Changes in the way the world produces and uses energy are underway. As the world’s energy system goes through this transition, collaboration is going to be more important than it has ever been.
Nobody can tell you with certainty how fast these changes will happen, or how deep they will go. It is far too complex for certainty. But there are three things we can be pretty sure of, and on which we can base some assumptions.
The first is that the world’s population will grow from the 7 billion-or-so we have on the planet today. The UN expects that number to exceed 11 billion by the end of the century.
The second is that all these extra people will seek to improve their living standards. That could mean a first car or it could mean a first lightbulb, but all of it will involve the consumption of energy.
If you look at just those two trends together, we can be fairly sure that this transition will take place at the same time as the energy system is roughly doubling in size.
So, the third thing we can see coming, is that the world is going to have to meet rising demand for energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That means a massive expansion of renewables and the use of more natural gas, which produces half the CO2 of coal when burnt for power. And it means much more too.
In fact, the world is going to have to meet rising demand at the same time as it gets to a state called “net zero emissions”. “Net zero” does not mean a world where there are no emissions. It means a world in which those sectors, such as steel making or aviation, that are unable to stop greenhouse gas emissions are offset by other sectors, which are actually taking CO2 out of the environment. Just to be clear, net zero is not a target for Shell, this is a target for the world.
Achieving it will mean using nature to offset emissions. But it will also involve technology, especially carbon capture and storage. More than that, carbon capture and storage will need to be combined with the sustainable use of biomass as a fuel to create a net negative impact on emissions.
In short, the world has to stop adding to the stock of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. “Net zero” is a world in which that has happened. It must get there – the sooner it does the better – but it will still take time.
What happens with transport will be an important part of that shift to a “net zero” world. The sector accounts for more than one quarter of the world’s total energy use and one fifth of global energy-related CO2 emissions. The International Energy Agency estimates that the number of cars on the road is likely to double by 2050.
And tackling CO2 is not the only challenge the world faces or the only thing driving change. When it comes to transport it is also necessary, for example, to deal with other pollutants such as particulates and NOx.
Yet whatever the range of challenges the world faces, from tackling hunger and poverty to providing clean air and water, it must act now on emissions if it is to get to net zero, if it wants to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.
Transport is all about getting from here to there, from A to B. But how do we get transport itself from where we are today, to where it has to be if the world is going to achieve net zero?
First of all, the world needs to make a difference now by improving what it already has. It also needs to make sure that what comes next is a lot better than what we have today, which means focusing on the customer.
What comes next for the customer must be good value and more convenient, as well as lower-carbon. Let’s face it, no consumer has ever switched to an inferior, over-priced product. Would you?
Producing this better, lower carbon, transport system will not be easy or quick.
But before I tell you why, I want to tell you something else.
I am a scientist. Sometimes I think I was born a scientist. And I have a huge amount of faith that science, alongside collaboration and the right investment context, can provide solutions.
And being here, at Imperial, with all these bright young minds, only renews that faith. The work done here, honing the scientists of tomorrow, is invaluable.
On the way there will, of course, be failures, but the youthful flair of Silicon Valley has given to the world the concept of “failing fast”. “Fail fast” but learn, move on, and eventually succeed. So bear with me because, as hard as things look now, I believe the world can get to where it needs to be.
Ok. The first challenge.
The world needs battery electric vehicles but some issues remain to be overcome, such as the availability of critical resources. Take Tesla’s plans to sell 500,000 electric cars a year. Using current technology, the company would need roughly two-thirds of the world’s annual lithium production for their batteries. Supplies of other minerals like cobalt could also come under pressure.
The charging facilities are not quite there yet. We sent some Shell staff out in an electric car in London the other day on a mission to recharge it. They failed. Every post they found was either out of order, needing a different plug to the one they had or was already in use. That’s not the sort of experience that is going to attract customers.
And then there is the grid infrastructure. The environmental think tank Green Alliance put out a report that looked at this a few weeks ago. They concluded that plugging six battery-electric vehicles in the same area at the same time would cause localised power shortages.
The power demand of an electric car means it is not like plugging in an iron or putting on the kettle – it is more like plugging in an extra house.
The world needs battery electric cars but the world isn’t quite ready yet, not even in a country like the UK.
Then there is hydrogen. The world also needs hydrogen. The challenge for transport is well known.
Why would a car manufacturer build a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle when it knows there is nowhere for a customer to refuel it? And why on earth would a fuels retailer invest in a costly network of hydrogen filling stations when it knows there are no cars to use it? Which comes first? The chicken or the egg? The car or the pump?
And what about aviation? Shipping? Or freight? There is no carbon-neutral solution yet for any of these transport needs; none of them are capable of running on electrons.
Please, don’t misunderstand me. As I have already said. This is not an impossible task, I am simply saying it is a serious challenge that will take time to meet, maybe 20 years, possibly 40. It is challenges on this scale that make it such an exciting time to be a scientist.
And I am also seeking to make the point that the world will need many solutions, not one – success is not about picking one winner. Shell’s concept for a retail station in the not-too-distant future, for example, sees conventional fuels being sold alongside hydrogen and expanded facilities for battery-electric vehicle drivers as they wait for a full charge.
So even if the length of the transition journey before us might seem intimidating, we must make it anyway. Even if it is, perhaps, easy to feel lost in a world in which Tesla – which delivered 76,000 cars last year – is considered a more valuable company on the stock markets than Ford – which sold 6.6 million vehicles.
We know where we need to get to, but we have no sat nav to guide us.