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What Can Really be Done by 2050?

The calls for action are becoming louder and bolder as the weeks continue to countdown towards COP21 in Paris. Perhaps none have been as bold as the recent call by The B Team for governments to commit to a global goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to embed this in the agreement to be signed at COP21 in Paris.

The B Team is a high profile group of business and civil society leaders, counting amongst its number Richard Branson (Virgin Group of Companies), Paul Polman (CEO of Unilever) and Arianna Huffington (Huffington Post). The team is not just looking at climate change, but the even larger challenge of doing business in the 21st Century; shifting from Plan A which requires business to focus on profit alone, to Plan B which encompasses a more holistic set of objectives around financial performance, sustainability and business as a force for good to help solve challenging social and environmental goals. It is perhaps the next big step forward in what was originally termed “sustainable development”.

Without wanting to question the broader motives of The B Team, I do challenge their view that the climate issue can be resolved in just 35 years. For some this may sound like a long time, but it is the span of just one career. In fact it is the span of my career in the oil and gas industry from when I started work in Geelong Refinery in Australia in 1980. At least in one industry today, IT, everything has changed in that time, but that is not true elsewhere. In 1980 there were no personal computers in Geelong Refinery; today it probably can’t run without them, although the distillers, crackers and oil movement facilities being run by them have hardly changed and in many instances are precisely the same pieces of equipment that were running in 1980. In almost every other industry, the shift has been gradual, perhaps because of the installed base which of course wasn’t an issue for personal computing and mobile telephony. I suspect that this is true in Mr Polman’s own industry (household products) and it is certainly true in Mr Branson’s. In 1980 I flew on my first trip to London on a 747 and today I am in San Francisco, having arrived here on a 747, albeit a slightly longer, more sophisticated, efficient and larger capacity one than the 1980 model, but still a 747 burning many tons of jet fuel to get here. During his time in office which started with the election in 1980, Ronald Reagan replaced the existing Air Force One 707 with a 747 which still flies today but which Mr Obama has just announced will be replaced with a 747-8. Those planes will likely fly for some 30 years, as will all the other planes being built today, with many just entering the beginning of their production runs (787, A350, A380), rather than heading towards the end as we might be with the 747 series. There are also no serious plans for the jet engine to run on anything other than hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future (i.e. 50+ years) and even the attempts to manufacture bio-hydrocarbon jet fuels are still in their commercial infancy.

So why would we think that everything can be different in just 35 years? There is no doubt that to quickly and decisively solve the climate issue and have a better than even chance of keeping the surface temperature rise below 2°C that we need to do this, but that doesn’t mean we can. To start with, there has to be tremendous political will to do so and to be fair, this is clearly what The B Team is trying to foster by making the call. But political will isn’t enough to turn over the installed industrial capacity that we rely on today, let alone replace it with a set of technologies that in some instances don’t exist. The development and deployment of radical new technologies takes decades, with the energy industry able to make that change at about half the rate of the IT industry. Even the latter has needed nearly 50 years to invent (ARPANET in 1969) and extensively deploy the internet.

We are now seeing real progress in the sale of electric cars, but even there the numbers don’t stack up. To completely outpace conventional vehicle manufacture and replace the entire legacy stock of on-road vehicles will take about 50 years, assuming a ramp up of global electric car production of at least 20% p.a. every year until all internal combustion engine manufacturing is phased out. While this might be conceivable for personal transport, the progress on finding an alternative for heavy transport, including ships, is slow.

For medium to heavy industry that relies almost completely on hydrocarbon fuels for high temperature operations in particular, there are no easy alternatives. Electricity could be an option in some instances, but almost all operations today choose coal or natural gas. For smelting, coal is essential as it provides the carbon to act as a reducing agent for the chemical conversion of the ore into a pure metal.

Perhaps the area in which rapid progress will be seen is electricity generation, where a whole range of zero emission technologies exist. These include wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, nuclear and carbon capture and storage. But even with complete success in this one area, we shouldn’t forget that electricity is less than 20% of the current global final energy mix. This will surely rise, but it is unlikely to reach 100% in 35 years given that it has only moved from 11% to 18% the last 35 years.

