I'd be like, "That is something that somebody should try." So, I wrote about a company named Electra, which essentially uses renewable electricity to convert iron oxide, which is iron ore, into iron without using any carbon.
So basically does what a massive furnace would do using coal, but doing it with electricity and it does it at 60 degrees Celsius. I went and I saw the process and that thing's real, you can do it. They're trying to fundamentally scale that up. But one of the things that Sandeep Nijhawan, who's the CEO told me at the time, was that, "If this thing scales and it becomes cheap enough, you could think of storing energy in the form of iron."
Ramanan [14:13] Wow.
Akshat Rathi [14:14] You could use renewable electricity to make iron, ship that iron because iron is so easy to move around, and then convert that iron to iron oxide, and then reverse it. And, why not? And at the time, it's science fiction, I'm like, "Yeah, great. Why don't you first build what you're setting out to be, and then we'll think about energy storage?" But, that's the joy of being able to work on technologies. You can stretch them out if you have the desire and capital and the motivation.
Ramanan [14:43] And, the scientific knowledge and know-how.
Akshat Rathi [14:46] Absolutely.
Ramanan [14:46] So, we're going to move away from science a little bit and talk about that most obvious manifestation of the capitalism we have, which is the joint-stock corporation. Which, once you start thinking about the joint-stock corporation, you realize their fields of control and power extend through every aspect of human society. And you mentioned in the book, "Milton Friedman, whose doctrine was the social responsibility of a company is to maximize profit for shareholders." And I feel like we've spent the last 50 years moving away from that statement, which is a good thing. Can you talk a bit about how you think the social responsibility of corporations is changing and the role of climate in that shift?
Akshat Rathi [15:23] So in trying to understand capitalism's role in the climate crisis, I did go back, as you said, to the Milton Friedman essay and it is good to read fundamental text, as many scholars will tell you. When you read it, you realize that one line about the role of a corporation as a maximizing profit algorithm is within the context and within the bounds of what society should allow these corporations to do. And, Friedman says that very much so in the very essay that you quoted that line from.
And so even then, the social role of a corporation was within what society wants the corporation to do, not purely in the benefit of what capitalism would allow the corporation to do. And so, we have kind of come full circle in trying to re-learn the lessons that Milton Friedman had in that very essay. And we've come to that, partly because we've been forced by climate change and the externalities that are causing risk to become a real problem for the bottom line of corporations.
And so, now corporations are turning around and are starting to take those risks into consideration, both on their own, but also because the shareholders are asking them to. And many of these shareholders are shareholders that have sort of, your and my pension, they have our long-term capital that they need to put to work in the most sensible way, so that we, decades later, are able to access that capital. And so, they are long-term patient capital owners, who would like corporations to be not destroying the planet, but be profiting from providing a service that society wants.
Ramanan [17:28] And look, and we see it in our own lives. As I said, we're card-carrying climate capitalists here, and we see it in how the customers for our companies are beginning to behave and we're seeing a dramatic change. I'm going to move into a sequence of questions to wrap us up, and one that has been on my mind is around the idea of behavior change, which as you know is central to the Amasia climate investment thesis. Frame it this way, there's an argument that when we talk about some of the more dramatic solutions to the climate crisis, such as carbon capture and so on, that these kinds of innovations will encourage just business as usual. Look, if I can have it all sequestered at the push of a button, we'll just keep doing what we're doing, and especially people in wealthy nations that they won't change their carbon-intensive lifestyles.
Ramanan [18:26] What are your thoughts on the necessity of behavior change? Certainly, there could be technologies that mediate that change, but what are your thoughts on that in tackling the climate crisis?
Akshat Rathi [18:37] I think we try and separate them out perhaps a bit too much. If anything, behavior change is already starting to happen in so many places. One place where I found this quite interesting, I mean, we come from India, and we have a prime minister in place right now who is more ambitious on solar and on clean energy, but isn't quite meeting the goals that he set out. India was supposed to have hit its goal of being able to bill 100 gigawatts of solar by last year, but it came much further than what its previous goal was, which was 20 gigawatts. And so, there is that story of doing more than what you thought you could have done, but not doing enough for what you need to do. And yet, it is also the country that has emissions of two tons per capita, one-eighth of the U.S., one-fourth of China, and one-tenth of Saudi Arabia.
