A new way of going forward: Lessons from the Valencia Deep Dive and the Antwerp climate conversation

Sometimes things seem entirely impossible until they suddenly start happening. And perhaps we can already feel the ground starting to shift long before the scale of change is truly obvious.

During the “Deep Dive” event in Valencia, it was indisputable that things have dramatically changed the last few years when it comes to Climate Change and the urgent need for collaboration between “unlikely partners” to increase the speed of this shift.

This is mostly the story of environmental organisations and the port of Antwerp and how we are trying to work together. To a large degree it mirrors certain dynamics and concerns within the ports of Valencia, Cyprus and Athens as well as what happened at the Valencia Deep Dive event.

The prelude

Antwerp is home to one of the largest ports in Europe. In terms of total freight shipped alone, it is second only to Rotterdam and both ports are easily within the top 20 largest ports in the world. Besides logistics, it also has a long history of petrochemical industrial activity, in more or less equal measure.

As is the case in ports and industry everywhere in the world, these activities have been coming under the spotlight due to their relationship with climate change. How can this economic activity and its use of fossil fuels be brought in line with the need for a massive reduction in CO2 emissions? And, even though there is a consensus that worldwide transportation and logistics will always continue to play an important role, it almost entirely rests on a fossil fuel dependent technology at the moment. While the IPCC and its climate scientists all over the world are sounding ever louder alarms as to the consequences of a significant warming of the average surface temperature, it is also widely acknowledged that current policies are not enough to keep our society within 1.5ºC global warming.

Needless to say this situation is highly alarming to pretty much every environmental organisation, including stRaten-generaal, the NGO I volunteer for. However, this is not exclusively a concern of environmental organisations. There are plenty of examples of governmental and legislative bodies, as well as commercial companies that voice the same concerns and that number keeps increasing as the realities of climate change manifest itself. At the same time, there are enormous economic drivers (commercial companies and national interests) involved which often point in exactly the other direction.

Vinay Gupta (an Edgeryders alumnus as @hexayurt ), would call this type of situation a “goat rodeo”. It meets all the necessary characteristics:

  • The situation has multiple actors.
  • The actors have incentives to compete with each other.
  • Some of the actors are not rational, typically by virtue of failing to grasp the situation.
  • Finding a solution may piss off larger actors from outside the current situation, disincentivizing success.

More specifically, we could assign its severity with “Goat Rodeo Index III: A dying industry; the extinction of one species.” Although, in this case it is mostly species other than humans that are going extinct, which is why the current climate crisis can also be called the “6th extinction event”.

Without question, the petrochemical industry as it currently exists in the Port of Antwerp is entirely incompatible with the Paris Climate agreement and a boundary of 1.5ºC global warming. Under the assumption that we as a society are unwilling to accept the consequences of a 3-4ºC global warming, it’s hard to escape the notion that this is a doomed industry, even if the petrochemical industry itself isn’t capable of accepting this fact. A slightly more nuanced position would be to say that its current form is dying, although it would need to transform itself in such a radical way we might not even call it “petrochemical” anymore.

When it comes to shipping (freight), the situation is similar, but perhaps not quite as dire. At the end of the day, the shipping industry isn’t strictly bound to fossil fuel. We will always require transport across our seas and oceans and ships can in fact do this quite efficiently. The most important thing to reconsider would be the propellant used. Interestingly enough, transport over water was for the vast majority of its history running entirely on renewable energy (wind). This is not the case for e.g. the current plastics and petrol/diesel industry, where there are simply no truly equivalent feedstocks to fossil fuel and its derivatives.

Climate change is a crisis that is picking up more and more urgency as the years roll by. An optimist might argue that necessity is the mother of all inventions. Which means that the rate of innovation and (radical) transformation will only increase as the impacts of climate change become more and more clear. And, in some ways this seems to already be true. Notably the energy industry in Europe and elsewhere is already undergoing a massive transformation. Many people simply don’t realise how quickly wind and solar energy is overtaking “traditional” fuels like coal and (more recently) oil.

One of the most surprising realisations at the Valencia Deep Dive was the fact that many people are not aware of the speed at which development of hydrogen is currently entering the shipping industry. Even though Port of Antwerp is already planning to launch a “HydroTug” in 2022 and has lots of plans for hydrogen development, it was clear not a lot of people (even within the shipping industry) are aware of this rapid transformation. Similarly, organisations like Greenpeace, yes Greenpeace, have incredible reports showing not only the energy potential of wind energy in the North Sea, but also the rapidly changing economics of strict renewable energy (wind and solar).

Looking at the energy density of solar and wind energy, one could even argue that energy from these sources could go very near “almost zero” the coming decades. It may sound weird, but electricity from 100% sustainable may become incredibly cheap and abundant much sooner than anyone expected. This is, by the way, also the reason why nuclear energy as a source might very well be a completely redundant “discussion”: nuclear energy is just much too expensive compared to the new kids on the market. For instance, the “next generation” Haliade-X windmill prototype set a new world record a few days ago, with over 262 MWh of clean energy in 24h. That’s enough to power 30.000 households.

