There is a certain irony in the coincidence of two recent major events that together, focused minds on how exactly the huge upheavals caused by COVID-19 may affect our efforts to achieve net zero carbon.
Just over a fortnight ago, the price of West Texas crude turned negative for the first time in history. It did so on the eve of Earth Day, the annual celebration of environmental protection.
On one level, it could be argued that COVID-19’s contribution to collapsing energy demand, plummeting oil prices, and record oil production cutbacks is great news for the planet and for the transition to net zero carbon.
Road traffic is back to 1955 levels, air travel is down by 95% and much of the manufacturing industry has been shut down. As a result, the air is cleaner, the carbon footprint has been massively reduced and greenhouse gas emissions have been cut. The problem is that this is not sustainable socially, economically or in health terms.
Rather than being nudged towards net zero, we have been given a hefty shove. With homeworking, videoconferencing, remote medical diagnosis and even virtual parliaments all becoming normalised very quickly, global carbon emissions have dropped drastically.
COVID-19 has shown, in a rather drastic way, that we can make huge changes quickly when we face an existential threat. Suddenly, the Chancellor can make available hundreds of billions of pounds to the pay salaries of millions of furloughed workers, flying in the face of a decade of austerity and welfare cuts.
Catastrophic climate change and global warming remain among our greatest existential threats; but now we know that we have the capacity to act. We have the will to invest massively to make a difference. Such precedents must inform our approach to achieving net zero, particularly in terms of minimising the adverse impact of the transition on vital jobs and livelihoods in the UKCS – something we are all acutely aware of.
COVID-19 is accelerating trends that were already underway in the UKCS. We already had a lean environment as we adapted from the 2015 downturn which gave us hard experience of exactly the kind of project delays, operational disruption and supply chain pressure that we face now.
Technology has allowed all of us to adapt to the lockdown, and technology is the key to emergence from the pandemic threat and achieving net zero carbon.
We have proved that agile is a compelling way of working for the manufacturing industry and not just digital players. As I write, the OGTC is supporting and connecting many energy companies and technology developers who are already adapting their technologies to support the NHS. Their responses range from repurposing facilities and equipment to make PPE and ventilators, to providing diagnostic, detection and isolation capabilities. It has been eye-opening.
Innovations in intelligent data, predictive maintenance, robots for remote asset monitoring, autonomous vessels and wearable technology can keep manning levels safe while increasing efficiencies, reducing costs and achieving greater decarbonisation of the industry.
To give just one example: Total E&P and Taurob have developed the world’s first autonomous robot for visual inspection offshore. It can read dials, gauges and valve positions while navigating pathways and stairs and has the potential to transform offshore inspection. This is one of many innovations we are currently highlighting through our work at the OGTC.
We must kickstart economic growth after the coronavirus-induced recession and be vigilant in delivering our net zero targets. In recovering from this shock to the system we must beware of returning to ‘normal’.
That new normal means prioritising carbon capture, energy storage and renewables while making our remaining hydrocarbon use as sustainable as possible. It also means ensuring that we enter this new era with a flexible and dynamic workforce equipped with the Industry 4.0 skillsets needed across the entire energy sector. What was previously unthinkable has now become desirable and inevitable.
We have already shown that we can embrace technology, radical change, new ways of working and living, while taking it all in our stride. We should be proud of ourselves and have the confidence that, having met the challenges of the virus, we can meet the challenges of the energy transition.