Is the Post-Fossil Fuel Era Now Inevitable?

01/11/2016 03:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2016

Ambassador Laurence Tubiana, France's point person for COP21, wisely explained a year ago that Paris will be judged a success if it leads to the conclusion that the shift to the post-fossil fuel era is inevitable. That feeling of inevitability, she reasoned, will underpin the massive shift of trillions of dollars required to pay for the low carbon transition.

The positive conclusion of the Paris conference on December 12, coupled with the enormous array of commitments made before, during, and after the COP, indicates that a massive systemic change is afoot.

Let's review.

First, what happened in Paris between November 30 and December 12?

Second, what else has happened before and since that adds to the growing sense of inevitability?
In Paris. At the formal conference venue some of the well reported highlights included:
• The largest gathering of heads of state in history on November 30.

• The approval of an agreement to tackle climate change by 196 nations on December 12.

• The formal submission of 188 national climate action plans, and an agreement to review and improve plans every five years.

• Aggregate commitments - inside those plans - to reduce global emissions by around 11 gigatons by 2030, or a little less than half of what is required, but a significant down payment nonetheless.

• A call to stabilize the global temperature increase at 1.5 degrees celcius - what scientists say is the minimum threshold of safety for the planet, and to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of this century. These long term targets were a critical point of debate by negotiators as they are essentially a call for an end to the fossil fuel era by mid-century.

• Agreement to mobilize at least $100 billion of annual funding beginning in 2020 to support the low carbon transition in developing countries.

• Notable calls for urgent action from several formerly recalcitrant nations, including China, Russia, Australia, and Canada. (Recent elections in two of these nations -- Australia and Canada -- tossed out Prime Ministers, who had actively sought to slow international climate progress in recent years.)

With most of the formal government and media attention focused on the main conference center at the historic Le Bourget airport (Charles Lindbergh landed here in 1927 after his solo flight across the Atlantic), you needed eyeballs all over town to catch the scores of other dramatic announcements in Paris:

• Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, announced creation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, the largest ever multibillion dollar clean energy fund.

• The Indian and French Prime Ministers Modi and Holland launched an International Solar Alliance to raise a $1 trillion over 15 years to make solar affordable in sun-rich countries.

• The African Union and the African Development Bank rolled out a plan to deliver at least 300 gigawatts of renewable energy to their continent by 2030 - twice the amount currently generated from all energy sources combined.

• 53 global companies, including Apple, Google, Ikea, Marks and Spencer, Microsoft, Philips, Proctor and Gamble, Unilever and Walmart, announced their plans to shift to 100 percent renewable energy. An initiative called RE100, which helped rally many of these pledges, sees this as just the beginning of a wave of private sector commitments to go 100 percent renewable. The purchasing and political power of these global firms may be just what's needed to reform the way energy is procured.

• 114 companies affirmed their commitment to setting and adopting "science based" GHG reduction targets that are ambitious enough to prevent dangerous warming.

• Nearly 90 cities adopted at least an 80 percent by 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goal.

• 436 mayors, at an all-day, multi-media, Paris City Hall celebration announced their intentions to join a global Compact of Cities to support worldwide municipal ambition on climate.

• A few days later in the same building, 44 Governors and Premiers, together representing 325 million people and over $10.5 trillion in GDP - one eighth of the global economy - reported that their own Compact of States and Regions is committed to reducing their combined emissions over the next 15 years by an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of China.

• In serial signing ceremonies across the two weeks of the COP, 123 jurisdictions, many from developing countries, collectively representing more than 720 million people and $19.9 trillion in combined GDP, or about a quarter of the global economy, announced their decisions to join an "Under2MOU" - a commitment to reduce emissions by 80 percent or emit no more than 2 tons of CO2 per capita.

• 29 Governors of forested regions in Latin America, Asia and Africa, who comprise the Governors' Climate and Forests Taskforce, affirmed their intention to reduce deforestation - a major cause of climate change - by 80 percent by 2020.