Shell’s own New Lens Scenarios show that significant progress can be made between now and 2050, but not in terms of a massive reduction in emissions, although that process is clearly underway in the Mountains Scenario by then (see below). Rather, the time to 2050 is largely filled with the early deployment of a range of new energy technologies, which sets the scene for rapid reductions to net-zero emissions over the period 2050-2100. Another critical development for the near-term is a complete global policy framework for carbon pricing. Even assuming big steps are made between now and Paris in even getting this into the agreement, the time for implementation is a factor that must be recognised. With a fast start in Paris, the earliest possible date is 2020 in that this is when the global agreement kicks in, but even the EU ETS took 8 years between initial design and full operation, similarly the CDM alone took over 10 years to fully institutionalize. Expanding full carbon pricing globally in the same period is challenging to say the least.

NLS Emissions to 2100

The aspiration of the B Team is laudable, but not really practical. The Paris agreement should certainly be geared around an end-goal of net-zero emissions but the realistic, albeit still aggressive, time span for this is 80+ years, not 35 years.

David Hone's picture

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Steve K9's picture
Steve K9 on Feb 16, 2015 2:05 pm GMT

High T requirement … liquid metal, and molten salt reactors.  

Beside EV’s, heat pumps are being produced that work at lower and lower temperatures, large ships can also use reactors (safety could be a concern … the US Navy has never had an accident, but commercial shipping is another matter).

Aviation will have to rely on synthetic fuels … molten salt reactors again.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Feb 16, 2015 3:58 pm GMT


I suppose we need to figure out whether there is a tipping point at which our CO2 emissions result in further emissions of CO2 and CH4 from permafrost, drought-baked soil, and forest fires.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 16, 2015 4:22 pm GMT

David, once again this a fairly predictable point of view coming from a fossil fuel company (I’m happy to question Shell’s broader motives in financing this perspective).

You make a rational, well-constructed argument, omitting the critical consideration that humanity faces a global and existential environmental crisis. What we can or can’t do, you claim, should be based upon what’s happened in the recent past. Adjectives like “practical”, “realistic”, “aggressive”, and “challenging” are all defined in that context – one in denial of the significance of what lies before us.

Our potential is largely based on political will, which is indeed enough to turn over our installed industrial capacity (an antecedent would be American industrialization 1938-1945). Shell, like other oil companies, has the resources to adapt its business model to contemporary realities. That your company instead chooses to play the part of Neville Chamberlain preaching “peace in our time” – to sow doubt about the possibiltities in all of us to reach within and face down this threat, and do so in trade for transient profit – is frankly despicable.

The strategy will backfire. It will only steel the resolve of those whose chief goal is to use politics, economics, and any other means at their disposal to marginalize fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Feb 16, 2015 9:22 pm GMT

For medium to heavy industry that relies almost completely on hydrocarbon fuels for high temperature operations in particular, there are no easy alternatives. Electricity could be an option in some instances, but almost all operations today choose coal or natural gas. For smelting, coal is essential as it provides the carbon to act as a reducing agent for the chemical conversion of the ore into a pure metal.”

Note that there is a substantial status quo bias in this part of the essay. That is, we are massively subsidizing coal, oil and natural gas, in the sense that given the catastrophic consequences of burning a majority of existing reserves of all of these fossil fuels, the appropriate cost to charge for emissions is whatever price will suffice to keep a majority of the grease in the ground.

Given that we are already on track to likely over-shoot what we can bring out of the ground and will required some form of sequestration to remove CO2 that we are already on track to emitting, that implies that whichever alternatives are the least cost alternatives to the use of fossil fuels are in fact the least cost available alternatives, since they are lower cost than the choice of not eliminating the use of fossil fuels and therefore accepting the collapse of our current industrial economies.

And so, while the alternatives are hard, they are easier than not turning to the alternatives.

