The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released its third and final report on climate change.
In a nutshell, the panel believes that unless the world moves rapidly towards dramatically reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere then there is a strong risk that global temperature rises will have an irreversible impact on weather, food production, population movement and so on and so forth.
This report is not very cheerful in terms of its analysis of the dilemma the planet faces but it is extremely optimistic in terms of the human race’s ability to deal with that dilemma.
What I want to do is to consider what impact this might or might not have on the oil and gas industry, not just on the UKCS but globally.
The IPCC claims that the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes were responsible for 78% of total greenhouse gas emissions between 1979 and 2010.
It also says that if we want to ensure global temperatures do not rise by more than 2C above preindustrial levels then we will need to cut emissions by 40% by 2050 and continue to drive emissions down to as close to zero as possible by the end of the century.
This is what I believe young trendy types call “A Big Ask”.
The reaction to the report has of course been fairly predictable. Plenty of calls from a range of usual suspect type sources to immediately stop exploring for hydrocarbons, to run down their production as fast as possible and to move to clean sources of energy as soon as we can.
That’s all well and good but in fact the IPCC itself says that it believes it is entirely possible to keep to the temperature rise below 2C because the cost of clean technologies are falling rapidly and therefore so called “decarbonisation” can take place without damaging living standards.
Now I’d like to make it clear that I agree that global warming and climate change are taking place.
You don’t need to be a climate scientist – and I’m certainly not – to realise something fairly major is going on. You just have to watch the trends in the weather. In this country alone the milder winters, disastrous floods, and a whole series of winter storms are all indicators of change as indeed is the ridiculous fact that there’s a company now growing tea in Cornwall because of the warmer and wetter weather.
So let’s not prevaricate about the truth of the IPCC report rather let’s look at what we can do to mitigate the consequences.
Firstly, I’d like a better understanding of what’s considered to be clean energy. Wind is certainly clean but nuclear – to my mind – is very dirty not because it emits greenhouse gases but because of the radioactive waste it creates and what to do with it.
On the other hand coal can also be clean. Just because we currently do little more than filter out the sulphur and other particulates from the flue gas doesn’t mean we couldn’t clean it up considerably if we applied the right technology such as some form of carbon capture.
Same applies to gas of course. Gas may be cleaner anyway but it certainly isn’t as clean as some would like us to believe although it may be easier to clean up completely.
You see my way of looking at this is that actually none of the hydrocarbon-based energy sources need add to greenhouse gas emissions providing we develop and apply the right technology and the right policies.
Let’s start with policies and let’s look at the simple stuff first. I need someone to explain to me why it is planners still allow developers to build houses that need central heating systems.
Doesn’t matter whether it’s an oil or gas fired boiler or one of those stupidly expensive air or ground source heat pump things they’re still using energy in one form or another.
Yet, it’s perfectly feasible to build houses that require almost no heating at all apart from something like a small wood burning stove for when the weather is extremely cold.
So why not make zero energy houses a legal requirement? In fact, why not make every new building a zero energy design from now on?
One of the most obvious areas where the application of new technology has been a raging success is the automotive industry. In the past 10 years the industry has cut emissions by a quarter.
According one recent report “the UK’s car market has been transformed, from a position where just 0.9% of new cars had an emissions footprint of less than 130g/km in 2000 to a performance last year which saw more than 63% of cars come in below the 130g/km mark. ”
This is astonishing progress and similar although not so dramatic progress is being made with aircraft engines and to a lesser extent even with marine propulsion systems.
Of course, there is also an increasing trend towards using electric, hybrid and even fuel cell vehicles. While the price of these remains relatively high there is a good argument for developing a simple and cheaper electric vehicle for everyday commuting while retaining a conventional low emissions car for longer distance travelling.
Even our friends in Norway build a small electric car called the “Buddy”. It’s not particularly pretty but don’t laugh, they’ve sold over a thousand so far.
So we shouldn’t be too concerned about how the IPCC report will impact on the oil and gas industry but we should be actively encouraging the development of cleaner ways of using it and becoming more involved in the development of the technology that’s needed to make that happen. If we don’t do it then of course others will and indeed some already are.
In fact, in many respects, as a major producer of hydrocarbons we should actually consider clean technology development not just as an economic opportunity but a moral responsibility, shouldn’t we?
Hydrocarbons have a long way to go in Scotland. Even post oil and gas there’s the prospect of large scale offshore coal gasification. That’s an exciting prospect for which clean technologies are a must. Let’s get on with it then.