Urging action to fight climate change
The world’s growing population will need all the energy it can get. Fossil fuels must play a role, but burning them releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Shell’s Chief Climate Change Adviser David Hone describes the challenge of bringing man-made emissions down to zero, the options on the table, and what will happen if the world fails to act.
The climate is changing and human activity appears to be to blame, yet people still question the scientific evidence. Why do you think that is? Can there be any doubt?
There is no doubt. This is basic physics and chemistry that has been known for 150 years. The relationship between the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and the surface temperature of the planet was established by the physicist John Tyndall in 1864 and the physical chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896.
I think that people argue about the science because it has huge implications for the way we live our lives. That’s what people are struggling to come to grips with, and perhaps it’s human nature to question the science rather than look for solutions.
Fossil fuels, land use change, and the manufacture of cement have contributed to the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere. Coal has been a huge factor because even though it produces nearly twice as much CO2 as natural gas it is still being burnt in increasing quantities because it is abundant and cheap.
Many scientists believe the effects will be hard to manage if society fails to keep global temperature rises below 2°C compared to the pre-industrial era. Can we succeed?
The problem is the total amount of carbon that accumulates in our atmosphere over time. To simply reduce the rate of emissions isn’t good enough because the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere will still rise. Man-made emissions must fall to nearly zero and that’s tremendously difficult to achieve.
Shell’s future energy scenarios don’t see the 2°C objective being met. However, they do suggest that you can bring emissions down to nearly zero within this century and effectively stop the further build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere.
What lies ahead if people don’t deal effectively with the problem?
The one thing we will collectively regret most is that sea levels will just keep on rising.
Many people don’t realise that the climate system is very sensitive and that small changes in global temperature have very big impacts on sea levels. For example, during the last ice age when global temperatures dropped by only 4-5°C, sea levels fell by 135 metres.
It’s unlikely to affect anyone in their own lifetime, but in the lifetime of cities like London, New York, Mumbai and Shanghai it is something to think about. Sea level rises could submerge some island nations, flood heavily populated coastal areas of many countries, and even force entire cities to move to higher ground.
Small changes in global temperature can have large impacts on sea levels
How can the growing population get the energy it needs while cutting CO2 in the atmosphere?
We must have a global system that attaches a material cost to emissions of CO2, so that everyone is driven to cut them. We need widespread use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to safely contain emissions from fossil fuel plants under the ground for the long-term, and we need more low-carbon energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear.
Using natural gas instead of coal can significantly reduce emissions from the power sector and adding CCS to gas plants can cut emissions by 90%. CCS offers a safe path forward but it is also more expensive and technically challenging, especially for emerging economies.
Together, we need to find ways of making CCS more attractive to developing countries, in particular. It all comes back to having strong carbon prices to encourage these vital investments.
Whatever solutions society adopts, it is probably going to be more expensive to build an energy system with no emissions than one with emissions. That’s a hard fact but a difficult fact for many people to accept.
What role can renewables and nuclear power play?
You simply can’t make ends meet without them. You need them just to keep up with the expected surge in global energy demand this century, even if you aren’t worried about climate change.
But society is not in the situation yet where building more renewable energy capacity is making coal plants redundant, because we still need both to meet demand. So to keep using fossil fuels with reduced environmental impact you have to develop CCS quickly and economically.
What is Shell doing in CCS?
I think we have made tremendous progress in this field. We have a project called Quest for our oil sands operations in Canada, which is designed to store up to one million tonnes of CO2 a year. We also have a project with Chevron under construction at the Gorgon gas field in Australia.
Unfortunately, it’s not something we can deploy widely yet because the policies aren’t in place to make it economic. That’s why strong carbon prices are vital, to make CCS projects economically viable.
Shell’s Quest carbon capture and storage project is under construction at the Scotford upgrader facility in Canada’s oil sands. It is designed to store one million tonnes of CO2 per year.
Do you feel more optimistic about a solution than when you started advising Shell on climate issues?
Twelve years ago, when I began working on the climate change issue at Shell, I didn’t think the pieces of the puzzle were all there. Today they are, but it needs some real political leadership on a global scale to put them together.
Business can’t solve the climate problem on its own. I think it’s the role of companies like Shell – which has been a strong advocate of the core solutions since the late 1990s – to help identify possible solutions for policy makers.
Was any progress made during the UN summit on climate change in New York in September 2014?
Twelve months ago proponents of carbon pricing were struggling to be heard, despite it being critical to long term success in managing emissions.
The UN summit brought all the key players to New York and allowed the key issue of carbon pricing, in particular, to gain new impetus.
Hopefully that momentum can be maintained and carbon pricing will form an important part of discussions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015.
David Hone spoke to Dan Fineren in October 2014
Lower carbon, higher energy
"I believe that global companies like Shell have a responsibility to society to speak up. To inject pragmatism into a discussion which is too often shaped by misinformation and conjecture."Ben van Beurden, Shell CEO
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