It began well enough, even refreshingly, in contrast to the typical relentless optimism of TED talks. The organizers had invited stellar scientists like Johan Rockström, who outlined the state of the planet’s tipping points. We have transgressed four of the Earth’s nine main biophysical systems, he told the conference: “We are sleepwalking in a minefield.”
A powerful young activist from the Solomon Islands, Selina Leem, articulated the plight and fortitude of low-lying nations fending off rising seas. Deputy Secretary-General of the UN Amina Mohammed vividly described the devastation wrought by super-charging the Harmattan — the annual dust storms that blast her home country of Nigeria.
As you’d expect of TED, there was also a fair amount of the usual drivel: “co-creating stories about ‘solving’ the climate crisis,” and much salivating over the mouth-watering “business opportunities” in clean tech. But the overall tone was more the “stubborn optimism” championed by Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris Agreement and great heroes of the climate struggle.
The first standing ovation went to Canada’s Tzeporah Berman, who made an impassioned case for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. (As regular readers of this newsletter will know, Tzeporah and I are married).
“It is not a transition if we are growing the problem,” Tzeporah told the crowd. There are more fossil fuels already under production than we can burn if we are going to stay under 1.5 degrees.
The driving notion behind a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty is that there is a hole at the heart of the Paris Agreement: even though most climate pollution comes from fossil fuels, neither that phrase — nor any of the words oil, gas or coal — appear anywhere in the world’s climate accord. So, while governments negotiate targets, Big Oil is steadily expanding, locking in emissions for years to come.
A fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty is an “idea worth spreading,” as they say in TED world, and the talk has already been released online.
A new framework to stop expansion and deliberately phase out fossil fuels was the big buzz of the gathering… until the seamlessly produced conference went wildly off its rails.
The spectacular derailment happened during a session with Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden. He had originally been scheduled to have a back-and-forth with Chris James, head of Engine No.1, the spunky investment firm that ousted three members of Exxon’s board earlier this year. Youth climate activists were outraged at TED’s invite to one of the biggest of Big Oil and made their feelings known.
The conference committee proposed a compromise: they would add another spot on stage for an activist from Stop Cambo, a coalition dedicated to stopping a new oil field in the North Sea. “Stop Cambo” has become a rallying cry in the lead-up to COP26, with climate activists loudly protesting that the U.K. cannot claim the mantle of climate leader while permitting new oil drilling.
And so, Lauren MacDonald, at the ripe age of 20, took to the TED stage alongside Shell’s portly CEO and the investment icon. The formidable Christiana Figueres, tasked with moderating the discussion, had dread in her eyes from the outset and admitted to me later that she felt like a “cockroach in a door hinge,” apparently a common expression in Costa Rica.
Ben got in his opening statement. It was, to be fair, the most mea culpa-filled and climate-aligned presentation I have ever heard from a fossil fuel CEO. Pretty impressive if you’re accustomed to the tactics of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, oilsands companies and Alberta government.
Shaking with anger (and surely, nerves), Lauren gave Ben a proper Scottish dressing-down. She berated the CEO for spending millions covering up warnings from scientists and bribing politicians, even paying for soldiers to kill activists in places like Nigeria, all while “the death toll of the climate crisis rises… and so many people are already dying.”
She ended the barrage with a simple yes-or-no question: would Shell stop appealing the court order against its climate pollution from earlier this year? (We looked at that ruling in the May newsletter “Crushing defeats”.)
As the CEO prevaricated, Stop Cambo activists unfurled banners across the stage. Lauren warned Ben "we will never forget what you have done ... as the climate crisis gets more and more deadly you will be to blame."
She declared she could not share the stage with Shell any longer, politely thanked the audience, and led a walk-out from the auditorium.
Back inside the forum, Christiana tried valiantly to reset the program by urging those remaining to take a moment and feel “the pain at the bottom of the anger that we all feel.” The exercise had a different effect than expected, and prompted a second wave of departures. This time, including Silicon Valley moguls and other TED VIPs.
While protesters rallied outside the venue, Shell’s CEO delivered the final coup de grace, on himself. Clearly rattled, almost certainly well off any script his PR team would have approved, he accused climate activists of “blackwashing.”
The TED organizers have now posted an unedited video of the whole very unTED-like session on their channel. Or, if you want just a clip of the dressing down, Stop Cambo took a pirate video.
You might expect a TED conference to be saccharine in its focus on “solutions” to the exclusion of uncomfortable, unseemly discussions of dirty fossil fuels. But in fact, the conference showed a possible sea change among the chattering classes towards addressing both.
It wasn’t just the enthusiasm for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty or Stop Cambo. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon used her time on stage to badger Boris Johnson on the Cambo oil field, in addition to touting Scotland’s impressive global leadership in offshore wind power.
There’s a useful analogy of “cutting with both arms of the scissors”: the idea is that governments need to address both demand for, and supply of, fossil fuels.
If there’s one country that’s emerging as a model on the “both arms” approach, it’s probably Denmark.
The Danes are famous for their foresighted embrace of wind power. Many of us know about Vestas, the Danish company that has become a dominant global player in wind turbines. Less well known (at least in North America) is the Danish oil company. Formerly Dong Energy, the new Ørsted is the best example of a fossil fuel company transforming itself into an energy company focused on renewables.
You might remember a few weeks ago, the CEO of the largest maritime shipper in the world, Maersk, made waves calling for a ban on fossil-fuelled ships. Maersk has been promising a net-zero fleet by 2050. That would require functioning, zero-carbon ships by 2030 in order to start replacing the fleet. At TED, the Danish company unveiled its solution. The company has begun ordering ships that will run on methanol. Wind power will be used to electrolyze green hydrogen, which will then be turned into methanol. It’s more expensive, the company’s board chair told the conference, but it only adds about five cents to a pair of sneakers. “That can’t be a deal-breaker.”
In his TED talk, the Danish environment minister naturally told the story of Vestas and the country’s grand plans for wind coupled with hydrogen. “It sounds like science fiction, but actually it’s just science.” But Denmark is also spearheading the diplomatic initiative signing up countries to a Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. And he described the most disruptive move of all: the Danish parliament’s decision to put an end date on oil extraction and cancel any more licensing for future oil projects.
Denmark is a small country, of course, but it is the largest oil producer in the European Union. And big changes often emerge from small, first-mover countries or subnational regions.
Maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing the beginnings of the world cutting carbon pollution with “both arms of the scissors.”
That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading Zero Carbon. You can email me with your thoughts or suggestions for future newsletters at [email protected].