“I see a huge and growing gap between the rhetoric and the reality,” said Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, two weeks ago, but he despaired too soon.
Last Wednesday a Dutch court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, must cut its global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030.
Judge Larisa Alwin’s ruling was “not so much a shot across the bow as a direct hit to the hull of Big Oil,” said Mark Lewis, chief sustainability strategist at BNP Parisbas Asset Management. “No amount of patching up the hole will do. Shareholders and society want the vessel completely overhauled.”
The Dutch court said that Shell’s declared plan for reducing its carbon emissions was vague, inadequate and non-binding, and ordered it to cut its total emissions by almost half in the next nine and a half years. That includes the emissions from all the oil and gas Shell sells, not just its own operational emissions.
The judge linked her verdict directly to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, which clearly states that keeping the increase in average global temperature below 1.5°C requires 45% emissions cuts by 2030.
Shell’s vague promise to make 20% cuts by then simply didn’t meet the requirement, she said, and its non-binding promises of bigger cuts between 2030 and 2050 would come too late to matter. (The World Meteorological Organisation said last week that there is a 40% chance of the world temporarily crossing the +1.5°C threshold at least once in the next five years.)
It was Friends of the Earth that brought the case against Shell, but other activists are planning similar cases in half a dozen other countries. Even faster moving are the shareholder revolts.
Last week the US oil giant ExxonMobil was forced to accept the election of two pro-climate activists on its 12-person board (the vote was organised by the small environmentalist hedge fund ‘Engine No. 1’). And a resolution at Chevron’s annual general meeting demanding that the company cut its carbon emissions won a 61% majority.
It was always going to be nip and tuck. By the time an effective coalition for change has been assembled, little time will be left for actually getting emissions down before we hit tipping points and lose control of the outcome entirely.
At the moment, we can still control the outcome because it’s our own emissions that are causing the problems. Once the natural feedbacks kick in – and that’s what the recommended +1.5°C limit and the absolute +2°C limit are meant to prevent – we would have no recourse left except adapting to the disaster and/or geoengineering.
If the law and the great corporations are not committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we are probably not going to meet our deadlines. We have only ten years left to cut our emissions by half, and even those who want to change the global economic model must recognise that it cannot be changed that fast.
‘Saving the planet’ cannot be done without the collaboration of the banks (no more loans for high-carbon energy projects), the insurance companies (no more cover for those projects) and investors (no more license for short-termist managers who don’t care if the assets end up stranded so long as they can cash in their stock options first).
In the end, every revolution worth making requires the ‘long march through the institutions.’