Yet, the prime minister also promotes what he calls a lifestyle-oriented approach towards environmentalism, where he's saying, "Yes, we are people who consume less and we know how to live a good life within that consumption pattern. How about we continue to do that, rather than going down the Western consumption path, which we know brings a lot of problems to the planet?"
So if you can see a country like India, which is such a small part of the problem, so to speak, at least on a per capita basis, talking about lifestyle changes, it's kind of incumbent upon the people here in the West, where we live now here in the UK, or where you live in the U.S. to reflect on just how much we do consume. And, do we really need to consume all that much? Progress is not based on consumption, progress is based on fundamental developments of metrics that aren't always tied to consumption. GDP is just one metric, real progress is life expectancy improvements, air quality improvements, and human well-being and those don't have to be tied to consumption.
Ramanan [20:52] Well, there's an entire other podcast episode to be done one day in which you and I chat about GDP measurements and the pernicious effect of that metric on so much of modern civilization. But, we'll do that next time.
[21:02] I want to wrap us up with a question about the media landscape and you're obviously a participant in it. It just feels like there's a bit of an anecdotal bifurcation between techno-optimists and climate doomers, to call them that. And what I've learned in this conversation with you is there's actually a third way, which is climate getting things done people, I think you and me, and you and media. Does this sound like a fair description of the current media landscape and if so, why so?
Akshat Rathi [21:42] It's an interesting one. I don't see it that way, but I am hearing you think… But, the fact that you asked that question must be because you see it that way. And so, I would be curious before I answer it, why do you think that's the case?
Ramanan [21:58] Well, this is the subject for yet another podcast episode on social media and what gets you clicks. And, this ultimately does lead back to capitalism. But as I constantly tell people, "You're never going to click on the story headline that says things are getting better. You're going to click the story headline that says, a cyclone has shown up in Manhattan in March." That's going to get your click. And that's a bad example because that would truly be something worth clicking on. But, you see my point? You click on very bad news.
Akshat Rathi [22:32] Yes.
Ramanan [22:33] It is unusual to click on good news.
Akshat Rathi [22:36] Yes and no. I started as a science journalist. And what I found was, science stories were among the most well-read stories in general news publications.
Ramanan [22:47] Wow, okay.
Akshat Rathi [22:47] And you would think that makes no sense if people want to just read about horrors and horrible things, and about fear-mongering and about politics and gossip. But that's not true, science stories are among the most popular on the internet.
Ramanan [23:03] I love that.
Akshat Rathi [23:03] They evoke a sense of awe and wonder —
Ramanan [23:06] Wow.
Akshat Rathi [23:07] ... that people do fundamentally appreciate. And so, I think our understanding of human nature sometimes is skewed and that's no surprise. We all get our slice of the world that we live in. But no, I find it not that hard actually to be able to write about solutions and for people to care about them and write about successes, that's what this book is about. A whole series of successes within the limitation and the challenges that each of them have faced to come to this point.
And I've also found just in my 10 years as a journalist, seven years as a climate journalist, that there are other climate journalists who are generally aligned in doing the right thing. The sciences, right, making sure that the messages that are provided to the public are reasoned, are informed. I found more collaboration between what you would think in a capitalistic competitive media environment would be cutthroat, stab you in the back to get the story, not existing. It's much more collaborative. I have only found people who are willing to do the right thing in service of telling the story. That might be a slice of climate journalists or science journalists, and maybe not true for political journalists, I’m not from that world. But certainly, I've found that even though there are publications that take a particular focus to write about stories and others that take technology as the focus. In general, everybody's trying to do the right thing by what informed good journalism should do.
Ramanan [24:48] We don't always end our podcast perfectly, but that was an amazingly perfect ending because it is an ending that speaks to the...It speaks to the good side of human nature, which sometimes we can lose sight of. Akshat, I want to thank you so much. This is not the last time we're going to ask you to speak with us, so I'm sorry for you that we're going to do this again, do it about other things related to climate.
Akshat Rathi [25:12] This was fun. No, great questions.
Ramanan [25:14] I want to thank you for your time and come visit us and I will see you in London.
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