Time to choose profit over pollution

Six years ago, thousands of climate change activists descended on an international conference in Copenhagen to demand a halt to global greenhouse-gas emissions. They were supported by clear and compelling science – but not by economics. The technologies they offered as alternatives to coal and oil were widely seen (often correctly) as too expensive, too narrowly utilized, too risky.

Times have changed.

Charles Ferguson on the set of his new climate-change documentary “Time to Choose”
Source: Time To Choose
Charles Ferguson on the set of his new climate-change documentary “Time to Choose”

As tens of thousands of elected leaders, diplomats, Fortune 50 CEOs and, yes, environmental activists once again engage in climate negotiations in Paris, the economic realities around global energy are profoundly different than they were when the talks in Copenhagen failed to produce a global deal.

Coal investments the world over have collapsed, with major financial institutions predicting that growth in that market has ended. Oil prices have plunged, forcing investments in tar sands, shale oil and Arctic drilling to stall.

Meanwhile, renewable energy has become so cheap that in many places it's economically preferable to coal and natural gas, even without counting their enormous environmental and health costs.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently noted that more than 177 gigawatts of solar-generating capacity were installed around the world in 2014 – a 28-percent increase over the previous year. This should come as no surprise, since solar-module prices have fallen 80 percent since 2008. Together with huge expansions of wind-power installations in the U.S., Europe and Asia, renewable energy now offers both a relatively stable investment compared to fossil fuels and an increasingly cheap and commonplace source of power.

The possibilities are so significant that recently, a remarkable gathering of the world's wealthiest and most influential business leaders – including Jack Ma of Alibaba, Marc Benioff of Salesforce, Hasso Plattner of SAP, Julian Robertson of Tiger Management, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Bill Gates – joined forces to drive further innovation and return on clean energy investment.

They are not alone – it was also announced recently that over $3.4 trillion in assets under management have been pledged to be divested of holdings in fossil fuels, with more than 500 institutions globally now taking the pledge. This isn't just an activist stance – it's smart business.

I've seen these realities unfold first-hand. As a documentary filmmaker, I have had the opportunity to travel the world and see the huge strides being made by entrepreneurial clean-energy companies from Silicon Valley to Kenya. I have also seen the destruction – both human and environmental – wrought by continued use of fossil fuels. My latest project, the climate documentary "Time To Choose," focuses on both the threat and the opportunity – but the piece that I find most compelling for audiences and for myself is the incredible opportunity for global change that we now have.

This is truly the time to choose clean energy over fossil fuels. And while in 2009 you might have heard such a claim primarily from marchers in the streets, today you will hear it from corporate boardrooms, bond analysts, and the governor of the Bank of England.

This reality gives me tremendous hope – not only that we have crossed an important threshold in the effort to combat climate change, but that we can make that choice without putting our assets at risk. As the world's most important institutions – including the general public – come to recognize this, the possibility of making the right collective choice on climate change is finally within our grasp.

Charles Ferguson is the Oscar-winning director of "Inside Job" and the new climate documentary "Time to Choose."