A global timeline to net-zero emissions

Last week turned out to be a busy one on the climate calendar, with multiple events across Europe and North America. In the case of the latter, Climate Week in New York, coinciding with the UN General Assembly, was the largest. In Canada the Pembina Institute held their annual Alberta Climate Summit with over 500 people packing out a conference centre in Calgary. Back in the UK, a broadly attended conference in Oxford was held on the issue of meeting the stretch goal of the Paris Agreement, i.e. limiting warming of the climate system to 1.5°C. This conference is part of the process leading up to the special report by the IPCC on 1.5°C, requested as part of the Paris Agreement and due in 2018.

In Canada and at Climate Week I was able to make good use of the new Net Zero Emissions publication from the Shell Scenarios team and there was considerable interest in the material. A colleague did the same in Oxford. In the run-up to the conferences, we put together a new look at the existing scenarios outcomes in the form of a potential timeline to net-zero emissions and this was well received (click on the image to expand).


The timelines show a plausible course of events for each of the two New Lens Scenarios, with an end point in both cases of net-zero emissions. But the scale of deployment, both for physical energy related infrastructure and policy initiatives points to the urgent need for action at national level and through the Paris Agreement.

For example, in the Oceans scenario, carbon pricing is being applied almost globally by 2036 at a level above $30 per tonne of CO2. This compares with about 20+ % of the world today at between $5-$15 and a couple of outliers at $30 (e.g. British Columbia). It has taken nearly 20 years to get this far (with the Kyoto Protocol as a notional starting point).

The Mountains scenario features a very early start for CCS, such that by 2033 there is about 1 Gt CO2 storage per annum – this equates to some 1,000 Quest projects, the large scale Shell project in Alberta. But such a deployment rate is still feasible, although it requires CCS deployment to quickly scale to the rate at which LNG is currently under construction. I looked at the numbers behind this back in 2014.

Oceans sees a very rapid rate for solar deployment, to the extent that by 2044 there is 10,000 GW capacity globally. Solar deployment stands at about 250 GW capacity today. Nevertheless, the power sector isn’t completely decarbonised until 2089. By contrast, the more natural gas / CCS world of Mountains has power sector decarbonisation by 2061.

An interesting feature of both scenarios is that it takes until at least mid-century before global CO2 emissions fall below 30 Gt per annum. While some commentators and energy system observers are calling for net-zero emissions by 2050, an analysis based on real potential  deployment rates of major new energy systems does not support such an outcome.

A further important milestone is the near doubling of the size of the energy system to 1000 EJ (from 500 EJ today), reaching such a level in both scenarios in the 2070s. Today we have about 7+ billion people with an average per capita energy demand of about 70 GJ per annum, although the range extends from some 20 GJ in parts of Africa through to 300+ GJ in North America. A global average of 100+ GJ is likely to be necessary for widespread access to clean water, good sanitation and a range of energy services (e.g. refrigeration), but with a more narrow range across countries.

A complete description of the net zero emissions world can be found on the Shell Scenarios website.



“The New Lens Scenarios” and “A Better Life with a Healthy Planet” are part of an ongoing process – scenario-building – used in Shell for more than 40 years to challenge executives’ perspectives on the future business environment. We base them on plausible assumptions and quantification, and they are designed to stretch management thinking and even to consider events that may only be remotely possible. Scenarios, therefore, are not intended to be predictions of likely future events or outcomes, and investors should not rely on them when making an investment decision with regard to Royal Dutch Shell plc securities.
It is important to note that Shell’s existing portfolio has been decades in development.  While we believe our portfolio is resilient under a wide range of outlooks, including the IEA’s 450 scenario, it includes assets across a spectrum of energy intensities including some with above –average intensity. While we seek to enhance our operations’ average energy intensity through both the development of new projects and divestments, we have no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years.