Renewable energy is the winner as world sets sights on decarbonisation

Jeremy Leggett for Recharge Magazine: The historic agreement reached in Paris mentions renewable energy only once in 31 pages of small font. It does not mention oil, gas, or coal at all. Yet there is no doubt which set of energy technologies is the winner from the world’s first universal accord on climate change.
The stated goal of the treaty is “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”. The inclusion of 1.5 °C is extraordinary. Few pundits expected it, going into the climate summit. It would entail total decarbonisation of global energy – almost certainly a 100% global renewable-energy supply – just a few decades from now.
Sceptics will say that that such an aim is merely aspirational, and technically impossible anyway. But anyone who witnessed the agreement negotiated and adopted in Paris will know how deep the river of aspiration runs in the world today when it comes to climate change.
It embraces not just the 100-plus governments who negotiated the aim into life, but a broad range of non-state actors, including 1,000 cities that committed to 100% renewable energy supply at the summit, and many of the world’s biggest corporations that committed to 100% renewables or carbon neutrality in the run up to the event.
As for “technically feasible”, let us see what is feasible now in a world armed with a universal agreement on climate change, and one of its most innovative corporations intent on mass-producing solar-charged electric vehicles less than five years from now.
The Paris Agreement targets “global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognising that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”.
These are words riven with international politics, but they amount to a global net-zero carbon-emissions regime closer to 2050 than 2100.
Elsewhere in the treaty is clear evidence of seriousness of intent in that regard.In particular, there is a commitment to a ratchet mechanism: review and tightening of national commitments, reflecting “highest possible ambition”, every five years, beginning in 2018.
The avowed rooting in climate science is key. Nobody who witnessed the negotiating dynamic, and understands what the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists are telling their governments, can have any doubt that the Paris Agreement’s targets can only tighten, not relax.
Then there is the money. The agreement provides a framework for turning the hundreds of billions currently flowing to clean energy into the trillions that will be needed to meet its goal. And in parallel, it will accelerate low carbon action by non-state actors now.
Stephanie Pfeiffer, CEO, of a coalition of 120 institutional investors with over €13trn ($14.2trn) in assets under management, put it this way: “Investors across Europe will now have the confidence to do much more to address the risks arising from high carbon assets and to seek opportunities linked to the low carbon transition already transforming the world’s energy system and infrastructure.”
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, a company that recently committed to 100% renewables, had this to say. “The consequences of this agreement go far beyond the actions of governments. They will be felt in banks, stock exchanges, board rooms and research centres as the world absorbs the fact that we are embarking on an unprecedented project to decarbonise the global economy. This realisation will unlock trillions of dollars and the immense creativity and innovation of the private sector.”
Imagine sitting in an incumbency boardroom and trying to argue that the fossil-fuel status quo is a safe bet now. If you do, I fancy you won’t remain a director for long.