The energy system is at the beginning of an inevitable transition, driven by numerous convergences: growing prosperity, changes in resource availability and technology and cost developments, to name but a few. Tackling the climate change challenge is a fundamental factor we must account for in this shift. However, it is not the only one; we must also address the rising demand for energy — especially in emerging markets.
Addressing these two factors calls for a broader, more pragmatic climate change debate — one that focuses not just on reducing CO2 emissions but also on developing a low-carbon, high-energy future to support prosperity for all. This is a human development imperative intertwined with an environmental imperative and will shape the quality of life of billions of people.
The world’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050. This will create an enormous demand and desire for energy, most predominantly in emerging economies, where energy use is predicted to double by 2050.
Meeting this growing energy demand is not going to be an easy task, and neither is tackling the rising concerns and real threats of climate change. Since governments have different agendas, and also because countries are in differing stages of economic development, energy transitions will occur more rapidly in some parts of the world than others. For example, European socio-economic imperatives are very different from those of China and India, both of which are entering into the phase of growth in which energy consumption will surge. Although China and other developing nations are making commitments to reduce CO2 emissions, these countries cannot consider reducing emissions in isolation; in many underdeveloped and emerging economies, access to energy is the difference between poverty and prosperity.
Thus, the current dynamic of focusing solely on reducing CO2 emissions is likely to lead only to gridlock in discussions. A more practical framework would open up space to consider low-carbon alternatives rather than solely focusing on renewable energy.
We need to reframe the debate to achieve a low-carbon, high-energy future.
I recommend a more pragmatic climate change debate with a broader perspective on quality of life. This means we need to ensure the dialogue about the energy system is well informed and balanced, with greater understanding of the drivers and possibilities.
We should acknowledge the significant technological and economic obstacles we face. Historically, new energy sources have taken around 30 years to establish even a 1 percent share of the market. The scale, longevity and cost of energy infrastructure are simply too large to have quick turnaround times. Renewables, such as wind, solar and hydro, will play increasingly important roles in our energy system. Yet, currently, wind and solar combined provide less than 1 percent of global primary energy. It is neither logical nor practical, therefore, to base a low-carbon, high-energy future solution on renewables alone, especially in the short term.
What does a world without fossil fuels really look like? It is to some a utopian solution, the only possible outcome to reducing CO2 emissions, but are we really willing to risk giving up the contributions to human development, poverty alleviation and energy security that fossil fuels provide? Rather than an “either/or” perspective, deep attention must be paid to the co-evolution of the established and emerging components of energy systems, addressing the weaknesses, and building on the strengths, of both. For example, given daily and seasonal intermittency and their high capital costs, the deployment of solar and wind power at material scale would need to be combined for a long period of time with the flexibility and low capital cost of low-carbon thermal power generation, such as natural gas. A full energy system perspective is required.
We must collaborate to find middle ground solutions.
Cross-sector groups need to convene and develop mutual understanding to move beyond the currently polarized debate. Developing the necessary global, regional and national policy frameworks will help guide and support smooth energy transitions and avoid late knee-jerk responses that create avoidable disruption and destroy value for society. Polarized debate creates ambiguity and delays change, as it has already done for decades in the international negotiations on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The problems that will eventually erupt owing to delayed action will subsequently be met by political populism and poorly targeted, economically costly responses. (What could this future look like? What might we see if the polarized debate continues?) Cross-sector coalitions at regional, national and global level will help create a break from the inertia of past attempts at climate change accord, such as the weakened and ultimately ineffectual COP 15 negotiations, which took place during the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009.
Today we see that collaborative and middle ground solutions are slowly gaining traction. Recently, China and the United States signed a very public deal on climate change. The world’s two largest emitters of carbon dioxide coming to a bilateral agreement on curbing those emissions is a perfect example of successful collaboration. Shell’s Chief Executive Officer Ben van Beurden recently published an opinion piece in the UK Times in which he said of the deal, “That both countries’ commitments are grounded in an understanding of the importance of replacing coal as a fuel for power generation, and the potential value of carbon capture and storage, is evidence not just of their ambition but their pragmatism.”
A low-carbon, high-energy future is possible and I welcome a dialogue on the challenges presented and the opportunities to be had. It will not be easy, but it is necessary and urgent.
This piece first appeared on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda blog.
(Top image: Natural gas-powered rickshaws in Bangalore, India, courtesy of surajps, iStock Editorial)
Jeremy Bentham is Vice President, Global Business Environment at Shell. He graduated from Oxford University and joined Sell in 1980 following post-graduate experience at Caltech.