Watt, the Name is James Watt

    You can trust an Oxford-polished Etonian to deliver an intelligent and highly entertaining speech. At the COP26 World Leaders Summit Opening Ceremony, the host, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, certainly didn’t disappoint. For one, enlisting the help of Scotland’s most famous fictional son, James Bond, was a brilliant move. The image of the secret agent strapped to a doomsday device while a red digital clock ticks down remorselessly to a detonation was just the perfect metaphor to imprint a sense of urgency to the attending dignitaries.

    Personally, though, I was more impressed by how the PM evoked another character, not fictional but historical one this time, acknowledging the developed world’s role in creating the current situation, and our special collective responsibility to help solve it. “Yes, my friends, we have brought you to the very place where the doomsday device began to tick,” Johnson pointed out. “It was here in Glasgow 250 years ago that James Watt came up with a machine that was powered by steam that was produced by burning coal,” he reminded the audience.

    Not to be a besserwisser, but Johnson might be wrong, technically speaking. Some scientists do argue that 1784, the year when Watt invented the parallel motion, or double-acting engine, is the starting point of the Anthropocene epoch[1]. It is, however, somewhat unfair to blame the famous Glaswegian for causing the havoc, as it was not James Watt who invented the steam engine, but the Englishman Thomas Newcomen. Watt did, however, improve the Newcomen steam engine, which wasted a lot of steam due to its single-cylinder design.

    The host nation does win some points, anyways, for owning to its heritage and trying to make amends. The UK’s new ‘Green Clean Initiative’ includes a pledge to deliver over GBP 3 billion in climate financing for green growth in developing countries over the next five years. Which, of course, is a mere drop in the ocean of an estimated USD 100 billion in annual climate finance that developing countries need to tackle the climate challenge. Initially targeted for 2020, the goal now appears more likely to be met around 2023. Coming into the conference, a few nations, including the US, Germany, Canada, and Japan, made commitments to grow their climate finance contributions and on Monday, Spain also committed to double its climate finance by 50% by 2025.

    Speaking of diffusing bombs, by the way, Johnson chose to at least thread carefully around the big geopolitical elephant of a bomb in the conference room. Leave it to the US president instead to point fingers at the ‘no-shows’. “China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia not showing up was a problem. We showed up. And by showing up, I think we’ve had a big impact on how the rest of the world looks at the US,” boasted Biden. ”Johnson, on the other hand, said that it was reasonable for Xi to refuse to come to Glasgow in person because of the pandemic and pointed out that Beijing had sent a “very high-level team”. British diplomacy, or duplicity, who knows?

    In a press conference on Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded: “The US, as the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases, should face up to its historical responsibilities and show greater ambition to reduce its emissions. Slogans are no substitute for action.”

    Well, who knows, perhaps what this ticking doomsday device of ours calls for is less confrontation and more goodwill. Who needs another trigger-happy action figure a la James Bond if we can procure the ingenuity of inventors like James Watt, bend on saving resources and improving efficiency? “Let’s get to work with all the creativity and imagination and goodwill that we possess,” as UK’s eloquent PM urges us in his speech.


    [1] The Anthropocene epoch is the unofficial interval of geologic time in which human activity began to alter Earth’s surface, atmosphere, and oceans substantially.

    Image courtesy of Tumisu on Pixabay / Marcel Eberle on Unsplash / Antonia Reeves Wikicommons / edited by NordSIP
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia has accumulated experience in asset management for more than 20 years in Stockholm and Beijing, in portfolio management, asset allocation, fund selection and risk management. In December 2020, she completed a program in Sustainability Studies at the University of Linköping. Julia speaks Mandarin, Bulgarian, Hindi, Russian, Swedish, Urdu and English. She holds a Master in Indology from Sofia University and has completed studies in Economics at both Stockholm University and Stockholm School of Economics.

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