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“Fool’s Gold” in the climate rush – a story from the New Lens Scenarios

Late last week saw the public release of the new Shell energy scenarios, under the heading “New Lens Scenarios”. This is always a much anticipated moment in Shell, a bit like the Olympics as it only happens every few years – the last ones were released in 2008. In the interim many people across the company get involved in the scenario process through workshops and meetings, but the core team manages to keep the final product under wraps until the big day. While we might get an early sniff of the story, the final product always contains new themes and ideas, designed not to recast the status quo paradigm, but to challenge and surprise where possible.

So it is with Mountains and Oceans, the two new scenarios that look out to the very end of this century, a first in terms of “viewing distance”. I won’t attempt to tell the whole scenario story here, better to direct you to the website, here. But the climate stories buried within them are of real interest and should act as a wake up call for governments around the world.

In my post last week I discussed the idea that the CO2 issue is best thought of as a stock problem, in other words fossil CO2 released from the “geosphere” is accumulating in the ocean/atmosphere system and adding to the background greenhouse warming that makes this planet habitable. Roughly, each additional trillion tonnes of carbon that is released makes the planet another 2°C hotter. 

This has been shown by Allen et. al., Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne, Nature Vol 458, 30 April 2009. The key chart is shown below. 

This means that the focus of policymakers should be on the cumulative emissions of carbon over the long term, rather than on actual emissions on any given date. As such, climate policy needs to focus on limiting the accumulation, rather than simply slowing down the rate of emissions. For example, using energy more efficiently for the same level of production or GDP or supplementing the energy mix with renewable resources could well reduce annual emissions, but may do nothing to limit the accumulation over time. More renewable energy also gives policy makers a sense that they are addressing the problem of how to meet the surging demand for energy and also manage emissions, but over the long run it will just take a little longer to reach the same accumulation of carbon. Using up current proven reserves of oil gas and coal (about 900 billion tonnes of carbon), whether over 50 years, 60 years or 90 years, still delivers the same climate result.


By contrast, deploying carbon capture and storage (CCS) and eventually linking it with any use of fossil resources resolves the accumulation issue. The New Lens Scenarios demonstrate this point very well.

In the Mountains scenario, which sees natural gas use grow to become the backbone of the world energy supply, the politics of the day allows CCS to start serious deployment in the 2030s and rapidly increase to peak deployment in the 2060s. As the energy mix shifts later in the century, CCS use declines somewhat. By 2100, emissions are effectively zero, with the prospect of some drawdown of atmospheric CO2 in the 22nd Century as CCS is combined with the use of biomass for energy. Importantly, cumulative emissions are capped and the amount of warming is limited, albeit not at 2°C.

The Oceans scenario tells a different story. The underlying politics and social trends see more focus on renewable energy early on, with CCS not seriously deployed until 20-30 years later than Mountains and never growing to the same level. Although solar PV becomes very substantial in the energy mix, the time it takes to win the day allows cumulative carbon emissions to grow well past the Mountains scenario, adding to the potential warming by the end of the century. Oceans also caps the accumulation by 2100.


Both scenarios make extensive use of CCS, but delaying deployment while lured by the attractiveness of a high renewable energy future has a real downside, more warming. 

We can see the evidence of government focus on renewable energy in the recent NER 300 funding in Europe. Despite the goal of establishing a CCS demonstration programme, no funds were delivered to CCS projects in Europe and the money was granted to renewable energy projects.   Green politics is fast becoming a distraction from the real climate priority of managing cumulative emissions, which requires CCS.

The scenarios are designed to tell stories and get us to think about the implications of the energy choices that we make. They are not forecasts or predictions, but they do represent viable alternative pathways which are economically, socially and technologically feasible. Enjoy the challenges posed.

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