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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Energy Transition Advocates Get A Reality Check

  • The choice between energy security and decarbonization is not one that tends to attract a lot of attention.
  • Following the energy crisis in Europe last year, world leaders are more aware of energy security.
  • The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is calling for an acceleration of the decarbonization push.
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This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report. Unsurprisingly alarming, the report aimed to turn up the heat on governments, the business world, and every one of us to do more about the energy transition. Decarbonization, the report said, had to move faster and more dramatically. Yet that wasn’t the only document that made the headlines this week. Shell also released a report in which it detailed two different scenarios for the future to 2050. In those scenarios, the supermajor’s analysts pitted energy security against the energy transition – something the IPCC reports have never done. 

The choice between energy security and decarbonization is not one that tends to attract a lot of attention. It is a sensitive topic because it exposes the shortcomings of low-carbon energy. Yet, as Europe found out last year, it may be wise to discuss this topic before we splash $110 trillion on the energy transition.

In one of its scenarios, dubbed Archipelagos, Shell paints a familiar picture of the world of the future, at least politically. With a focus on energy security rather than decarbonization, the Archipelagos scenario describes a world similar to 19th-century Europe, where spheres of interest shift and nations ally with a view to energy security and resilience.

In that scenario, emission reductions and the Paris Agreement take a back seat, but work continues on deploying low-carbon energy technology. It simply progresses at a much slower pace.

Related: EU Still In Deadlock Over ICE Emissions Policy

The IPCC would probably be quick to point out that this scenario is effectively a doomsday scenario because nothing should take priority over emission reduction and the race to net zero. However, it is much easier to make computer models of future global temperatures and sound the alarm about them than find the money and the raw materials necessary to effect the transition at the pace that the IPCC wants it.

The raw materials problem of the transition has been garnering more and more attention from the media and, with it, from various stakeholders. The United States came up with the idea of friend-shoring to source these raw materials because it has no mine capacity to meet all of its projected demand from local supply. The EU plans to set up a Critical Raw Material Club, which effectively amounts to a buyers’ cartel, but this time for metals and minerals.

The chances of success of either of these approaches are yet to become clear, but in the meantime, another thing is becoming clear: the transition bill will be even bigger than previously expected.

The sum total of transition investments has always been in the trillion-dollar territory, but the latest estimate from a climate think tank pegs the annual spend necessary to hit net zero by 2050 at $3.5 trillion. That’s a more than threefold increase on last year’s record investment in wind, solar, and other decarbonization efforts, which for the first time topped $1 trillion. Unfortunately, that record investment—some of its actual spent, the rest in commitments—brought us nowhere near either net zero or energy security.

In Shell’s second scenario, however, these investments will work their miracle, with the indispensable help of everyone deciding to work for the common goal of cutting emissions and achieving what the company referred to long-term energy security.

In this scenario, governments, citizens, and businesses team up to bring those emissions down and deploy as much low-carbon energy capacity as possible, notably driven by energy security concerns. Energy security has indeed been one of the strongest arguments in favor of wind and solar—the energy produced locally is better than imported energy. 

That leaves the reliability and affordability issue, which decision-makers appear determined to tackle with excess capacity—for reliability—and with massive investments and subsidies—to solve the affordability problem. Because much as climate think tanks and activists like to repeat that wind and solar are the cheapest form of energy available, the wind and solar industries themselves appear to disagree.

“We are walking when we should be sprinting,” the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Hoesung Lee, said at the release of the body’s latest report.

There are “no big fundamental barriers to the energy transition,” said the deputy director of that climate think tank that produced the report estimating the cost of said transition.

Based on these statements and the documents behind them, the transition seems like a no-brainer, however you look at it. Except if you look at it from an energy security perspective. Or a financial one. Because if there were no big fundamental barriers to decarbonization, such as reliability issues or affordability challenges, the transition would be happening everywhere, organically, without the need for such strong government support. This is what happens with successful, beneficial technology.

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Which of the two scenarios that Shell has developed for the future remains to be seen. For now, the Archipelago scenario seems more realistic, not least because it does not rely on as many assumptions as the Sky 2050 scenario, such as a global ban on ICE cars by 2040.

So do all the scenarios of transition advocates. They are all based on a series of assumptions, some of them dangerously far-fetched, such as the assumption that there will be enough metals for EVs to take over roads. And assumptions are risky allies. Although sometimes grounded in reality, most of the transition assumptions appear to be grounded in wishes rather than facts. And wishes do not make reality or bring energy security into spontaneous existence.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Lee James on March 23 2023 said:
    A few years ago, I actively campaigned for reduced emissions. Along the lines of this article. I am now pessimistic about the progress we are making.

    Unfortunately, climate will worsen before we do very much about it. Because ramping up renewable energy takes a long time and consumes a lot of resources, I suspect that we will fall back on energy conservation (purposeful depravation) and energy efficiency.

    Basically, we will need to curb our appetite for burning fossil fuel.

    Ideally, we would ramp up clean energy by a factor of three, while also improving fossil fuel security by a factor of 1.5. Putin makes fossil fuel security all the more important, today.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on March 23 2023 said:
    Despite the usual existential threats to humanity by reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on climate change, if peoples of the world and their governments were asked to choose between energy security and decarbonization, their choice will be overwhelmingly in favour of energy security. It amounts to choosing between facing a slow death now or facing one from climate change which may or may not materialize and about which even Nobel prize-winning scientist are divided.

    We already know the answer to pitting energy security against the energy transition. Energy security wins hands down

    A total global energy transition to renewables is a myth. Even a partial transition can’t succeed without huge contributions from natural gas and to some extent nuclear energy and coal. The reason is the intermittent nature of renewable.

    I have always argued that we are in an energy diversification era where renewables have to compete for a market share against fossil fuels, nuclear energy, geothermal energy and other energy sources. The higher their share the less fossil fuels used. This is the rational and practical way of combatting climate and accelerating decarbonization without posing a threat to energy security. In other words, we need to enhance carbon-catching technologies to reduce emissions from fossil fuels rather than reducing their use as some of wise CEOs of major American oil and gas companies have been advocating for years.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

Leave a comment




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