Is the global leadership paradigm the right one?

Last week I attended the official launch in London of a book I reviewed recently, The Burning Question. Both authors were at the launch and they gave a great overview of the energy and climate predicament we have collectively managed to get ourselves into. Key to their message is that carbon emissions are growing exponentially and that no amount of energy efficiency or alternative energy investment is going to change that pathway anytime soon, rather both approaches may be exacerbating the problem. Of course they did make the point that all exponential systems eventually collapse or at best plateau, but in the meantime emissions continue to rise with no immediate sign of change. As I noted in my initial review, the authors paint themselves into something of a difficult corner and don’t give a great deal of insight as to how to get out, but carbon capture and storage looms large in their thinking. The book follows a line of thought that I have been developing in this blog over the last couple of years, best described here and here.

The morning after the book launch I found myself at a business association meeting where the subject of climate action was top of the agenda for the day. As if in follow-up to the previous evening, we quickly got on to the role of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for mitigation, vs. the apparently more attractive premise (to many people) that the focus must be on energy efficiency and renewables, with carbon capture and storage in more of a mop-up role at the end. The efficiency / renewables approach has been played out in numerous scenario exercises, most notably in that presented by WWF (with the support of Ecofys) in their 2011 report “100% Renewable Energy by 2050”. In all such cases and particularly that one, a natural progression of change within the energy system doesn’t feature, rather a “war time footing” scenario is advocated. This specific report was also presented to the meeting.

I contrast this with the recent Shell New Lens Scenarios which I discussed in a March posting. These do follow a natural progression forward, driven by social concerns, legislative change and energy economics. The conditions behind the Oceans scenario result in higher uptake of efficiency and much faster renewables deployment.  However, these are not strong enough to offset all of the extra pressures for energy demand growth from developing markets in particular.  As a result, fossil energy growth is similar to that of Mountains for the next several decades, and so without the strong stimulus for CCS in Mountains, the Oceans scenario results in higher cumulative CO2 emissions over the century and therefore additional warming. The reasons are somewhat similar to those articulated in The Burning Question.

This leads to thinking about climate action in terms of two paradigms. One recognizes the sobering reality of the global energy system as outlined in The Burning Question and seeks to address the issue through a combination of measures, prioritizing a robust carbon price in the energy system and placing a strong emphasis on carbon capture and storage. This tackles the issue from the fossil fuel end, which has the consequence of managing emissions directly (the CCS bit) and drawing in alternatives and reducing demand as pricing dictates (the carbon price bit). The other approach is to tackle the issue from the alternatives end, which results in forced efficiency measures and subsidized renewable energy coming into the mix. Following the logic of The Burning Question, this is like putting the energy system on steroids which pumps up global demand and potentially even forces emissions to rise.

Back then to the business association meeting which, at least in part, was also attended by a prominent official in the global climate process. The inevitable question as to the role of CCS arose and a debate around mitigation priorities got going. Many, including the official present in the room, took the view that efficiency and renewables were critical to the change process required and that this is where the emphasis must be.

 Of course the real sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, where there is a strong attack on emissions through carbon pricing and CCS, but in combination with a more rapid displacement of fossil energy with alternatives such as solar and nuclear. This isn’t easy to achieve as the social conditions for one are somewhat counter to those needed for the other. This is one paradox that also comes out of the New Lens Scenarios. Nevertheless, if those in leadership positions are sitting at one end of this spectrum rather than squarely in the middle, will we ever get a solution that actually addresses the problem head on? Perhaps The Burning Question needs to be distributed more widely!