Population growth in the world's developing economies, particularly Africa and Asia, has been and will continue to be a primary driver of demand for energy resources into the near and distant future. As more babies are delivered into the world, they will eventually crave consumer goods derived from mined commodities such as iron ore, copper, potash, uranium, nickel and rare earths. The babies grow up to buy homes, start businesses, and migrate to cities, all powered from energy, whether that energy is from hydro, wind, solar, natural gas, coal, nuclear or oil.
The International Energy Agency estimates that between 1990 and 2008, as world population increased 27 percent, energy use rocketed 39 percent. The Middle East was the biggest energy glutton, with an increase of 170 percent, followed by China at 146 percent, India at 91 percent, Africa 70 percent and Latin America 66 percent. 2009 was the first time in 30 years that world energy consumption declined, and that was only due to the financial crisis that killed growth across the entire global economy.
Unfortunately, as we all now know, the seemingly boundless demand for energy has put the earth's inhabitants in a kind of prisoner's dilemma with regards to how to meet the need for power, while at the same time stemming emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, that most scientists say is among the man-made culprits causing the planet to warm inexorably.
The problem of rising emissions has created a polarized debate among policymakers, with one side calling for action to stem climate change through international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, and the other arguing that emissions limits are part of a liberal agenda to cripple the coal, oil and gas industries that have provided well-paying jobs and steady shareholder income and growth for decades.
Targets of the drive to reduce emissions from fossil fuels include the Canadian oil sands, where production of so-called “dirty” oil is said to be more energy-intensive than other jurisdictions; the U.S. coal industry which has been hurt by new regulations on coal-fired power plants; and coal producers in China, where the government has ordered a ban on coal use in smog-cloaked Beijing by 2020 due to poor air quality.
But what if, rather than going after the industries that pollute the most, the problem of rising emissions could be tackled by simply doing nothing? That was the scenario envisioned in a recent report by researchers at the University College of London. Related: A Return To Nuclear May Be Japan’s Only Option
Published in the scientific journal Nature, the study was the first to analyze which energy resources should be left in the ground and where. The analysis did not examine which resources are economically feasible to extract, but rather, which ones in which regions should be left untapped if the globe is to meet the goal of preventing warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius – the goal generally agreed-upon by policymakers to prevent irreversible effects from global warming.
According to the report, to meet that goal, the world would have to leave a third of the world's oil, half of its natural gas, and 80 percent of its coal reserves in the ground, for the planet to avoid the potentially deadly and damaging long-term effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, droughts and storms of greater magnitude and frequency, through at least 2050.
In terms of carbon emissions, that would mean a reduction of 1,100 gigatons of carbon dioxide between 2011 and 2050. If the fossil fuels are instead consumed, the amount of emissions would be around three times higher, according to the report.
The findings are in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in 2013 set a “carbon budget” of about 800 billion tons. The IPCC figured the world had already put 531 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2011, so with a budget of 800 billion tons, that leaves about 270 billion tons of carbon left. With around 10 billion tons of CO2 burned a year, the “budget” would be exhausted in about 25 years, according to IPCC.
Among the interesting findings in the report are the regional breakdowns of fossil fuels needing to be left untouched, and which fuels are considered most damaging to the planet if consumed. Not surprisingly, coal is the biggest loser. The report says 82 percent of current coal reserves should be left in the ground to avoid exceeding the 2-degree pledge, meaning that in major coal-producing regions like the U.S., Australia and Russia, over 90 percent of coal reserves would remain in place. In China and India, 66 percent are considered unburnable. Related: Oil Rebound May Come Sooner Than Expected
Natural gas fares somewhat better: 50 percent of global reserves should not be tapped. However the report has the Middle East and Russia having to curtail a large amount of gas exploitation, while Europe and the United States - the latter of which has relied heavily on natural gas fracking in recent years at the expense of coal - would get to exploit over 90 percent of their reserves. The report indicates that the current level of shale gas fracking would be allowed in a +2-degree scenario, but potential fracks in the China, India, Africa and the Middle East would not be allowed to occur.
On the oil side, the worst-faring nation is Canada, which according to the report, would only be allowed to exploit a quarter of its oil reserves – the lowest utilization of any region analyzed. Under a 2-degree scenario, the 100 billion barrels of oil estimated to be available in the Arctic would have to be left untouched.
The study also noted that carbon capture and storage, a technique whereby emissions from coal-fired plants and oil and gas operations are trapped and stored underground, allows for just six percent of the world's known coal reserves to be burnt, and even less for oil and gas.
Is the university study anything more than an academic exercise aimed at shaming governments and industry into enacting policies to curtail energy exploitation? Climate change negotiators are once again meeting in Paris this year to negotiate a new treaty aimed at putting the globe on target for reaching the temperature target, but as we all know, these meetings are full of good intentions but rarely produce results.
Another pertinent question is, even if nations could cut through the backward inertia of past failures and actually emerge with a treaty, can energy demand reasonably be met by leaving a third of the world's oil, half of its natural gas, and 80 percent of its coal in the ground?
The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in 2012 that the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius gets harder and more costly every year, and that if action is not taken before 2017, “CO2 emissions would be locked-in by energy infrastructure existing in 2017,” noted the IEA by way of Wikipedia. “Fossil fuels are dominant in the global energy mix, supported by $523 billion in subsidies in 2011, up almost 30 percent on 2010 and six times more than subsidies to renewables.” Related: Finally Some Good News For Oil Prices
In the 2014 iteration of its annual World Energy Outlook, the IEA sounds rather dubious in response to the 2-degree target, noting that a “sign of stress” is the failure to transform the world's energy system to stem the rise in CO2 emissions. With current energy supply and demand, it predicts the entire carbon budget allocated under a 2-degree scenario will be consumed by 2040.
The IEA says by then, world energy demand will be 37 percent higher than now, although the mix of resources could be considerably different:
“By 2040, world energy supply is divided into four almost equal parts: low-carbon sources (nuclear and renewables), oil, natural gas and coal.” Interestingly, the IEA forecasts that by that year, demand for coal and oil will plateau, while renewables are expected to account for nearly half of the global increase in power generation. Demand for gas will be over 50 percent higher in 2040, and is the only fossil fuel still growing at that time, according to the agency.
By Andrew Topf of Oilprice.com
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