• In a signed editorial appearing in The Seattle Times and other media outlets at the start of the Paris COP, American Governors Jerry Brown, Kate Brown, and Jay Inslee and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark announced that their Pacific Coast Collaborative, a region that would be the world's fourth largest economy if combined, is successfully creating a model for low carbon economic integration, having successfully shown that ambitious climate action and economic success are interdependent and not in conflict.

• African countries launched the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), which intends to restore 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of degraded and deforested landscapes by 2030.

• Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom pledged $5 billion during 2015-2020 to support forest conservation efforts in less developed countries.

• In a clear sign that fighting global warming is becoming an attractive cultural norm, a widely noticed Vogue Magazine photo essay, timed for release on day 1 of COP21 features 13 of the formidable women leading the way to action on climate.

• 1,700 health associations, 13 million doctors and health professionals, along with 8,200 hospitals, as members of the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge joined the World Health Organization in calling for a robust international deal to protect public health, and pledged to take action to reduce their carbon footprints, divest from fossil fuels, and address the impact of climate change in their communities.

• The World Green Building Council pledged that the building sector will do its part by reducing building emissions by 84 gigatons by 2050 - an amount equal to 8 years of China's current annual emissions. The WGBC also pledged to achieve net zero carbon new building and energy efficient refurbishment of the existing building stock by 2050. Three of the 74 Green Building Councils - in South Africa, Canada and Australia - also announced their plans to start net zero building certification programs. Others councils are gearing up to follow their lead.

• 100 endowments, cities, faith institutions, hospitals, pension funds and universities, including large new entrants - Allianz Insurance, and pension funds CalPERS and CalSTRS - joined 400 already declared sister institutions, in a promise to divest from coal, and, in some cases, other fossil fuels, bringing the combined assets under management committed to divestment to $3.4 trillion.

• The aggregate total of assets under management committed to divesting has rapidly grown from $50 billion in September 2014, to $2.6 trillion in September 2015, and now to $3.4 trillion in December 2015 -- a remarkable 15-month (nearly 70x) growth trajectory.

• Bank of England Governor Mark Carney publicly named Michael Bloomberg to lead a panel that will draw up reporting standards on climate risks to G-20 economies. Carney made news last year when he said climate change and stranded carbon were material risks to the economy and investors.

• France, just prior to the COP, became the first nation to require institutional investors to disclose their carbon exposure. (Calls for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to require similar disclosures have also been made.)

• Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo joined other global banks, including Bank of America, BNP Paribas, Citibank, Credit Agricole, ING, Natixis and Societe Generale, in announcing policies to dial back their financing for coal mining and coal power plant construction.

• Carbon pricing was also an important topic of conversation in Paris, even though it was not part of the multilateral negotiation.

• Manitoba announced in Paris that it will join Ontario, Quebec and California in a carbon trading system. New York State has indicated it wants the explore joining as well and that it would like the northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that it helps anchor to link up as well.

• The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) reported in Paris that more than 1,000 companies have or plan to implement an internal carbon price, often of $40 or more.

• CDP also announced that, by its calculations, countries representing over 90 percent of G20 nations' gross domestic product will have carbon pricing policies in place by 2018.

Each scan of Paris related news feeds, press releases and media coverage unearths additional announcements made at one or another venue in Paris. You get the idea though. Paris was a monumental signaling of serious and determined change by a sprawling array of public, private and civic interests. Never had any of the other 20 COPs since 1995 produced anywhere near as many announcements or layers of organized ambition and activity. One observer estimated there were at least 50 separate venues running nearly non-stop over two weeks in Paris with highly organized programs designed months in advance. This was especially impressive given the tragic terrorist attacks two weeks before the COP began. Incredibly, no one seemed seriously deterred by the attacks, least of all the French. When French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced the COP was moving forward a few days after the tragic attacks, no one blinked.

