Last Friday, CEOs from oil and gas companies representing 20 percent of global output launched the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI)—the industry’s most formal input into the climate negotiations gathering steam in advance of COP21 in Paris.

The launch event brought together eight company CEOs, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol, and UN Global Compact Executive Director Lise Kingo. Along with leaders from other parts of the private sector, several representatives from nonprofit organizations working on climate issues were in attendance. I attended to represent BSR.  

The OGCI’s commitments answered some questions, and left many others unresolved.

The big headline was OGCI’s explicit embrace of keeping warming at no more than 2°C by the end of the century, the target generally accepted as the threshold to avoid catastrophic climate effects. This is an important step, as it establishes a common frame of reference for the industry and other companies, governments, and civil society advocating for decisive action at Paris and beyond. The commitments made public on Friday covered important but familiar territory: improved efficiency, transition from coal to gas, reduced methane emissions, technological advances, and so on. These are all important parts of the transition the OGCI speaks of. Whether they go far enough is not clear.

The biggest surprise was the lack of a call for carbon pricing, something that many OGCI companies already do internally, and have advocated for publicly. Chatter on the sidelines of the event made clear that the price of creating a wider oil-and-gas-sector coalition—more companies are expected to dive in before COP21—is a lower ambition level of the group as a whole.

The reception from the leaders from outside the industry can be summed up by a comment from one such speaker at the event, who called the OGCI “necessary but not sufficient.” (As the event was Chatham House Rules, no comments can be attributed to individuals.)

Leaders from outside the initiative made it clear that as the debate rolls on, OGCI partners will need to develop a perspective on the harder issues that go right to the heart of their very purpose and their core products. Issues raised in the dialogue included unburnable carbon, the timing of peak emissions, and the ultimate goal of zero, or net zero emissions.

A couple of other items were noticeable by their absence. First, there was less discussion from the industry of the role of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Like Churchill’s famous statement about Brazil (“it is a country of great potential, and always will be”), the promise of CCS continues to be on the horizon, but not at scale today. Given that the ongoing use of fossil fuels in a net zero world requires CCS technology, more discussion of its viability is crucial.

Second, the U.S. energy majors are so far staying far away from this effort. One wonders if that approach will remain tenable, and rumors at the event suggested that this could change—so stay tuned.

One hopes that the OGCI is a foundation on which to build more engagement, and on which to drive the ambitious action needed to make good on the 2°C goal. It will only become clear as the initiative evolves whether the compromises necessary to gain agreement by a wide coalition will enable or inhibit additional commitments.

There is no silver bullet for the oil and gas industry in the face of the climate challenge. Transformative change is easy to articulate, and harder to achieve.  Change of this nature is stepwise, long-lasting transformation is a carefully planned process, and agreement with stakeholders is hard-earned. This is why BSR welcomes this engagement by the industry. For the OGCI to have lasting value, the oil and gas industry—and others—will need to see Friday’s launch as the start of a process, not a static set of commitments.