Energy shapes and sustains the way we work, the way we travel and the way we communicate. But our energy system needs to adapt for a lower carbon future. How could different types of collaboration across society enable low-carbon ways of living, with communities and economies that can thrive in the future? How can we foster a good balance of vision and realism? Can we reconcile the need to respond and act now with long-term planning and growth?

London’s Olympic Park was the setting for the first Shell Powering Progress Together (PPT) forum held in the UK. Shell CEO, Ben van Beurden, hosted the event, which brought together academics, business people, think tanks, social psychologists and youth representatives to discuss ways to help society make a transition towards a low-carbon future. The forum took place during Shell’s four-day festival of ideas and innovation called Make the Future London. 

BBC Economics Editor, Kamal Ahmed, moderated the discussion, which he described as fundamental to addressing climate change: “The world will not be able to reach its carbon reduction goals unless we tackle the question about how we transition to the low-carbon energy future.”

The challenge, in a nutshell, is how to provide more energy while producing less carbon dioxide, for a global population expected to exceed nine billion people by 2050. 

Last December,195 countries adopted the historic Paris Agreement, setting out a path towards a low-carbon future with targets to reduce country emissions. 

“Paris was great for getting to the point of action; of knowing broadly the direction of travel – towards decarbonisation and electrification”, said Jonathan Rowson, Co-founder and Director of research organisation, Perspectiva. “But the critical question now is speed and scale.”

An enormous challenge lies ahead if countries are to meet their emissions reduction targets. Today’s energy system is still about 80% dependent on fossil fuels, according to Shell’s New Lens Scenarios, while renewable energy currently accounts for around 4% of the world’s total energy mix. To achieve a low-carbon future will likely changing systems and behaviours across companies, communities, individuals and governments.

Here are some of the key points coming out of their discussions:

Everybody needs to work together

“To tackle the energy challenge you need non-governmental organisations and scientists and economists and investors and consumers and innovators and policy makers and, yes, oil and gas companies too,” said van Beurden in his opening remarks.

Rowson encouraged more direct action from the oil and gas companies, with a specific challenge to Shell: “The end of oil and gas needs to be rapidly accelerated but Shell is behaving as an observer rather than a participant. We need you for this transition – can you imagine yourself doing something different to radically change the world?”

Include more people from different backgrounds

Speakers agreed that discussions about climate change should encourage more voices from various sectors of society in developed and developing countries. Highlighting the value of other perspectives, Richard Black from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said, “Some developing countries can leapfrog where the West got it wrong – for example, in Bangladesh, village community solar is taking off aided by microfinance.”  

Young people also need to be feel more involved, according to climate change communicator, David Saddington. He explained that young people feel apathy towards climate change because it is often associated with activism, which causes polarisation. “Business needs to create a space for young people and invite them in. It needs to harness the youthful energy of activism and then inject some reality into it.”

Design ways to change behaviour 

The use of visual cues to communicate is a lot more powerful than telling people what to do, said Sille Krukow, Founder and Chief Behavioural Strategist at KRUKOW, a company that specialises in behavioural design and economics. “Basically we are pack animals; we copy each other to fit in.”

For example, US-based utility company, Opower, sent its customers electricity bills with a small image comparing their energy consumption to their neighbours’. A smiley icon also showed them how well customers were doing compared with their community.  In many cases, these simple comparisons led to reductions in electricity consumption.   

Accept that failure is not an option

While creating a low-carbon future may seem an overwhelming task, speakers gave examples of other positive changes that society has achieved. 

In July 2016, the UN stated that a large hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica discovered in the 1980s was “showing signs of recovery” after the world collectively phased out aerosol sprays (including chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs) under the 1987 Montreal protocol. 

Jason Pontin, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of MIT Technology Review, explained that a number of factors made this possible: the science was incontrovertible, reasonable regulation was imposed, and the refrigeration industry found alternatives to CFCs. But, importantly, it was the metaphor that there was a hole in the ozone layer that needed repair which the public found easy to grasp. 

NASA has also solved some of the world’s greatest technological challenges. Dr Douglas Terrier, Chief Technologist at the NASA Johnson Space Center in the USA put this success down to the mindset of teams. Many were in their twenties and uninhibited by notions of what could not be done; instead, they used technology in an optimistic way to find solutions, driven by a NASA mantra that “failure is not an option”. Terrier challenged the audience to think in the same way: “Act like you don’t know what can’t be done.”

As Rowson pointed out, the signing of the Paris Agreement now encourages action to bring about a low-carbon society. Climate change, said Pontin, is possibly the biggest challenge facing humanity today: “There are no miracles to solving climate change. We need to change the way that we think as a species.” 

Shell will be publishing a PPT white paper by October. This will include a summary of the conversations held in London on June 30, 2016 and will also outline how Shell will be taking the conversation forward.

Follow Shell on @Shell #PoweringProgress for updates.

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