In addition to the scores of formal conference programs, there were hundreds of other meetings, conferences, and informal gatherings all across Paris. Meetings of all sizes and shapes occurred in conference centers, museums, hotels, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and living rooms across the city during the two week conference, and for every hour of scheduling this participant had in his calendar there were multiple invitations for events occurring simultaneously. The determination of those who flocked to Paris was ferocious.

In part, the fury and the optimism of Paris was also a product of nearly three years of preparation and momentum-building announcements and commitments. After suffering something akin to post traumatic stress after the failure of the Copenhagen COP six years earlier in 2009, advocates, policymakers, business leaders, and civic groups from across the globe worked deliberately to avoid another Copenhagen-like failure.

The Road to Paris began to become a serious meme in early 2013. U.S. President Obama was re-elected to a second term in November 2012, and unexpectedly after a lackluster first term on climate, he articulated in his election night remarks and in his second inaugural speech in January 2013 that climate change would be a core second term priority. Insiders at the White House say Science Advisor John Holdren had begun a private email exchange with the President about the accelerating negative impacts of climate change in the weeks prior to Obama's winning re-election to a second term.

Within weeks of the President's public expressions of interest in acting on climate, COP veterans, civil society organizations, business leaders, and leading governments, sensing the opportunity they had been waiting for, began crafting 'Road to Paris' strategies. They all seemed to boil down to paving that road with growing amounts of signaling and momentum to encourage government negotiators to aim high and avoid repeating Copenhagen.

There's no way here to detail all that happened between early 2013 and the December 2015 Paris COP. A book will be written later. But it is worth noting some of the big things that began to add serious momentum along the Road to Paris. These included:

• President Obama's ambitious Climate Action Plan, unveiled at Georgetown University in June 2013, to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, vehicles, and appliances, cut international financing for coal fired power plants, increase deployment of renewables, and reduce methane leaks from aging infrastructure and oil drilling.

• The September 2013 announcement that Nordic countries will join the U.S., U.K. and the World Bank Group in restricting financing for coal fired power plants.

• The related follow-on pledge just prior to Paris in late 2015 by 34 OECD nations, including longtime holdouts, Japan and Australia, to limit financing for coal plants.

• China's August 2014 decision to begin phasing in a national carbon permit trading market in 2016, after successful pilot programs in 7 regions started in 2013.

• The August 2014 announcement by the International Union of Architects at its World Congress in Durban, South Africa, that its 124 member organizations and 1.3 million architects worldwide unanimously approve a declaration that supports phasing out all carbon emissions from buildings by 2050.

• New York City adopts an 80 percent GHG goal in September 2014, then follows up in July 2015 with a proposal to have its city operations powered by 100 percent renewable energy, and then in September 2015 declares that it will divest its pension funds from coal.

• The follow-on public commitments during 2014 and 2015 by nearly 90 cities to adopt at least an 80 percent by 2050 GHG reduction target.

• 400,000 join the People's Climate March through the streets of New York City on the eve of the United Nations Climate Summit in September 2014.

• The September 2014 divestment announcement by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and others - with a combined total of more than $50 billion of assets under management - that they will divest from fossil fuels.

• The United Nations Secretary General's Climate Summit in New York in September 2014, which kicks off the formal process of government commitment making for Paris.

• The launch of the We Mean Business Coalition in September 2014 to push for climate action. By the time the Paris COP begins, the coalition has grown to include 363 companies with revenues of $7.5 trillion and 177 investors with $19.2 trillion under management. WMB's commitments and calls to action prove to be an important driver of international momentum.

• The New York Declaration on Forests, supported by more than 150 partners, including 37 government, 20 subnational governments, 53 companies, 16 indigenous peoples groups, and 63 civil society groups, aims to halve the loss of natural forests globally by 2020, end it by 2030, and restore hundreds of millions of acres of degraded land.

• The October 2014 European Union commitment to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030.

• The historic November 2014 U.S.-China agreement to curb climate emissions in both nations and to support a comprehensive global agreement in Paris. President Obama pledges the U.S. will cut its emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025, and President Xi committs that China will peak its emissions no later than 2030 and produce 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the same date.