For smelting iron ore, it is clear that a twin track of increased recycling of steel, and with it reliance on arc furnaces that can be powered by renewable electric power, and reliance on sustainable grown biocoal for the smelting of the balance of iron from iron ore, is a lower full-cost alternative to continuing to rely on mineral coal and just accepting that our industrial economies will experience catastrophic climate change in the current century.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 17, 2015 4:21 am GMT

Decarbonizing the energy sector is too hard?  Rather than accept the assessment of Shell Oil Co, here’s a report from the 2014 US Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, put together by a team which included Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (and here is the international version). Their assessment basically asserts that deep decarbonization is quite doable:

The principal finding of this study, conducted using the PATHWAYS and GCAM models, is that it is technically feasible to achieve an 80% greenhouse gas reduction below 1990 levels by 2050 in the United States (U.S.),and that multiple alternative pathways exist to achieve these reductions using existing commercial or near-commercial technologies.

They layout the three pillars that will get us there:

  • Energy efficiency and conservation
  • Low-carbon electricity
  • Fuel Switching

It’s important to understand that bio-energy is very limited and has high environmental impact, so it should not be used at all for electricity or low grade heating (i.e. residential heating for water and space should be all electric or hot-water district heating).  With this constraint, we can make enough bio-methane to power our steel and concrete industries (possibly with supplemental hydrogen).

David makes a good point in noting that electricity is only 20% of final energy consumption.  But it need not stay that way, the US report says “In our four decarbonization cases, the use of electricity and fuels produced from electricity increases from around 20% at present to more than 50% by 2050.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Feb 17, 2015 8:29 am GMT

Mr. Hone’s argument appears to be based entirely on the hidden assumption that nuclear power will never achieve cost-parity with coal, oil and gas. But nuclear power cost is first and foremost a political issue, not a technical issue.

I have spoken in recent years with several top nuclear scientists and nuclear engineers from different countries about cost. Independently, all these fine people tell me (after some discussion) that nuclear power and nuclear power derived synthetic fuels would compete with all energy technologies – easily! – if the design, financing, construction, operation and decommissioning of safe and reliable nuclear power facilities was based solely on scientifically valid considerations, as opposed to politically motivated tortured appeasement of gross anti-nuclear propaganda.

Nuclear power would be a safe, competitive and inexhaustible source of energy for every soul on the planet, forever!

Nuclear engineers tell me that nuclear power implementation approached in this rational way could plausibly eliminate fossil co2 emissions entirely – without subsidy – from the entire world within 40 years!

The question I believe is how to make sure that our politics around nuclear get in line with scientific realities. That is the challenge we face concerning the solution of climate change in our time. Everything else is merely smoke and mirrors. I suspect that Mr. Hone could agree that this is in fact the situation.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Feb 17, 2015 9:19 am GMT


I do not think the premise is that it is too hard but rather unlikely. Consider the link you posted. Is any of that actually happening at the rate it needs to according to the report to get to 80%? Also how feasible is it? From the report itself

“These cost estimates are uncertain”

Yet they feel the need to say there is not technical barriers. While this is correct in a book, I as an engineer need both cost, technical and saafety aspects to work out. 

For example by 2020 it is saying that light duty gasoline vehicles sales will have peaked and will then rapidly decline. Feasible maybe but not likely?

It is also calling for a tCO2 emissions per person of 1.7. Mine is currently around 4-5 give or take the accounting method. I ahve looked at this and can see a path down to 2.3 by 2050 but not below. I am already using 1/3rd of the UK electricity avarage, no natural gas and do not drive except in car pool. Feasible maybe but not likely?


Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Feb 17, 2015 2:25 pm GMT

Such a tipping point can only be confirmed in hindsight.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 18, 2015 3:30 am GMT

Oh, in that case the article is fine; it’s just posted to the wrong blog.  Instead of a blog billed as “The world’s best thinkers on energy & climate“, it should be targeted at fossil fuel investors.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Feb 18, 2015 8:40 am GMT


Your subsequent comment makes even less sense. You posted a link with a specific claim and I asked you if the requirements of this link to meet the claim of decarbonisation were being met. I take it by your response that the needs are not being met? Which means that the report linked to is more best intensions and not actual reality. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 18, 2015 3:51 pm GMT

EP, so true and a cogent argument for application of the precautionary principle.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Feb 19, 2015 2:15 am GMT

Joris – 

I think it is understood that, given unshackled nuclear power, hydrogen is easily and cost effectively produced.  Tne point of the article is that hydrocarbons are necessary given the lifetime of existing air,ship and ground vehicle fleets,  other reasons aside.   So, when you (or your knowledgeable sources) say,

that nuclear power and nuclear power derived synthetic fuels would compete with all energy technologies – easily!”

