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The future of energy

 

Playing a part in a safe, secure and affordable energy system will give an energy company a social licence to operate. But what does such an energy system look like? Well, first let’s look at what it doesn’t look like.

Many energy scenarios paint a bleak picture of climate change – with carbon emissions reaching dangerous levels if we end up with nations’ ‘Scramble’ for energy resources, or even if there’s a more co-operative ‘Blueprint’ approach between nations. The International Energy Agency’s chief executive advised that if current energy investment patterns were allowed to continue, this would lock the world into a warming of at least 6°C by the end of the century. The IEA also says that if shale unleashes a new dash for gas, this in itself will take us to more than 3.5°C of warming.

Carbon Tracker describes a ‘carbon bubble’, which will require us not to use 80% of the fossil fuel assets currently listed on international stock exchanges if we are to stay within safe limits of carbon in the atmosphere.  That leaves 20% as burnable, with the rest staying below ground.

Current energy pursuits also present threats to the world’s natural capital that in turn impact on the health of the economy. Beyond the negative effects of increasing climate change on the economy, trillions of dollars worth of ecosystem services are lost every year, according The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Strip mining, deep-sea drilling, tailing ponds, exploratory transects and other pressures contribute to this loss in various ways including forest clearance, over-abstraction and pollution of water, and disruption to marine environments.

Fishing has declined around Lake Albert in central Africa and Sakhalin Island off the east coast of Russia due to oil and gas activities. Fisheries and all kinds of other natural capital in Arctic waters are under threat from the increasing scramble for resources, in the absence of adequate oil spill prevention and response technologies suitable for frozen waters. The potential for eco-tourism in such places as the Virunga National Park and Selous Game Reserve in eastern Africa is at risk from possible extractive activities.

Up to 10 million gallons of water are required to frack a single shale-gas well and yet shale reserves coincide with regions enduring intense water stress – already impacting on communities and biodiversity, as well as farming and other industries. There is significant overlap between shale reserves in the US and the areas that have seen record droughts in 2012.

None of this looks good. So what does?

In 2011, WWF and Ecofys produced an energy scenario in the Energy Report. It tests the affordability and feasibility for meeting the world’s increasing needs for energy services through almost 100% renewable energy supplies by 2050 with sococially and environmentally sustainable technologies, a strong drive on energy efficiency, and the electrification of energy provision at every opportunity. The report shows this is achievable with today’s technology.

More details can be found in the energy report itself.

Scenarios – good and bad – are often presented as possibilities and not probabilities; as being dependent on how national and international energy policies evolve in future; and as being highly influenced by the emerging economies. All of this is true of course, but international energy firms also have a great deal of influence – much more than they would freely admit. So, what is their role?

Leading the charge into oil sands, shale gas, the Arctic or the Virunga National Park with arguments such as ‘if we don’t, someone else will’ boil down to a race to the bottom. On the flip side, arguments such as those from Total and WestLB, which advise that the risk from Arctic drilling is too high, and the International Council on Mining and Metals which commits to keeping World Heritage Sites off-limits, begin to give rise to more of a race to the top.

The rapid growth in cleantech industries also supports a race to the top. It presents major opportunities for any energy company and such industries need much greater backing. They are competing with those going after ‘unburnable’ fossil fuels for all kinds of support ­– in the form of public subsidies, private investments, policy frameworks, infrastructures and promotions to the consumer.

The world needs smart engineers and experts to take us to smart energy solutions. Too often, the new generation of energy experts feels it has no option but to seek employment in the incumbent industries, which are still dominated by the old guard who resist change rather than enable it. However, change is afoot. And leading on pathways to a safe energy future will provide firms with a social (and scientific) licence to operate.

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