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The Sky’s The Limit In Shell’s New Climate Targets Scenario

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Royal Dutch Shell has done a rather unusual thing – for one of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world and thus one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

It has just published a scenario, which it calls Sky, of what the energy industry could look like if society is to meet the requirements of the Paris climate change agreement and hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C.

Between now and 2070, it says, there will need to be:

  1. A change in consumer mindset so that people choose low-carbon, high-efficiency energy options.
  2. A step-change in the efficiency of energy use.
  3. Carbon-pricing mechanisms adopted by governments globally over the next decade, leading to a meaningful cost of CO 2 embedded within consumer goods and services.
  4. A tripling of the rate of electrification of energy across the economy, with global electricity generation reaching a level nearly five times today’s level.
  5. New energy sources growing up to fifty-fold, with primary energy from renewables eclipsing fossil fuels in the 2050s.
  6. Net-zero deforestation and an area the size of Brazil being reforested, offering the possibility of limiting warming to 1.5°C, the ultimate ambition of the Paris Agreement.
  7. Most controversially, some 10,000 large carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities must be built, compared to fewer than 50 in operation in 2020.

Sky recognizes that simply extending current efforts will not be enough for the scale of change required. There will need to be both big changes in climate policies to encourage investment and innovation, and mass deployment of disruptive new technologies. No single factor will be enough – rather, the scenario “relies on a complex combination of mutually reinforcing drivers being rapidly accelerated by society, markets, and governments.”

One of the biggest tasks will be to phase out coal, but, the report says: “A stark reality of the early 21st century is the lack of a clear development pathway for an emerging economy that doesn’t include coal.”

Some parts of the energy system are “stubborn,” the company adds. “The apparent lack of low-carbon solutions for aviation, shipping, cement manufacture, some chemicals processes, smelting, glass manufacture, and others means that significant sectors of the industrial economy won’t trend rapidly to zero emissions. Even the power sector could still need support from conventional thermal generation in 2050.”

Some promising technologies are currently stalled, with hydrogen being the notable example. Transforming the entire system will take time, the company says, as the past success of fossil fuel energy impedes progress to a clean energy system, in part due to resistance to assets being stranded and jobs being lost.

Achieving net-zero emissions in just 50 years leaves no margin for interruption, stalled technologies, delayed deployment, policy indecision, or national back-tracking, Shell says. “Rather, it requires a rapid acceleration in all aspects of an energy transition and particularly robust policy frameworks that target emissions. Sky requires both leadership and emerging coalitions from all sectors of society.”

For the scenario to be achieved many countries will need to submit stronger decarbonization plans, with China committing to an absolute cut in emissions and India pledging that its emissions will plateau in the 2030s. Shell sees relatively slow progress in the 2020s as capacity builds, with the pace of change accelerating rapidly in the 2030s as appliances, commercial and residential buildings, and personal transport are all targeted with aggressive efficiency or emission standards and effective carbon pricing mechanisms.

Carbon pricing will also “speed up the adoption of CCS for large emitters while driving the deployment of net-negative technologies like bioenergy with CCS” as well as encouraging improved energy efficiency. The scenario also foresees a much more important role for biofuels and the emergence of hydrogen electrolysis on and offshore, allowing hydrogen to become, after 2040, an important energy carrier. Redundant oil and gas facilities will be repurposed to store and transport hydrogen.

All of this means that by 2070, electricity has been effectively decarbonized and there is widespread carbon capture and usage (CCU), for making synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, building materials or plastics and acting as a carbon sink.

Shell concedes that “the big challenge is whether there is the political will and, underlying this, the societal will to put in place and maintain the frameworks that are necessary to address this awe-inspiring task – re-wiring the whole global economy in just the next 50 years.”

The company points out that the scenario is not a policy proposal, a forecast or a business plant and investors should not rely on it to make decisions. Many will take issue with Shell’s vision, not least the requirement for almost 200 CCS plants to be commissioned every year between now and 2070. CCS has been technologically feasible for quite a while, but the political will and financial incentives to install it have so far been lacking. There are big question marks about the likelihood of a widespread ratcheting up of national ambitions in the 2020s, too.

James Murray, editor of BusinessGreen, points out that the pace of change it calls for is completely unprecedented and that technologies such as “scalable aviation biofuel and hydrogen-powered jets remain little more than a pipe dream” and that “it focuses heavily on areas where Shell is keen to play a leading role, such as hydrogen, biofuel, and CCS.”  But what is wrong with that? It seems only natural – and if the company can switch out of fossil fuels into more sustainable areas while continuing to thrive as a business, that can only be a good thing.

Shell’s scenario is a stark contrast to ExxonMobil’s recently-published climate risk assessment, which I wrote about earlier this month and which research group Carbon Tracker says is “largely predicated on business-as-usual growth in oil and gas” and lacks detail.

But both publications, and those of other oil companies such as Chevron, are hugely welcome because the sector is engaging with investors and with the issue of climate change in earnest. There remains a certain complacency in much of the industry’s approach – Chevron recently said the risk of its assets becoming stranded was “very slim”, for example – but there is a recognition that the Paris Accord is starting to have a real impact on the possibilities open to them in future.

It is far from the whole story when it comes to Shell’s activities, but there is much to commend the Sky scenario, even as it highlights how much work still needs to be done.

SOURCE

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