Energy Webinar - Reflections

Redefining the Energy Mix to Achieve Net Zero

Energy underpins our everyday lives. Most of us today take energy for granted, but the availability of abundant energy has helped deliver the high standard of living experienced by the developed world. Past generations were not so fortunate and many today in the developing world do not have ready access to energy. Energy poverty is a major driver of global inequality. However, rich society’s dependence on energy has also been a major contributor to one of the globe’s biggest ever challenges – climate change.

Over the 100 years that the Institution of Chemical Engineers has been in existence, the world’s population has grown rapidly from 2 billion to 8 billion, yet living standards have risen in most of the world due to the ever-expanding supply of energy. However, this ramp up in energy use over the last century has been mostly fossil fuel-based with the unintended consequence of rapid increases in levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fuelling global warming. As living standards increased, each person "consumed" even more energy. People travelled more, bought more goods. The world is now at a critical juncture. We must decide how we can transition from an energy economy that is based on fossil fuels to one that is based on alternate energy sources if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

How the energy mix needs to change

The world population is projected to grow to about 10 billion by 2050. This will result in an even bigger demand for energy. In its latest Energy Outlook, BP projects that the world will need in the order of 10-15% more energy each and every day by 2050. To hold global temperature rise to under 2 deg. C with this increased demand for energy, the makeup of the energy mix will have to change significantly. BP has a number of scenarios that are aligned with the IPCC’s goal of holding temperature increases to 2 deg. C or less. In BP’s mid-trend scenario, global annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are reduced from today’s 40 Gt (equivalent) to about 10 Gt (equivalent) by 2050. This will require the developed world to cut GHG emissions by 90% and the developing world by 65%. To achieve this, fossil fuels will need to drop from 80% of the world’s energy supply today to about 30% by 2050 with coal use almost reduced to zero. Renewables will need to grow from 15% of the energy mix today to about 55% by 2050. The decline in fossil fuels is in part achieved by increased electrification of the vehicle fleet, with the number of electric vehicles globally projected to grow to 2 billion in 2050 up from just 7 million in 2019. This shift from fossil-fueled vehicles to electric-fueled is already well under way. More generally, electricity generated from renewables and other low GHG emission sources will be required to replace not just petrol and diesel for vehicles, but also replace fossil fuels in many other sectors including heating and cooking in homes.

How government policy can accelerate the energy transition

The enormity of the challenge required to keep global warming to 2 deg. C or less should not be underestimated. It will require the largest sociotechnical transition in human history and in a short time frame. Energy is ever-present in every part of our lives and the sources of energy, their supply chains and even how individuals go about their daily lives will most likely have to change. Some economists have argued that all is required is a global carbon price to drive the world to a lower carbon state. But even in the unlikely event that governments around the world could agree on a price for carbon, this approach is unlikely to succeed in time. A global carbon price could drive technology change, but it typically takes 30 years for a technology to evolve from early entry to wide-scale deployment. If we are to achieve net zero, or close to it, by 2050, we do not have 30 years. Through policy, though, governments can accelerate the change to a net zero world. There are four general types of government policy instruments they can deploy and many governments are already in the process of doing so. They are: 1) Support specific technologies through funding for research, development and demonstration and through public procurement policies. 2) Use price-based instruments such as taxes, subsidies and emissions trading schemes. 3) Use command and control approaches such as regulations on technology, imposing performance standards and even banning high polluting technologies altogether. 4) Use information and voluntary approaches like ruling, labelling and information campaigns. How governments use this mix of approaches will likely vary from country-to-country, technology-to-technology and by market, but all four approaches will be required if the energy transition can be achieved in the short time available to us to avoid significant global warming. The path forward will not be easy. It will be bumpy and there will be setbacks, but overall, it will be less painful and less costly than the alternative… runaway climate change.

The role of the chemical engineer in the energy transition

The story of energy is a story of chemical engineering. Energy and chemical engineers have been the driving force behind societal development over the last 200 years. In the future they can help deliver a sustainable future. Moving forward, chemical engineering is central in the multi-disciplinary team for addressing climate change. Chemical engineers can be the driving force to make the world's energy system net zero whilst enabling living standards to continue to rise across the globe. Chemical engineers are at the forefront of advancing and optimising renewable energy to displace fossil fuels and evolving technologies to address climate change. The role of the chemical engineer in IChemE’s second century is more important than ever.