• The January 2015 announcement of U.S.-India cooperation on climate action, including an agreement to tackle emissions from HFC's, a refrigerant, and a powerful greenhouse gas that is 1,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

• India's INDC bold pledge in October 2015 to deploy 275 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, a five-fold increase from previous targets.

• The November 2015 Dubai Pathway decision by world nations to phase down production and use of HFC's using the Montreal Protocol. A final agreement is expected in 2016.

• Growing international consensus throughout the 2013-2015 period around Carbon Tracker's landmark Unburnable Carbon report, which concludes that the world must keep 80 percent of known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground to avoid more than 2 degrees celcius of planetary warming.

• The subsequent warning, issued from the Bank of England (noted earlier), that stranded carbon will become a material risk to investors.

• Decisions by an array of banks beginning with Deutsche Bank in May 2014 and followed by other international banks and the National Bank of Australia in September 2015 to deny financing for the massive proposed Adani coal export terminal in Queensland. Without the terminal, Australia's prodigious Galilee Basin coal deposits have to stay in the ground.

• Six leading oil and gas companies, including Shell, BP, Eni, Total, BG, and Statoil, call on governments in May 2015 to put in place a carbon pricing system to spur the right kinds of clean energy investment.

• Shell's decision in September 2015 to back away from plans to drill for oil in the Arctic, and the Obama Administration's follow-on decision in October to deny future oil drilling leases in the Arctic.

• The Obama Administration's November 2015 rejection of the long contested permit for the Keystone pipeline.

• The pre-Paris November decision by the Canadian province of Alberta, with support from oil companies and environmentalists, to develop a provincial climate action plan, to cap emissions from oil sands development in 2020, and to do its part in Canada's effort to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.

• Serial decisions by South Australia, California, Europe, and New York State between September 2014 and November 2015 to adopt 50 percent renewable energy targets.

• The launch in April 2015 of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, to support cities planning transformative low carbon planning strategies.

• Announcements by leading cities, including Copenhagen, Sydney, and San Jose, San Francisco, Munich, Vancouver and others, pledging to become 100 percent renewable.

• REN21 confirms in mid-2015 that 2014 is the biggest year yet for renewable energy. Among its findings are that by the end of 2014, renewables comprise 27 percent of the world's power generating capacity and 60 percent of all new energy infrastructure added during 2014; that total investment in renewable energy increased from $45 billion in 2004 to nearly $300 billion in 2014; that solar PV capacity grew from 2.6 GW in 2004 to 177 GW in 2014; solar hot water systems grew from 86 GW to 406 GW; total wind capacity grew from 48 GW to 370 GW over the same period; and that the number of countries with renewables policies had increased from 48 in 2004 to 164 in 2014.

• Reporting by the Sierra Club in June 2015 that of the 523 coal plants operating in the U.S. in 2009, more than 200 - or 40 percent - have shut down.

• The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change concludes in June 2015 that climate change is a medical emergency requiring an emergency response, and recommends phasing out coal from the global energy mix.

• Goldman Sachs' report in September 2015 that global coal use peaked in 2013.

• The May 2015 release by Pope Francis of his Encyclical on climate change and environment - Laudato Si - which asks for urgent action on climate to protect our common home, the poor and the vulnerable.

• Pope Francis in two high profile speeches to leaders at the United Nations in New York, and before the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. in late September 2015, calls for strong action on climate change.

• The October 2015 appeal to political leaders by Cardinals, Patriarchs and all worldwide Bishops for "a fair, legally binding and truly transformational climate agreement" in Paris.

• Desmond Tutu's related multi-religious Faiths for Earth campaign calls for a hundred percent renewable energy by 2050.

• In late October 2015, fifty-two Chinese and international architecture and planning firms adopt the China Accord, ¬a pledge to plan and design cities, towns, developments, and buildings in China to low carbon or carbon neutral standards.

