Climate Change - David Hone Portraits,UK,2014
David Hone, Shell Chief Climate Change Adviser

Over the past 20 years, attempts to implement a lasting agreement to deal with rising greenhouse gas emissions have neither endured long enough, nor operated on sufficient scale, to bring about fundamental change.

But the global climate change agreement reached in Paris on December 12th 2015 might just put an end to this trend.

I watched the opening of the UN climate change conference live from afar – from my office in London, in fact. Some 150 world leaders spoke for well over their allotted times. They passionately called for a deal that would not just work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but would also help countries adapt to a changing climate, shift their energy systems on to more sustainable pathways, and alleviate widespread energy poverty. The mood was dynamic, the omens good. They set the stage for a two-week cliffhanger.

By the time I arrived in Paris the following day it looked like any other UN climate summit: the usual contact and spin-off groups, the plenary sessions and the side events. A frenzy of activities, all endlessly scrolling on the LED screens dotted throughout the conference centre.

Negotiators scuttled from one meeting to another. No change there. I also noticed the odd movie star, like Alec Baldwin, in the midst of minders and photographers.

Despite the familiar set up, I soon sensed that there was something different about this event: both political optimism and techno-optimism abounded, with the latter perhaps helping drive the former.

Here was the Chief Sustainability Officer of a major global consumer brand telling one audience that he thought more than half of all cars sold by 2023 would be electric. There could be heard the CEO of another company calling for global emissions to be effectively zero in around 35 years; the potential career span of a new graduate starting in Shell today. The business community was present in force, encouraging the policy makers and negotiators to make a bold move. In the end, they did just that.

Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister and President of COP21
Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister and President of COP21, shortly before making the final address at the climate change conference in Paris

A new global deal emerged after two weeks, when Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister and President of the summit, banged his gavel on the table. There was drama, and emotion.

In a sense, from that moment on everything changed, or did it? Fossil fuels will remain in the energy mix for decades, perhaps the rest of the century, even as policy makers translate the Paris Agreement into national actions. But the energy system that eventually emerges should look very different from the one we know today.

The deal shifts the goalposts on emissions, calling for a response that would see surface temperature warming from preindustrial levels limited to something nearer 1.5°C than 2°C. This may not sound much, but it is a crucial change in terms of ambition.

Even with emissions remaining at current levels, an eventual temperature rise of 1.5°C could be locked in by about 2028, just 13 years away. For 2°C there is more time, with potential lock-in coming in about 2040.

The Paris agreement states that its goal will be reached by the rapid peaking of emissions, and the attainment of net zero emissions in the second half of this century. The deal also covers everything from the sharing of best practice, to the financial resources developed countries should provide to developing countries.

So where do we go from here?

A government led carbon price – which Shell has long supported – is the single most effective policy instrument for encouraging the development of technologies that can bring about widespread and permanent reductions in emissions. This could be by capturing and then storing carbon dioxide deep below the earth, and using natural gas – the cleanest burning hydrocarbon – and renewable sources of energy .

While the Paris Agreement doesn’t talk about carbon pricing directly, Article 6 of the agreement puts in place the foundation pieces which support the development of a global market. This is a good outcome.

The work required to limit warming of the climate system didn’t end in Paris; it only started. The global community must now work together to rerun the Industrial Revolution in a quarter of the time, but knowing that there is no back tracking, no Plan B, and no let-up along the way. We live in hugely challenging times.

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