A low-carbon future and the case for urgency


Jim Skea CBE FEI

Professor Jim Skea CBE EI President


The transition to clean energy  is irreversible but it needs to speed up, according to Professor Jim Skea, president of the Energy Institute and co-chair  of IPCC Working Group 3

Democracies are complex animals. The consent and legitimacy they confer on those who govern is a stabilising feature of most modern societies and thankfully, generally, this serves us well. But amidst the issues competing for voter favour, short-termism and sensationalism can eclipse the long-term and the evidence-based.

A challenge this poses to those of us wrestling with intergenerational concerns such as climate change is how to sustain backing for vital action over decades – how to ensure horizons extend beyond the next election. But despite changes in energy policy in individual countries, the global shift to low-carbon is now, I believe, hard-wired into our energy system in a way that will ride out the ups and downs of short-term political cycles.

 Why am I certain?

 First, although in some quarters it may not be fashionable, we should not underestimate the power of evidence. The Fifth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the most unequivocal articulation yet of the direct link between human activities and the changing climate. And the evidence continues to mount – 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded , underscoring the urgency of emission reduction and adaptation.

How our economies respond to this challenge also calls for the application of evidence, by governments, the private sector and through institutions such as the Energy Institute, which works to bring the best expertise and knowledge to bear in the public debate.

Secondly, the global agreement reached in Paris sent an enduring signal. The world’s nations have escaped the prisoner’s dilemma and committed to decarbonise for the sakes of both our shared environment and their economies. Paris will survive any doubts– as we have seen in the continued commitments from China, India and the EU.

Thirdly, technological innovation, spurred by cost reductions in clean energy, is an unstoppable driver for change. The cost of manufacturing one watt of solar PV cell capacity fell from $76.67 in 1977 to a staggering 36 cents in 2014, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. This, combined with cost reductions in storage, is opening up extraordinary new possibilities. Global investment in renewable power capacity reached a record $265.8bn in 2015, according to UNEP, which was more than double that for new coal and  gas generation.

Likewise in oil and gas, climate change has become a mainstream, existential issue. The Energy Institute’s recent International Petroleum Week, attended by IPCC chair Dr Hoesung Lee and UNFCCC executive secretary Patricia Espinosa, saw meaningful dialogue about the industry’s role in defining pathways to decarbonisation and bringing on the technologies such as carbon capture that will make it possible.

But is it enough? 

The test of human ability to avert the most dangerous impacts of climate change won’t be whether we decarbonise, but how quickly we do it. With the weight of scientific evidence and the strength of international resolve behind us, the pace of clean energy investment must speed up.

Just as the horizons for tackling climate change are beyond a single electoral cycle, so too are those for investing at scale in new technologies. The smartest companies have spotted the direction of travel and are taking the long view. And they will certainly reap the benefits.

This blog post was first published as an article in a supplement of the New Statesman on 28 April 2017, you can read the full supplement here.

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