Shell Scenarios Attempt to Bracket the Energy Future

This morning NPR revealed to me (as I crawled down the freeway trying to get 30+ mpg with SUVs blasting by in the fast lane), that energy giant Royal Dutch Shell had released a document titled “Energy Scenarios to 2050” at a conference in Brussels on April 7th, and I found more details on line at a site called Euractiv(link).   Euractiv interviewed Shell’s vice president for global business environment, Jeremy Bentham, who proposed that public money be put into play to encourage development of carbon sequestration technologies (link).  Bentham suggests that, while there is no “silver bullet” solution, there is probably a “silver buckshot” approach that works.  This is all well and good, but we, the public, need to consider the source and understand that there is more here than meets the eye. 

Shell’s document is reported to suggest two main scenarios for energy consumption through 2050: a “scramble” scenario, including intense energy competition and change motivated only by severe environmental and supply problems, and a “blueprints” scenario, in which carbon sequestration and conservation advances produce a more stable situation.  Neither outlook is reported to be particularly cheerful, with the scramble scenario suggesting an increase in energy use of 80% by 2050, and the blueprints scenario suggesting a more orderly progression to about a 60% increase in energy consumption by 2050.   Both scenarios assume about 30% of our energy coming from renewable sources by 2050, and major conservation efforts.  Carbon emissions are expected to peak in 2020 and then decline to reach a 2050 level about equal to that in 2000.  I don’t have any detail on what changes in population growth rate might be assumed in the Shell models.

(late addition)  It is noteworthy that Shell’s information release paints the clear picture that we can have an easier time if we plan and act now, and manage our future, as compared with waiting until various catastrophes force us to act.  The naming of the latter scenario, “scramble”, suggests that uncoordinated actions will produce significantly worse results than a concerted and coordinated approach simultaneously carried out by as many countries as possible.

Carbon sequestration (CCS) plays a key role in Shell’s scenarios, and they suggest an aggressive timeline would put CCS in 90% of power plants in the OECD by 2050, and in 50% of plants in the developing countries.  Bentham says, however, that there are currently no incentives to investment the development and deployment of carbon sequestration systems.  By my own nature, I am suspicious of any company that pushes “incentives”, as I suspect they see such measures as a support for their profits, but I can’t disagree with him that incentives are needed.  It is noteworthy that Mr. Bentham carefully avoids any mention of the energy industry providing any funding outside if its own research. That would involve a reduction in already record energy company profits.

Energy companies aren’t the wealthiest in the world by accident.  They use their incredible financial power to influence business and politics in their favor, and have long been deeply involved in both technological and economic research, the latter of which produces tons of plans and scenarios which they continuously adjust and fine tune according to the world situation.  Normally the public is completely unaware of their plans and thoughts about the future, as the energy companies rightfully see their scenarios as competitive advantage.  It is interesting that Shell is releasing this sort of information, and it is certain that they are doing so with a purpose related to ensuring their own future profitability.  They are certainly not going to influence events in any way that does not favor them, and will only present assumptions that condition public expectations in ways that can preserve what they expect to be their most profitable future businesses.

I think that Shell’s scenarios, focused as they are entirely on the energy industry, are missing some key factors.  Food shortages are already appearing in the least developed parts of the world, and can be expected to become severe long before 2050, and probably before 2030.  If energy were all we had to be concerned about Shell’s scenarios would be more meaningful, but they seem too narrowly focused to paint a useful picture of the future, and don’t appear to address sustainability directly.  Unfortunately I have not been able to find a copy of the Shell report or proceedings from the conference where it was revealed (link). 

Interestingly, at the same conference Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) chief economist, pointed out (link) that rising oil prices are no longer suppressing demand as they did in the big price increases of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and I believe this is due to the skyrocketing demand in China and the other developing countries.  It is also cited that the improvements from carbon reduction efforts by the developed countries will be completely swamped by the huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions in China alone.

It is good, and even enlightening, to see an energy giant like Shell releasing some of their internal planning information, but it is wise to consider the source, recognize that such information is only released when it can be expected to provide some commercial advantage to the source organization, and review it with a critical eye toward what it does NOT say.  A more holistic view, and scenarios that include other factors such as food shortages and political conflicts, for example, must be developed and publicized, not only to raise the public consciousness but to drive long range planning in every area of human society.  Nobody will be unaffected by our overpopulation and the rapid exhaustion of resources that drives, or the pollution, climate change, and other side effects.  As individuals we must continue to press our political representatives and the corporations with which we do business to think and plan for the long haul, and acknowledge and aggressively attack the overpopulation problem as well as the problems it creates.

Thanks for reading.  I welcome your comments.


One response to “Shell Scenarios Attempt to Bracket the Energy Future

  1. Any energy solution that purports to offer ways to allow us to keep consuming at the same level – whether it’s biofuel or carbon sequestration – is greenwashing. Even Parade magazine knows this! The only way we’re going to save our big blue marble is by reducing consumption and changing consumption patterns, not just of energy (as you point out) but of food and many other things.

    Unfortunately, here the US our own Dept of Energy isn’t doing us any favors.

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