It’s no secret that the world has come to depend almost entirely (87%) on fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—for meeting our energy needs. Since the Industrial Revolution the discovery and use of fossil fuels have led to the largest increase in human well-being ever experienced, quite literally making modern life possible (think electricity, medicine, computers).
On the other hand, science tells us that the conventional burning of those fossil fuels (which have varying degrees of carbon in them) has re-introduced a massive amount of carbon back into circulation that had been nicely tucked away underground, and that continuing to add heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will have expensive and disastrous consequences.
Put more bluntly: fossil fuels have become the life blood of the global economy; but if we use them all in the conventional way we are used to, we will disrupt the climate at our peril—this is the fundamental paradox that the recently-concluded Paris conference was trying to reconcile. This is the part of the story that seems impossible.
And yet, this past weekend at COP21 in Paris, for the first time ever the world’s nations came together to make an historic commitment to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and achieve a low carbon energy future. Three features of the Paris Agreement make the transition to a sustainable low-carbon energy system also seem inevitable. The Agreement:
1. Acknowledges we have a global problem and for the first time all nations have agreed to act together (previous attempts at an international agreement had some countries participating and others not).
2. Sets a framework for continuous improvement and accountability rather than trying to solve the problem all at once. This is a bit like joining Weight Watchers and committing to lose 10% of your body weight even if you have more than that to lose. By starting with what each nation can do today, given its circumstances, and setting up a process for reporting and updating those goals every 5 years, the Paris Agreement makes nations accountable to one another. Only time will tell if this peer pressure works, but we are social animals after all.
3. Places a new emphasis on innovation and making clean energy cheaper rather than just trying to make fossil fuels more expensive. As governments worked on negotiating the agreement, two powerful groups made game-changing commitments to invest in making a low carbon future a reality.
Twenty countries came together to announce an initiative called Mission Innovation which will double investment in clean energy research and development over the next five years and will foster cooperation and collaboration on research in partnership with the private sector. Their mission is to “reinvigorate and accelerate global clean energy innovation with the objective to make clean energy widely affordable.”
Momentum – and money – is building to achieve a low carbon energy future
Joining these countries is the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,” a group of entrepreneurs, investors, and businesses including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Meg Whitman who will harness their sizable net worth to invest heavily in the early-stage technology development that results from Mission Innovation countries. This remarkable partnership is focused on achieving a “pace of innovation” and “scale of transformation” that builds on the significant progress already made.
The announcement of this Coalition only solidifies the gathering momentum and sense that the energy transition is inevitable – as long as we are all willing to make a commitment to take on the challenge.
As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote when announcing the Coalition: “Solving the clean energy problem is an essential part of building a better world”…“We won’t be able to make meaningful progress on other challenges—like educating or connecting the world—without secure energy and a stable climate.” To paraphrase, “Better Energy. Better World.”
The enormous challenge ahead
There is no getting around the enormity and complexity of implementing a global agreement on climate. The Paris Agreement involves a commitment to emissions reductions from 195 countries that represent 7 billion people.
Once the ink dries and countries take aim at the task of implementation, they will face a world where increasing numbers of people will gain access to energy over time, resulting in the need for 50 percent more energy by mid-century—and all of it will need to be zero- or very low-carbon. This reality alone underscores the need to develop more affordable sources of low carbon energy on a massive scale – in a relatively short timeframe – in order to achieve a sustainable energy future.
While implementation will be a challenge, the Paris Agreement signals the first global commitment to move toward a low carbon future. As former BP executive Nick Butler writes in the Financial Times, “What matters is not the detail of what was signed – it is the common direction and the broad range of steps being taken by different countries. That is what will now encourage investors to move behind the change.”
The opportunity and imperative for transformation
A transformation to a low-carbon energy system presents an unprecedented opportunity to invest in and achieve a sustainable future – both environmentally and economically.
As the UN’s Christiana Figueres clearly stated, the Paris Agreement should unleash “the full force of human ingenuity toward prosperity for all, as the centerpiece for a sustainable future.” In his new report on Energy Innovation, Bill Gates states that “it is hard to overstate the impact that clean, affordable, reliable energy will have” on the world and that the task of energy innovation to achieve a low carbon energy future is both a ‘fantastic opportunity’ and ‘an unmistakable challenge’.” Another “Paris Paradox” worth resolving.
At GPI, we work on energy because we believe access to affordable, reliable, and increasingly clean energy is a pre-requisite for a high quality of life.
The transition to a low carbon energy system is well underway
For years, many talked about deployment of advanced, low carbon energy technologies as far off in the future. That future is now. Transformational breakthroughs in energy technology are driving down costs to levels that make deployment a reality, but what we need now is scale, both in the US and abroad.
In a recent interview about COP21, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz highlighted the dramatic changes just since the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks in that “land-based wind, distributed [photovoltaics (PV)], utility-scale PV, electric-vehicle batteries, LEDs, have seen cost reductions of 40, 50, 60, 70, and 90 percent, [respectively].”
The energy transition will require investment and deployment in these and other technologies, including those that reduce carbon emissions from energy produced by fossil fuels.
Beyond just technology, though, this transition will require leadership and “practical visionaries” in every sector of society who can help us imagine and then realize an energy system that still lifts people out of poverty and enables economic prosperity, but without the emissions.
In a world that too often seems torn apart by terrorism, war and ideology, the Paris Agreement is a hopeful reminder that we can still act as one for the common good. This is the perfect time of year to celebrate that.