Ben van Beurden's resorting to straw man arguments only underlines how the logical march of the carbon bubble has the fossil fuel industry rattled
Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden's speech to delegates at International Petroleum Week tonight looks like it will be right on the money.
For example, he's right to suggest "provoking a sudden death of fossil fuels isn't a plausible plan". No one wants to wake up tomorrow and find the fossil fuel industry has been shut down; the consequences for peace, prosperity and health would be catastrophic.
He's also right to suggest reforming the energy industry through a "fossil fuels out, renewables in" strategy is "simply naive". No one wants to see the concentrated energy intensity of fossil fuels replaced immediately with nothing but solar panels and wind turbines.
He's absolutely right to say we need to "balance one moral obligation, energy access for all, against the other: fighting climate change". No one wants to deny developing nations access to energy that they desperately need.
And Van Beurden is right to say the fossil fuel industry's credibility is at stake when it is "slow to acknowledge climate change" or opposed to effective carbon pricing. No one wants to see one of the most important industries in the world indulge in anti-scientific hokum in a desperate bid to protect its outdated operating model.
The good news for Van Beurden is that almost everyone in the green economy will agree with these key aspects of his analysis. On these crucial topics there is little opposition; which is unsurprising really, because these are wilfully constructed straw man arguments designed to conceal the gaping holes in Van Beurden's wider analysis of the energy market.
Here's the problem. If, as Van Beurden suggests, the fossil fuel industry properly acknowledges climate change it smashes straight into the unanswerable logic of the 'carbon bubble' hypothesis. A logic that is very simple to understand. You. Can't. Burn. It. All.
The only way for Van Beurden to respond to this analysis is to ascribe extreme opinions to climate-savvy investors, green campaigners, and clean tech firms that they simply do not hold and hope no one notices his underlying message: "we're going to burn it anyway". Judging by the trailed quotes Van Beurden looks like his main goal is to provide a little bit of chief executive sophistication to the ridiculous and mysteriously funded cartoon this week attacking the divestment movement.
We'll have to wait and see if Van Beurden's full speech addresses the real challenges the fossil fuel industry faces, but in the interests of clarity this is what most mainstream green businesses, campaigners, and politicians want from Shell and its peer group (I stress the word mainstream in that sentence, there are some eco-warriors who do long for the immediate destruction of the fossil fuel industry, but they have little to do with modern green-thinking or the crucial 'carbon bubble' analysis).
Green investors and campaigners don't want the "sudden death" of fossil fuels. They want an orderly yet rapid transition away from unabated fossil fuels and towards the clean sources of energy that can head off potentially catastrophic climate change.
They don't want "fossil fuels out, renewables in". They want fossil fuels 'out' over time, to be replaced by a mix of clean energy sources and massive improvements in energy efficiency.
This would be "simply naive" if your goal was to achieve such a dramatic transition with nothing but the technologies we currently possess. But that is not the goal. The goal is to scale up these technologies and innovate along the way, as has happened in every technology deployment in history, resulting in ever more cost-effective replacements for fossil fuels.
They don't want to compromise "energy access for all". They want political and business leaders to acknowledge that in the vast majority of cases new energy infrastructure needs to harness clean technologies if there is any hope of avoiding climate change impacts that will devastate developing economies more than most.
And here's the real problem for Shell, BP, and the rest. The vast majority of global political leaders, many of the world's most powerful businesses, growing numbers of investors, and the bulk of the public are fully signed up to this wish list.
All of this means that fossil fuel companies that continue to invest in the most capital and carbon intensive projects are loading risk into their business model. They are trying to bring on line new supplies of fossil fuels that we may not need, particularly at the high financial price they will be made available. Highlighting this risk is not naïve, it is a sensible investment strategy. Arguing that companies like Shell should be doing much more to prepare for a low carbon economy by investing meaningfully in clean tech R&D and mapping out how it could continue to operate in a carbon-constrained world is not implausible, it is a logical response to the threats climate change presents. Divesting from those companies that fail to respond to these risks and seeking safer long term returns from cleaner firms is not counter-productive, it is a rational deployment of capital.
As the Guardian's Damian Carrington argues today, the fossil fuel industry is looking distinctly rattled by the break-neck pace of the divestment movement and the growing traction of the carbon bubble analysis. Van Beurden's latest comments suggest even this most articulate of chief execs is struggling for a plausible response.
Van Beurden says he wants a "balanced debate". But the only way to balance climate risk and fossil fuels is to fully acknowledge what deep emission cuts mean for the industry. That means ditching the straw man arguments and deliberate attempts to polarise reasonable oil men and 'naïve' environmentalists, and instead demonstrate how Shell can adapt and prosper in a world where you really can't burn it all.
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