Tech could someday let people even in dry climates
get clean water straight from the atmosphere›››
Behaviors must start changing now
From the supply side there are a few problems facing us as we (or some of us) endeavor to move to “an increasingly green world.” For example, the UK is Europe’s windiest country, yet in the first 11 months of 2021 there were at least 85 days when wind energy failed to provide even 10 percent of the country’s electricity grid load, leaving gas (and sometimes even coal) to come to the rescue.
Things are not helped by the fact that this sector has only just begun to invest in significant volumes of back-up storage, and wind energy producers who look as if they may produce electricity when not required are paid to shut down temporarily.
Michael Jefferson is a professor at ESCP Europe Business School (London campus). Read more›››
Formerly Group Chief Economist, Shell International (1974-1979), and other planning and oil supply and trading posts (1979-1990); deputy secretary general, World Energy Council (1990-1999); lead author, contributing author, IPCC reports; recipient of the IPCC’s certificate for contributing to their award of the Nobel Peace Prize, 2007.
Chairman, Policies Committee, World Renewable Energy Network, 1991-2007; senior editor Energy Policy journal 2013-2019.‹‹‹ Read less
On the demand side there are serious issues arising about how societies will be able to cope as demand for electricity rises concurrently with pressure to reduce reliance on hydrocarbons. The demands of re-charging electric vehicles is but one of these. There is also the rising opposition to plastics. We should all abhor plastic waste. But there are estimated to be up to 9,000 plastics products, all reliant on hydrocarbons (petro-chemicals is perhaps a more relevant term here).
You may gather that I believe we are still only in the early stages of realizing how great the challenges are of seeking to move forward along an increasingly green path.
Hopefully a greater effort will be taken in using solar power, wind towers, learning from traditional architectural layouts to reduce dependence on hydrocarbons. But we all need to be aware of the many basic needs provided for by petro-chemicals, realistic time horizons for moving off petroleum in the transportation sector, and the key contribution which gas will make to the needed energy transition. In many countries, the general population remains concerned about the safety of nuclear power, and perhaps insufficiently aware of the current constraints or challenges to wind and wave power, and modern biomass.
Readers of this may find me unduly pessimistic, so I had better point out that I believe human activities have raised near surface global temperature by just over 1 degree Celsius over the past 140 years, and I fear they could raise it by nearer 3 degrees (rather than 1.5 or 2.0) over the remainder of this century.
I have worked with climate research scientists for over 40 years, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) between 1991 and 2015 in various roles, and believe strongly in the need for sound precautionary policies and investments — as well as behavioral changes — now to counter climate change, even if the start of a new global solar minimum happened to be just round the corner.
Hydrocarbons will continue to have a significant role
Hydrocarbons have provided the majority of the world’s energy needs for centuries. Employed in many areas of society, hydrocarbons have played an important role in the power, industry, transport, commercial and residential sectors, with 84 percent of the global primary energy consumption currently coming from fossil fuels. At a global scale, total anthropogenic CO2 emissions reached 36.4 Gt/year in 2019, which reduced to 34.07 Gt/year in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Subsequently, a growing number of countries and companies have recognized the need to commit to a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 (or 2060 as in China’s case).
Mai Bui is a research associate at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London.
Even at a national scale, reaching net-zero will be a major challenge, requiring unprecedented levels of greenhouse gas emissions reduction and removal from the atmosphere. The net-zero transition will employ a portfolio of different technology options, including renewable energy, hydrogen and energy-efficiency improvements.
Carbon-capture and -storage (CCS) technologies will also play an important role in reducing emissions associated with hydrocarbons in the power and industrial sectors, as well as generating low-carbon hydrogen (e.g. from natural gas or biomass) to use for transport or residential heating. CCS can also be used for CO2 removal from the atmosphere, which can be used to offset any residual CO2 emissions that are not captured.
It is highly likely that hydrocarbons will continue to have a significant role for the upcoming decades, particularly in countries and sectors that currently rely on carbon-based fuels. Although 2050 seems far into the future, reducing emissions at a gigaton scale will require major infrastructure changes and large-scale deployment of low-carbon technologies.
Furthermore, governments will have an essential role in developing policy that will support and facilitate the transition to net-zero. Although urgent action is needed immediately, it is crucial that the transition to a green-oriented future is affordable and socially equitable.
We need to strike the right balance between cost, energy security, meeting emissions-reduction targets, while also avoiding unintended negative impacts to society and the environment.
3 pathways to a net-zero future
In the long run, we need to get to net-zero CO2 emissions to stop the world’s temperature rising.
That means that we need to be on a pathway to reduce our use of fossil hydrocarbons. In turn, that boils down to three options:
- fossil hydrocarbons are not burned but used to make products like plastics (in which case those need to be either recycled or disposed of responsibly);
- fossil hydrocarbons are burned and the emissions are captured;
- or fossil hydrocarbons are burned and the emissions are balanced by negative emissions elsewhere.
Then the debates start about how we achieve this. Because of the pervasive use of hydrocarbons across our economies and lives, the implications are profound: justice and equity. Which uses are seen as more legitimate? How much more time should developing countries have to decarbonize? Indeed, should developing countries’ emissions rise for a period in order to continue meeting human-development goals?
- demand or supply of fossil hydrocarbons? Can you effect change by stifling production of fossil hydrocarbons, or do you need to address demand for any change to be lasting?
- economics and practicalities. How much change is realistic by 2030? What are the knock-on consequences of changes? Which policies are most effective in driving change?
Martin Haigh looks after the long-term energy modelling behind the Shell scenarios.