• 311 colleges and universities in the U.S. representing over 4 million students join the November 2015 American Campuses Act on Climate pledge to amplify concern for urgent action on climate change and to encourage a strong global agreement in Paris.

• 48 highly regarded American defense and security leaders release a November 2015 letter demanding the U.S. continue to lead on climate change.

Since Paris. A quick scan of headlines since the successful conclusion of the Paris climate talks reveals that the momentum continues:

• The U.S. Congress reauthorizes critically important renewable energy tax credits, a step that Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates will spur an additional $73 billion in investments and nearly 40 gigawatts of new wind and solar projects by 2020.

• AWEA reports that wind power installations in the U.S. have reached 80 gigawatts.

• China announces it will install 150-200 gigawatts of solar by 2020, potentially quadrupling its current target, and that it is raising its 2020 goal for new wind power installations to 250 gigawatts.

• Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that the world added 55 gigawatts of new solar and nearly 60 gigawatts of new wind in 2015. China, it says, was responsible for 16 GW of the new solar and 25 GW of the new wind.

• South Australia reports that it will exceed its 50 percent renewable energy target by 2016, a decade faster than planned. In a nation where coal still generates 90 percent of electricity, the state of South Australia is about to shutter its last coal fired power plant and believes it can be 100 percent renewable in two decades.

• 30 German businesses call for an overhaul of German and EU climate and energy policy to increase energy efficiency and transportation targets and to revamp the EU's emissions trading system to achieve a 95 percent cut in electricity emissions by 2050.

• Researchers in Finland calculate that Russia and nine Central Asian nations can become a highly energy-competitive region by getting all of their electricity from renewable sources within the next 15 years.

• San Diego adopts a legally binding goal to procure 100 percent renewable energy community wide by 2035.

• The NY Renews Campaign launches an effort to make New York State's ambitious climate commitments legally enforceable.

• The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, and a dozen individual cities join a legal motion to support the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan.

With so many Mayors, Governors, Presidents, Prime Ministers, CEO's, faith leaders, security experts, bankers, investors, health professionals, endowment managers, architects, energy executives and technologists expressing urgency and taking ambitious action, we almost certainly have achieved the tipping point towards inevitability.

No doubt there will be enormous pushback from powerful status quo industries like oil, gas and coal, but Laurence Tubiana's hope for a conclusion of inevitability does appear reasonable now. In marked contrast to Copenhagen, which signaled confusion, Paris has elicited almost uniformly favorable coverage, and a growing sense that the world is now on a path to the post-fossil fuel era.
The next related question is whether we can we bend the curve of emissions down fast enough.

Scientists are adamant that we have very little time, and that global peaking of GHG emissions needs to happen by 2020 if we are to have a chance of reaching the 1.5 degree celcius target referenced in the Paris Accord.

Scanning the list of actions and announcements noted above, it is breathtaking how much has been accomplished since 2013. Given all the momentum, it now seems plausible to get to a net zero future by mid-century, especially in the U.S., Europe and China, although additional attention must now be paid to assuring low carbon economic growth in the large emerging economies like India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Iran, Nigeria, and South Africa.

In any kind of normal situation, activists, policymakers and business leaders would be allowed to settle into some form of well-deserved relief. What makes the current situation so challenging is that after a holiday break, we must now get back up and push more. The Road needs to continue beyond Paris.

Momentum and progress will have to continue to build. If we sit on our laurels, we will have lost the fight.

Reaching the inevitable post fossil free era in time will require enormous amounts of focus, creativity, diplomacy, hard work, and staying power. To get there each of the initiatives announced over the past three years has to be implemented. All of the groups that have come together to rally action have to stick together and grow larger. Capital markets, signal in hand, must perform as markets can. Enabling policies that price carbon; support zero carbon buildings, transportation and electricity; and enable lower carbon land use have to become the norm. Donors of all stripes have to stay engaged. Governments at every level and leaders from every sector have to persist.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of his employer.