Decarbonizing fossil fuels: An unedited discussion from TED Countdown Summit

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The Countdown Summit in Edinburgh featured this morning a difficult and at moments emotional on-stage discussion on fossil fuels and accelerating the trajectory of decarbonization.

We are publishing here the complete, unedited video account of that discussion, as a matter of record.

The conversation included Chris James, founder of Engine No. 1, the activist fund that successfully installed three new directors on the board of the US’s largest oil firm, ExxonMobil; Lauren MacDonald, Scottish climate activist and a member of the Stop Cambo campaign, fighting against a proposed offshore oil field west of the Shetlands; and Ben van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, the largest Europe-based oil and gas company. The discussion was moderated by Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who steered the global effort that culminated in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

After her first statement and a question to van Beurden, MacDonald walked out of the stage. The conversation continued among the other participants. Lindsay Levin, one of the co-hosts of Countdown Summit, returned to prompt van Beurden to answer that question. Earth systems scientist and TED speaker Johan Rockström also appears later in the video to challenge van Beurden on the science behind Shell’s net-zero plans.


The discussion about decarbonizing fossil fuels has elicited a number of questions, which — in addition to releasing the complete unedited video of that session — we address here.

Countdown was created intentionally as a space to hold difficult and candid conversations and to catalyze the solutions necessary to build a zero-carbon world — a world that is safer, cleaner and fairer for everyone. We believe in systems change and in a big-tent approach, where every organization, company, city, group and individual has a voice and a role to play. That’s why the four-day Countdown Summit program featured activists, scientists, political and business leaders, indigenous and spiritual leaders, innovators and many more.

We originally designed a discussion to challenge the role of fossil fuel companies, and to address the question of decarbonizing fossil fuels. It was to be an on-stage dialogue between Shell’s CEO, Ben van Beurden, and Chris James, founder of Engine No. 1, the activist fund that successfully installed three new directors on the board of the US’s largest oil firm, ExxonMobil, to push for meaningful and urgent climate action from within. The conversation was moderated by Christiana Figueres, the main architect of the Paris Agreement. Given that Shell is in the top 10 highest emitting companies, its impact cannot be ignored.

Following discussions with the Stop Cambo campaign, which is fighting against a proposed offshore oil field north of Scotland (of which Shell is a shareholder), we offered for them to nominate a panelist to join this conversation. Lauren MacDonald was nominated to speak on their behalf. The format was agreed upon in conversation with MacDonald, including the sequence in which the panelists would speak — with MacDonald to have the last word.

We offered MacDonald the same speaker support and coaching provided to all TED speakers, but did not influence the content of what she wanted to say. This offer was optional; MacDonald accepted it. During the event, given MacDonald’s decision to leave the stage early, she cut short how much she was able to say. However, our moderator asked van Beurden to answer the question MacDonald had asked of him — which he did.

Extending an invitation to Shell’s CEO to be interviewed on stage does not represent an endorsement of Shell or their activities. We see this as part of TED’s open-tent approach to impact discussions and create solutions-focused dialogue.

It’s also important to note that Countdown is philanthropically funded, and we have deliberately avoided any corporate sponsorship.

It is our view that many of the concerns raised are indicative of a larger and complex discussion within the climate community around how we approach climate solutions and the different paths of creating change. The “how” is always the hardest part, but we will continue to create spaces for those uncomfortable conversations essential to accelerate our pathway to a zero-carbon world.

UPDATE: On December 2, 2021, Shell announced its withdrawal from the Cambo oil field project (BBC / Reuters).