what is the source of the carbon for the synthetic fuels?  Because carbon is not easily and cost effectively produced on sufficient scale if not pulled out of fossil fuels.  The Deep Decarbonization Pathways report referenced by Nathan Wilson does indeed have a “High Nuclear” scenario, but in that scenario the fuel is hydrogen, not hydrocarbons.  Even assuming the hydrogen distribution issues are all resolved, the transportation fleet does not turn over fast enough to introduce hydrogen in the timeline used in Hone’s article. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 19, 2015 3:28 am GMT

My point was that as environmentalist, we should be seeking ways to change the path we are on.  I’ll grant that David’s post is a reasonable description of the current path, but the Deep Decarbonization Project reports are much better description for the path we should be working towards.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Feb 19, 2015 9:12 am GMT

Ok better response. However there is the problem in a nutshell; should be on. I think David’s view is actually closer to what is happening and that is where you have to start the basis.

Far too often we see reports of could do’s but not actual performance. For example the drop in emissions in the EU is laudible. However from ~1996 to now the largest drop for most industralised nations was due to the recession. Thus the Eu targets ahve become easy through damn luck and not any decarbonisation pathway. 

Thus pundits applaud Germany and ignore France for example. Becasue their basis is more akin to a possible pathway than to an actual reality. Germany is a possible pathway to carbon reductions. 

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Feb 19, 2015 9:19 am GMT

For smelting iron ore, it is clear that a twin track of increased recycling of steel, and with it reliance on arc furnaces that can be powered by renewable electric power, and reliance on sustainable grown biocoal for the smelting of the balance of iron from iron ore, is a lower full-cost alternative to continuing to rely on mineral coal and just accepting that our industrial economies will experience catastrophic climate change in the current century.”

Agreed on the recycling part and the rates are too low. However you will find that EAF’s are never cited beside expensive electricity sources or if they find that they are, they are going month to month with regard to cost. In reality for renewable energy this means hydropower and nothing else. Even then not all EAF metal is suitable for all applications.

With regard to biocoal, it is biocoke you want. Biocoke from biomass is a well-known technology and most blast furnaces in the world are not compatible with it. There are some Brazilian furnaces running on it. However biocoke is weaker than coal coke so the furnaces are much smaller with less production capacity. USS had a research stream into a modified system (carbonyx) but unfortunately this for all intensive purposes, has been shelved. Biocoke is thus not a viable alternative.


Every steel association that I know project that blast furnaces will still be around at the end of the century. 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Feb 24, 2015 8:27 am GMT

The issue of feedstock for synthetic liquids comes up a lot on TEC, as it should.


My take is that seawater is probably the least-cost source of carbon for producing carbon-based liquids.

Alternatively, nitrogen-based liquids like ammonia could be used in place of hydrocarbons to fuel internal combustion engines. Nitrogen is very easily obtained directly from the atmosphere.

If nuclear power is enabled to produce cheap electricity and heat from efficient fission (breeder reactors), nitrogen or seawater carbon based synthetic fuels would become inexhaustible and competitive with much of  crude oil-based liquids (but  not all, since there is still a lot of cheap crude in reserves with which nothing can concievably compete).

As such, nuclear power – if enabled (i.e. unshackled from the heavy chains of propaganda-inspired regulatory ratcheting) – would be able to compete without subsidy with virtually all electricity demand, virtually all heat demand, and a significant part of liquid fuel demand. It would be enough to render most fossil fuel reserves uneconomic, which is the only credible way to keep them in the ground forever, thereby solving climate change.

Grace Adams's picture
Grace Adams on Nov 4, 2015 7:50 pm GMT

It is already technically feasible to capture CO2 from ambient air–either feed to algae or stuff down a enhanced geothermal system well. How about a tax on energy regardless of carbon footprint–10% of revenue to electric utilties to write off noncollectable receivables from selling power to the poor, 90% to buy fossil fuel reserves as mineral rights to keep it in the ground. That should go a way towards solving the politcal problem, which should make the rest of the problem easier to solve. It strikes me that methane and hydrogen are similar enough to almost share the same infrastructure.

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