This sort of 100% clean energy can be “stored” in (“Green”) hydrogen, to be used at leisure, whenever and wherever it is needed. In fact, it turns out it is possible to create hydrogen with floating windmill platforms. It is clear what kind of opportunities this may provide for the shipping industry as an alternative to crude oil, which is currently the source of all of the CO₂ and air pollution emissions from this sector that is being complained about all over the world.

Another element that may give us some hope is the simple observation that a large and efficiency-driven organisation like an international port may in fact be better equipped to deal with such massive changes in direction. Whereas industries like (road based) mobility and agriculture may be decentralised and - to a degree - subservient to consumption behaviour, this is less true for ports. As “custodians assigned by the state”, port authorities may be in a better position to look at evidence-based science, at current economic drivers or social pressure and to act directly upon any pressing conclusions. It’s a counter-example to the idea commonly heard with environmental activists in the “transition movement”, where decentralisation is looked at as strictly positive.

The process

The Port of Antwerp is a fairly recent example of an organisation that has started to acknowledge the risks of climate change and has started making efforts towards adjusting its role accordingly. Its CEO Jacques Vandermeiren even committed to carbon neutrality in 2050 at the 'UN Climate Action Summit’ in New York in september.

How can environmental organisations even talk to (industrial) ports? Wouldn’t their interests diverge too much to even allow for a debate? It is our experience in Antwerp that this is simply not the case. But it requires a fundamental shift in understanding from “both sides of the issue”.

At the Valencia Deep Dive event, many of the dynamics between the different participants were extremely recognisable from the way we’ve experienced it so far in Antwerp. An initial reluctance, or even mistrust between activists, governmental workers and companies that slowly starts shifting once people start putting their concerns and ideas on the same table.

The reason for this is that we are simply not on different sides of the climate change debate, not really. Any fact-driven organisation will come to the same conclusion: climate change is real, caused by human behaviour and will have devastating consequences if left to evolve unchecked. While you may still find some disheartening (and, yes, extremely problematic) opposition to these facts within some parts of the petrochemical industries, we found out during the past year that this is not the case with the port itself, nor its shipping industries. And our experience in Valencia only served to confirm this idea.

From close reading interviews with different “captains of industry”, it becomes quite easy to find allies for the environmental movement. In the Antwerp case, a back-and-forth debate in the newspapers on several topics like (financial) climate risk, quickly strengthened the idea that it was time to start a conversation. However, that sort of pressure isn’t even strictly necessary anymore: Valencia was driven by Edgeryders and Climate-KIC and did not need a debate in the media to generate a sufficiently large sense of urgency.

Once people are willing to meet in a room, things can start to go a bit differently. It becomes possible to “deep dive” into it. My contention here is that the behaviour of participants in event is driven more by the process than vice versa. So, a contentious and confrontational process will cause contentious and confrontational behaviour. To avoid this trap, during the first conversation in Antwerp, we started early on by modelling our interactions like a diplomatic process (as opposed to e.g. a debate or a negotiation). Perhaps you can think of it like encountering new cultures for the first time: Would you immediately start pointing to “their” problems? Would you immediately start to make demands or attempt to trade? That would be a bad idea, no? When it is unclear what the intentions of the “other side” truly are, a slow and deliberately diplomatic approach is simply the most effective way to get anywhere.

A wonderful starter, that - probably not coincidentally - was used in Valencia as well, is to have organisations from all sides of the issue present an update on their most recent and most ambitious efforts to tackle the issue at hand. What you’ll notice is that there is often a surprisingly large knowledge gap on all sides of the table. Since the focus of environmental organisations is quite different from government agencies and companies, this will often lead to solutions and observations that might be very widely spread out but not necessarily incompatible. As William Gibson famously put it: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

A fairly unique thing StRaten-Generaal did in Antwerp, was to expand our team with someone with high-level experience in diplomatic processes. When we mentioned this to the other environmental organisations, there was quite some initial resistance: “Why is this necessary? We’ve dealt/negotiated with governmental organisations before.” However, there is a strong case to be made that this may simply be an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in action: Simply put, it is almost impossible to estimate how good or bad you are at diplomacy if you’ve never come into contact with truly high-level diplomacy. To admit this is to move forward. Bringing someone with diplomatic or similar credentials also shows that you are “willing to deal”.

Another suggestion is to try out a more formal process. Spoiler: It can go much better than you’d expect. There are most likely a few key factors that are instrumental in making this work. One is creating a “safe space” for conversation. This sounds like a cliché perhaps, but in reality it simply means no splashy press releases, no recordings of the conversations and generally the agreement that everyone should be able to speak freely, without the fear of negative consequences afterwards. This is especially true for governmental employees. And yes, environmental organisations may have more issues with this and may even experience some backlash from their supporters, but this is the type of trade-offs that are absolutely necessary to even get to a worthwhile conversation. The transition to more vulnerable and worthwhile conversations can only happen when people are willing to look each other in the eye and are able to slowly show vulnerability.

