“We’ll always have Paris. We lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
Trust was a theme at Shell’s ‘Powering Progress Together, collaborating for a Low Carbon UK’ conference. Notably the lack of trust: in politicians, the political process, and business experts so nakedly exposed by Brexit. Trust, not law, formed the basis of the Paris Agreement so recently concluded. We at Transition Network stated right from the beginning of the Transition movement that if we wait for action, by governments and business, on issues of climate and resource scarcity, it will be ‘too little too late’. Have we moved into a new trust-based post Paris Agreement world?
I found myself, against some people’s advice (Shell is part of the evil empire, drilling the Arctic, crimes against humanity in the Niger delta, etc.) at this conference organised by Shell feeling like a fish out of water. What conference have I been to that has the financial wherewithall to rent out the Olympic Stadium, with more staff than participants, and where you were given an iPad to follow proceedings and post questions (no … we couldn’t take them home…). But then again Transition Network was invited, and in the heady days of Paris Agreement optimism and the possibility of, who knows, what might shift in the system why not? Or was Paris all a dream as we are brought back to earth post-Brexit?
I met Mr Chandrakant Patel of Hewlett Packard. Over coffee we discussed how he asks ‘what would our company look like if our accounting system was in joules?” Not a bad start. Chalk one up for Paris. Patrick Chang is VP of Purchasing for Solvay, a company who were supplied polymers for the Solar Impulse plane. Aerospace companies could only think in metals. “You can’t build a plane without aluminium or titanium” they said, so the Solar Impulse turned to chemical companies to think outside the box to come up with a lightweight, advanced materials solution, and wings made of structurally integral solar panels. Another for Paris.
The morning’s plenary session chaired by Kamal Ahmed, the BBC’s Economics Editor, kicked off with Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s CEO Ben van Beurden saying all the right things about how all of us, business, government, NGOs and civil society needed to work together to solve the biggest challenge facing humanity, namely creating a low carbon future. He made a strong plea for collaboration and building unexpected alliances.
The first alarm bells rang when he stated that Shell was willing to do its bit if governments made the necessary framework possible for companies like Shell to go on being profitable while adopting climate friendly solutions. Was this before or after oil companies stop funding climate deniers to deliberately create confusion about climate science, I wondered? I was back to earth with a bump.
He then went on to pose three questions that he saw as key to a low carbon future:
- How can we make Carbon Capture & Storage work?
- How to create alternative fuels for transport?
- What part will renewables play?
I have listened to lots of commentators on the fast-moving energy revolution currently underway. And none, not one, has framed the challenges facing us in this way. Without going through all the ins and outs, the conclusion was renewables are small scale and need back up and can’t supply the energy needed for an advanced industrial society.
He repeatedly made the point that electricity only makes up about 20% of primary energy use. We will need liquid fuels for transport and all those energy intensive jobs like making cement and forging metals. He ignored the disruptive technologies which are fast displacing internal combustion engines with renewably-generated power. Very much a view of a CEO of an oil and, increasingly gas, company. Shell have just bought British Gas for some quillions of dollars and they recently revamped their shale gas fracking business in the USA to put it at the heart of their company growth strategy. These questions derive from the perspective of an oil and gas company seeking to protect any threat that the Paris Agreement might make to its business model. It is a naked, unambiguous self interest. Leadership? Collaboration? Vision? Trust? Nothing of the sort. “The planet can burn, we have our profits to protect”, was the best Mr van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell could come up with.
Another panelist, Jonathan Rowson of Perspectiva spoke of the ‘carbon bubble’, and how fracked gas could not be seen as ‘bridging’ fuel as its methane leaks make it as bad as or worse than carbon.
One other argument that surfaced during the day was the pragmatic argument about gas being a bridge to a lower carbon energy system because it’s less carbon intensive than coal or oil, so substituting gas for other fossil fuels is a step in the right direction. However, if you are building a bridge, it has to be a bridge to somewhere. If the other side of the bridge is at best a work in progress you need to be putting at least as much into building that too and the bridge, for the argument to have any credibility.
I spoke with Shell’s GM of External Relations, who talked about the other renewable energy and energy efficiency companies that Shell owns. When I asked her at what point would those companies income stream rival the fossil fuel part of the business, 10 years, 20 years, or ‘some point in the future’, her answer was the latter. The only conclusion I can draw is that for Shell the bridge to a low carbon future is merely a fig leaf to go on exploring for, and producing fossil fuels. Down to earth with a very big bump…
Post-Paris, the head of Europe’s coal lobby has said that his industry will be “hated and vilified in the same way that slave-traders were once hated and vilified” as a result of the Paris deal. On the evidence of this conference, I would place the oil and gas industry alongside them. My message to Mr van Beurden and others in the fossil fuel industry in a post Brexit world is that trust can only be restored when those who are in positions of power, and hence responsibility, act responsibly, for more than your own self interest. Trust is a precious commodity and collaboration, real collaboration depends on it, especially when you wield the power of Royal Dutch Shell PLc. Without trust in big business, Paris was only a romantic dream.