These are just a few examples, but the “how” touches almost all areas of politics, economics, technology and society. We explored a range of alternatives in our scenarios: Waves, Islands and Sky 1.5, available here. These look at wider drivers of change and the implications for the whole energy system, hydrocarbon and non-hydrocarbon.
In the Sky 1.5 scenario, a stretching and rapid world of change across the energy system, we look at the most practical means of keeping the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. All available options come into play, including negative emissions, and both technological (bioenergy with CCS) and natural (nature-based solutions).
In Waves, stronger demand combines with a widespread desire to drive the energy transition by focusing on elimination of fossil hydrocarbons as the root cause of climate change. In common with Sky 1.5 is strong growth in renewables and hydrogen, but in this scenario, CSS does not play a material role.
The result in Waves is that emissions take longer to peak and fall. In Islands, near-term energy (and hydrocarbon) demand grows more slowly than the other scenarios, as countries focus on trying to stimulate sluggish economies and address local concerns.
The flip side to factors leading to the slower growth in demand is that the pace of transition is slower and similar to historical norms. Here are our outlooks for the future of oil demand and supply.
In the long-term, demand moves away from oil. The timing of the peak of demand for oil is quite different, possibly even this decade (Sky 1.5). But there are very different trends underneath this, both regionally and across sectors. Some uses, notably the “non-energy use” sector (material products like plastics), continue to be robust throughout the century, while it moves away more rapidly in sectors like car travel. Our data set provides the figures behind this graph, together with outlooks for other hydrocarbons (natural gas, coal and bioenergy, the non-fossil hydrocarbon), alongside other energy sources, and then how the uses of these different energy forms evolve.
Gulf countries need to take the lead
With increasing momentum in favor of switching to global clean-energy sources (net-zero emissions) by around 2050, the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November adopted a series of decisions embodied in the Glasgow Climate Act (GCA), which aims to achieve the Paris Agreement’s climate-change goal of keeping the projected rise in global average temperature below 1.5 degrees C.
Renewable technologies, solar and wind in particular, are at the forefront of the clean-energy mix. Nuclear energy and clean, carbon-neutral fossil-energy fuels could competitively be part of the mix, but their roles and shares are uncertain due to multiple, and sometimes contradictory, views about the optimal path of the transition, its component technologies and who will bear investment costs estimated at about $5 trillion annually by 2030, according to the NZE2050 scenario from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
There remain significant differences among industrial countries over how to proceed with emissions reductions: Some vehemently oppose expanding nuclear energy and clean fossil-energy technologies and some European countries are against including such technologies in the list of clean-energy sources and products eligible for global trade, raising obstacles to plans to export and import fossil-based clean (blue) hydrogen and ammonia.
Dr. Adnan Shihab-Eldin is a senior visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and a board member of both the Kearney Energy Transition Institute, Amsterdam, and Gulf Bank of Kuwait.
Those countries, and most environmental activists, are betting that renewable energy could provide most if not all of the clean-energy supply, despite technical and economic obstacles that prevent their share in electrical grids from exceeding, on average, about 30 percent. A number of extreme energy-transition scenarios predict a sharp decline in the contribution of fossil energy to total demand, from the current 80 percent to about 20 percent by 2050 (e.g. IEA’s NZE2050). However, such scenarios are idealistic, costly and difficult to realize.
Among a wide range of other scenarios, OPEC’s latest annual World Oil Outlook report projects oil and gas demand to grow, albeit at a slower pace, until at least 2045, with the share of fossil sources falling to about 70 percent.
Regardless of the degree of optimism or pessimism of these scenarios, the goal and trajectory of all energy-transition pathways are unequivocal: a rapid transition to a clean-energy mix, with a wide range of component technologies. The growing enthusiasm for protecting the environment is sometimes shrouded in an increasingly negative outlook toward fossil sources, irrespective of how clean some can be.
This will no doubt drive an accelerating shift in policies, unless countries with large reserves of fossil sources, combined with low production costs, such as the Gulf states, start immediately making strategic investments to develop CO2 capture, use and storage technologies (CCUS, or CCS), including direct capture of CO2 from air (DAC). The investments are huge but worth it, for they will help to maintain a robust role for fossil-energy sources. Although many CCS projects are being implemented by oil- and gas-producing countries, most of them are still of small capacity and their number is growing slowly due to their high cost.
In line with the GCA call to member states to make more ambitious and concrete pledges to reduce carbon emissions, the Gulf states should embrace an ambitious initiative: pledging to equip all fossil-based power plants with (CCS) systems by 2035. Such an initiative would be welcomed worldwide. Furthermore, it will reduce Gulf countries’ CO2 emissions by approximately 25 percent, or about 1 percent of total global emissions — a significant decrease given the size of their economies is about 1.8 percent of the global economy.
Most importantly, implementing this initiative will significantly reduce the cost of CCS technologies, increase their reliability and global acceptance and ensure a continued robust role for oil and gas well into the second half of this century, while providing clean energy sources (electricity and fuel) to the world’s poor. Recently, the Gulf countries have taken encouraging steps in this direction. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have adopted clear and well-considered energy-transition strategies.
As part of its Vision 2030, the KSA implemented major environmental initiatives and emission-reduction programs such as the “Green Saudi Arabia” and announced its commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2060 and producing 50 percent of its electricity from renewable-energy sources by 2030.
On a similar path, the UAE nearly 15 years ago launched pioneering initiatives and implemented the construction of Masdar Clean Energy City, four nuclear power plants and several large solar power plants with total capacities of more than 2 GW. But more investments and innovations are needed to make CCS and clean fossil fuel an important component of the future global clean-energy mix.
The GCC countries and other low-cost oil producers have the most to gain if they do and the most to lose if they don’t.