A crucial factor is to invite the right people at the right moment. Governmental organisations, experts, NGO’s, (large) commercial companies, lobby groups, politicians, unions, even investors are all actors that have a stake in this topic. However, if you simply throw everyone into a conference room, you will just get a massive goat rodeo. In our opinion it works best if the “core” of the process is formed by governmental and environmental organisations. Of course, they will talk to other actors during this first phase, and this is fine. Equally important is to communicate the intention to involve the other actors more formally further down the road. However, you need a general framework that everyone can agree to “step into” first, which cannot be developed with too many conflicting interests (and, often a long and difficult history).

It’s important to keep the process focused on learning from each other and figuring out where our common points of view are, rather than to look for the biggest disputes. Surprisingly, this takes quite some getting used to as well, for the simple reason that “debate” that involves climate issues has systematically been polarised in the party-political and media space. Once you take away this dynamic, it can be truly shocking to find out how many things you actually agree upon and how much information has simply not been shared across the board yet.

Lastly, processes that try to “fix everything, immediately” are doomed to fail as well. So, even though you need to generally agree upon principles (a “framework” of sorts) early on, what should really be discussed and negotiated is the long-term process. How will you continue to work together? What kind of challenges will you tackle together? How often will you meet and who will you invite? How will you solve the financial aspects? A diplomatic process is very often much more about the “way of working” than anything else.

Perhaps this is the only part of the Valencia Deep Dive event that could have gone a bit better. We did in fact manage to squeeze out a few follow-ups, but this was more despite the process constraints than as a result of it. However, it is always a challenge. Since there is almost no experience to build upon with this specific topic and in combination with these types of actors, it may be necessary to acknowledge that it will not be a speedy process. Lack of time and funding to spend on the process is often the first hurdle for everyone to solve.

The future

This style of thinking and the processes that come from it are not new to StRaten-Generaal. The first time we started implementing this was within a multi-billion mobility project (“Oosterweelverbinding”) that had been experiencing a societal and political “stand-still” for 10 years. After such a long conflict (and without any practical experience), it took a long time to find a way of cooperating. But many of the processes that were first implemented there are slowly introduced in other complex topics as well and are now - hopefully - finding their way into the climate debate.

Is it going to work out? Only time will tell. However, we are incredibly excited about the progress we are seeing “in the field”. We are having conversations that very few people thought possible a year ago. This was already happening with organisations around Antwerp, but now with organisations from Cyprus, Athens and Valencia as well. And sure, it may still fail and it definitely will never be “perfect”, but we’re picking up a shovel.

In the face of catastrophe, it may seem foolish to have hope and it may feel unbearable to be pessimistic. But we perhaps we can simply have courage.

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That’s an important intuition. I am personally very intrigued by this innovation of bringing diplomatic methods to environmental negotiations where the actors are not (Hobbesian) states.

However, my understanding of the Deep Dive methodology is the usual Edgeryders “enable interaction, decentralize action” mantra: get people in the room, put them within line of sight of challenges and each other, stir a powerful funder (EIT Climate-KIC) into the mix. Then step back, and let them – in dyads or small groups – figure out the long term processes, plural.

The “get people in the room” is something that is definitely shared. However, based on the experience in a previous project, I started to wonder if that was actually enough to make it work. Especially if there is a long-running underlying conflict, it may not be the case that being in a room together necessarily makes things better. That immediately makes you look at game theory and questions like “How do you deal with a fundamentally unreliable partner?”

Most of the time, people simply walk away from those situations, but climate change may be a condition similar to wartime, where you may not have the option of walking out. And then you end up with diplomacy as the historical reference for successful resolutions, even in cases where you can simply assume bad faith actors to be present.

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I really like this. As I said, it’s a true innovation. You can let go of the whole “we are all in this together, there’s only one planet”. Which would be nice, but it’s not true, because people who are rich and powerful enough can buy land in northern Sweden and lie low in well-stocked bunkers while the dust of the Jackpot settles. But to have that option, they need to get past you.

Paradoxically, once you do that, the outrage disappears, and people can get down to business.

The down side of it is that the “business” is going to lead to lots of handwaving, low bars and disappointments, as multilateral negotiation between Hobbesian states itself no longer works. But I agree that, if you are going to negotiate with oil companies at all, that is a clever way to go about it.

Ha! It gets even more interesting than that. An explicit agreement in our process is that every party present will continue doing whatever they do, even if it may completely contradict the idea of “cooperation”, until further notice. Practically speaking, we are starting law suits and organising protest and they’re trying to expand their (problematic) economic activity at the same time as we’re trying to work out an alternative plan. And this is mentioned explicitly, which oddly enough takes out a whole lot of time wasted on pointless discussion. This (in my mind) very much looks like wartime negotiations, where everyone knows that there is fighting happening as you speak.

It’s an intuition for now, but there’s also the sense that it may be beneficial to actually “turn up the heat” continuously to increase the sense of urgency. Not in a sense of “climate urgency”, but in the sense of “things are getting too unpredictable for our comfort”.

This is also why we typically avoid talking directly to party politicians and focus instead on administration: Political parties have a very different battlefield, which centers entirely around electoral gain. That makes them pretty much the worst players to deal with. (And it seems they know this too as they make no effort to “join the effort”.)