According to the U.N Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world must overhaul how it consumes and produces energy if global warming is to be slowed and eventually stopped. The IPCC’s proposed path forward would see the world all but drop fossil fuels by 2050. It’s a headscratcher.
Nearly 80 percent of global energy demand is met with fossil fuels. Any credible approach to reducing emissions must recognize that the fuels and energy infrastructure the world currently leans on for affordable, reliable and secure energy can’t and shouldn’t be abandoned. A better focus would be on emissions, not specific fuels. And, doing so means an emphasis on technology – readily available technologies that can help reduce emissions today and technologies that must be developed and improved for widespread, cost-effective, global deployment tomorrow.
There’s no magic elixir to this challenge. Even as new and disruptive technologies begin to transform how we consume and produce energy, these technologies often just compliment our existing energy systems. In many nations, the deployment of wind and solar power, for example, is largely coming in addition to existing energy infrastructure, not in place of it. China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal and the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, is an important case in point. But this is not a story about one country, nor one fuel.
Take oil demand. It’s expected to continue to grow even as electric vehicles begin to capture a greater share of the passenger vehicle market. Oil demand from fertilizers, plastics and air-travel, as well as other sectors of the global economy, will be far harder to replace than those miles traveled in cars and trucks.
Burgeoning middle classes, soaring populations, rapid urbanization and the need for industrialization and electrification will continue to drive energy demand growth – growth that is more than likely to be largely met with fossil fuels well into the future. In a world where hundreds of millions of people still don’t have any access to electricity and hundreds of millions more remain energy impoverished, energy consumption is bound to grow, and so it should.
Slashing global greenhouse gas emissions is going to take a kitchen sink approach. It’s all the more reason we should be fuel and technology agnostic as long as those solutions help achieve progress. Fossil fuel technologies now available, such as high efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal technologies, must be part of the solution. Upgrading the global coal fleet with HELE technologies, such as supercritical and ultra-supercritical combustion, would dramatically improve efficiency, generating more power from less coal. Improving the efficiency of the current fleet from 33 percent to 40 percent – possible with off-the-shelf technology – would reduce carbon emissions by 14 to 21 percent, equivalent to all of India’s energy-related carbon emissions.
While we make improvements with existing technology, we must also redouble our efforts to improve next-generation technologies that can reduce emissions from all fossil fuels. Carbon capture, utilization and storage should be part of the toolbox we bring to the challenge. The Petro Nova and Net Power projects in Texas offer a glimpse of the progress made and the promise ahead. Technologies, both big and small – think of catalytic converters on our cars or scrubbers on power plants – have worked wonders to reduce traditional pollutants in the past and it will be the onward march of technology that delivers the progress the world desires.
What we should not do is sacrifice the reliability, security and affordability of the energy that is the lifeblood of our economy. Nor should we overlook the incremental progress that can realistically be made today because we are overwhelmed by staggering models and projections we are not currently equipped to address. Let’s embrace progress where it is in reach and focus on solutions that aren’t just replicable in the wealthiest cities and states of the wealthiest nation on earth, but everywhere.
- On October 11, 2018