Shell, Dow, and GE have helped create the Energy Transitions Commission to help move us to a low carbon economy.

By Brian Dumaine
September 28, 2015

A growing number of influential business and government leaders now believe that it will be possible to expand the global economy while meeting our climate goals. But the real challenge is exactly how to do that? Decision makers, when grappling with climate change, often face mountains of detailed and sometimes contradictory information about how their organizations can become more sustainable. What’s needed, says Shell Chairman Chad Holliday, “is a trusted source. The data is out there—someone needs to collect it and make sure it’s in a usable form and then distribute it. So if you’re the President of Brazil and you want to make decision about biofuels, you’d have good information to make your decisions.”

Enter the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), an advisory group with a star-studded roster of former government officials, heads of green NGOs and Fortune Global 500 executives. Besides Shell, corporate members include Norway’s Statoil, Germany’s RWE utility, Schneider Electric, Dow Chemical DOW , GE GE , and mining giant BHP Billiton BHP . Mexico’s former Mexican president Felipe Calderon is on the board as well as Hank Paulson, the form U.S. Treasury secretary and British economist, Nicholas Stern. Two prominent green NGOs have joined: The European Climate Foundation and the World Resources Institute.

The ETC’s goal is to create a roadmap for a more sustainable economy over the next 15 years. This means finding ways to provide the energy needed to support a growing global population and greater economic prosperity, without damaging our environment beyond repair. Over the first year of its operation the ETC plans to focus on topics such as how to scale zero-carbon energy sources and what will it take for wind, solar, nuclear and other clean sources to capture 50% of the energy sector by 2050. It will also explore how to double the electrification of the building, transport and industrial sectors over the next 30 years, while keeping fossil fuels as part of the solution. Examples include using natural gas as a bridge fuel or deploying carbon capture technologies

This last topic is bound to raise eyebrows in the environmental community. What kind of credibility do oil companies and heavy users of fossil fuels such as Dow Chemical have when it comes to reducing our dependence on them? After all, the energy giants own trillions of dollars of oil and gas reserves that will need to stay in the ground if we are to meet our climate change goal. It’s like game wardens taking advice from poachers on where to look for illegal hunters.

Holliday acknowledges that there could be a perception problem, but argues that Shell is sincere about operating in a low carbon economy. He says: “Shell believes society needs to be net zero carbon as soon as we can. We are operating with an internal carbon price of $40 a ton and we’re in favor of carbon taxes. Our goal is to see society essentially be net zero carbon by the end of this century. That doesn’t mean there won’t be fossil fuel. But we will find ways to reduce our footprint such as carbon capture.”

Basically the commission presents an opportunity for all parties to have a serious dialogue on serious issues with serious players. The alternative is for different camps with diverse interest to erect barriers and stall while the earth warms. That’s not a scenario that’s likely to lead to a happy ending.

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