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Reflecting on the IPCC Synthesis Report through new Shell scenarios

After a year of work, with a few hints along the way offered via this blog, the Shell scenarios team launched The Energy Security Scenarios this week. This is the team I am proud to be a member of and our new scenarios offer a very different perspective on the world in a time of challenging circumstances. With an almost identical release date, the IPCC 6th Assessment Synthesis Report also landed this week. The scenarios also offer a new lens through which to view the IPCC findings.

The Energy Security Scenarios are built on the foundation of a world in which a security mindset is becoming pervasive, be it national security based on military threats, energy security following a year of supply disruption and price volatility, economic security as we watch the banking system being challenged by some defaults or climate security as the global average surface temperature continues to rise and impacts are becoming more visible. How countries respond to energy price volatility and supply disruption is highly variable, but nevertheless a pattern has emerged that ties together disparate responses such as India buying Russian crude oil and the USA pumping billions of dollars into direct air capture. These behaviours form part of an archetype framework that underpins our new scenarios. This foundation also offers some colour to the energy story we tell, with our archetypes classified as Innovation Wins, Green Dream, Surfers and Great Wall of Change.

Two key drivers shape the stories that we explore, notably the call at COP26 in Glasgow to deliver net-zero emissions globally by 2050 and deep cuts in emissions by 2030 and the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which has stressed the global energy system over the past twelve months. As a result, two new scenarios emerge which embrace both drivers, but prioritise them differently as the world moves forwards. We look out not just to 2030 or 2050, but all the way to 2100 and even draw one surprising conclusion about what the 22nd century has to offer. These are stories that describe a world locked in an energy transition not only driven by cooperative change as called for by many, but instead trending towards a world of more intense competition as countries seek to shore up their energy system for the 21st century. The scenarios are Sky 2050 and Archipelagos. Both scenarios see the energy transition accelerating, but at different paces. In Sky 2050 climate security is the priority, whereas in Archipelagos there is more attention to ongoing energy security.

Highlighting the increasing pace of the transition is the recognition of an inflection point in this decade as fossil fuels begin to lose market share in primary energy, finally shifting away from the 80% role they have played for many decades. The pace in Sky 2050 is about twice that of Archipelagos, but both represent a trend break.

Meanwhile, the IPCC is very focussed on the diminishing carbon budget and the rapidly narrowing opportunities for limiting warming to 1.5°C. In the Synthesis Report they broadly conclude that action will be insufficient to contain warming below 1.5°C in the near term, which points to an overshoot outcome and therefore the need to recover the situation later in the century. This is similar to the pathway visible in Sky 2050, which does see global emissions start to fall in the 2020s and net-zero emissions reached in 2050, but nevertheless the surface temperature rises above 1.5°C in the mid-2030s. However, a burgeoning new direct air capture industry, borne out of initiatives such as the Inflation Reduction Act in the USA, appears in Sky 2050. It grows to such an extent than in combination with extensive change in land management practices, from forestry to farming, as much carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere between 2050 and 2100 as has been added from now to 2050. The result is that by 2100 surface temperature warming in Sky 2050 has returned to today’s levels, with the potential for climate restoration during the 22nd century.

The IPCC make the case that only a drastic reduction in near term emissions can avoid passing 1.5°C, with CO2 emissions needing to fall by 48% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels. These numbers will become higher with each passing day that emissions do not reduce. The table below comes from the Synthesis Report released on Monday and outlines what must happen in the seven years to 2030, then to 2035, 2040 and 2050.

Source: IPCC 6th Assessment Report – Synthesis

In The Energy Security Scenarios we do not see the scope for such large near term action reductions, with Sky 2050 achieving a reduction of around 12% by 2030. In Archipelagos emissions are higher in 2030 than in 2019. Although the Synthesis Report calls for immediate reductions, the IPCC note that of their modelled scenarios, only a small number of the most ambitious global modelled pathways limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2100 without exceeding this level temporarily. The IPCC state the following:

Global warming will continue to increase in the near term (2021-2040) mainly due to increased cumulative CO2 emissions in nearly all considered scenarios and modelled pathways. In the near term, global warming is more likely than not to reach 1.5°C even under the very low GHG emission scenario (SSP1-1.9) and likely or very likely to exceed 1.5°C under higher emissions scenarios. In the considered scenarios and modelled pathways, the best estimates of the time when the level of global warming of 1.5°C is reached lie in the near term.

In the case of overshoot, i.e. temporarily exceeding 1.5°C, they also note that the application of large scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies and practices is required to progressively reverse the overshoot situation. However, they also note that any overshoot brings with it the added risk of long term irreversible changes in the global ecosystem.

In short, the Synthesis Report paints a concerning picture of the world exceeding 1.5°C and taking on the associated climate risks. While the report makes every attempt to say that the possibility of not doing so still exists, there is little solid content to argue that this is achievable, a finding backed up by the analysis presented in The Energy Security Scenarios. The temperature outcomes for Sky 2050 and Archipelagos are presented below. The assessments were made by the MIT Joint Program using their climate model and also reported with the release of the Shell scenarios. You can also explore the scenario data here.

The Energy Security Scenarios complement the IPCC Synthesis Report well in that Sky 2050 sets out a very clear and unambiguous pathway to 2100, that both recognises the near term prospect of overshoot and the steps to take to more than redress the situation. By contrast, Archipelagos sets out a plausible pathway forward based on current tensions, but also shows that even under trying circumstances the world may find that 2.2°C is now the upper maximum for warming. While 2.2° is not considered safe territory by IPCC, the Archipelagos outcome is well positioned at the lower end of the range of outcomes that IPCC consider, which exceed 4°C in the worst case. Archipelagos is a story of global political headwinds buffeting the transition, but not to the extent that it slows in comparison with today. Quite the opposite – the pace increases as security concerns and competition drive the system away from fossil fuels.

You can find more on The Energy Security Scenarios here, which I would encourage readers to explore. But if you don’t have the time right now, this short video introduction may be of interest.

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