The pressures on the global energy system are unprecedented. Demand is being fuelled by a growing population and economic growth, but powering the world still depends on fossil fuels, and creates two-thirds of global emissions.
Emissions resulting from human activity will need to be at net zero by 2050 to limit global warming, according to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
But last year, global energy-related CO2 emissions rose to the highest level ever.
Added to this is a shifting geopolitical landscape, which has seen the transition to an inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure energy system slow down.
The World Economic Forum’s Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2019 report says: “Three years after the global milestone of political commitment through the Paris Agreement, this lack of progress provides a reality check on the adequacy of ongoing efforts and the scale of the challenge.”
In a bleak reminder of what is at stake if we continue with business as usual, the science journal Nature mapped out four scenarios for the future of energy.
1. Big Green Deal
In this scenario, there’s global agreement on the need to act fast on climate change, with a “Green Climate Fund” designed to help the world move from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives. Green tech companies dominate by 2030.
Geopolitical tension is low because all countries share in the benefits of decarbonisation, while states with large oil and gas industries are compensated for a smooth, sustainable energy transition.
2. Technology Breakthrough
In this scenario, fraught with political tensions, the world splits in two in what the authors describe as “a clean-tech cold war” after a major technological breakthrough.
Competition between nations spikes in the race for renewables, which does mitigate climate change and displace fossil fuels. But some regions lose out, being excluded from this new tech altogether.
3. Dirty Nationalism
In undoubtedly the worst-case scenario, nation-first policies take root around the world. Countries rely on their own energy production, including fossil fuels, slowing the progress towards decarbonisation.
The influence of international organizations is reduced as nations disagree, which effectively kills the Paris Agreement on climate change. Global warming continues, causing conflict over shared resources.
Have you read?
4. Muddling On
In this ‘business as usual’ scenario, fossil fuels are still dominant, and energy transition is too slow to help fight climate change.
“To minimize conflict and maximize equity, states’ policy choices over the next decade will be crucial,” the study’s authors, Andreas Goldthau, Kirsten Westphal and co, wrote in Nature.
“Researchers and decision-makers should widen their focus to examine the implications of such alternative pathways to decarbonization — issues that go well beyond technology.
“Smoothing the road will take multilateral agreements, generous funding and cooperation.”