Solar power and natural gas will grow rapidly in the next few decades, if new scenarios from global energy giant Shell prove accurate.
And as the technology to capture carbon from the burning fossil fuels reaches scale, and sources of clean energy grow, net carbon emissions could drop to zero by 2100.
Even so, it will be hard, if not impossible, to meet the goal set by the world's governments of holding the average increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees centigrade.
In Washington on Thursday, Royal Dutch Shell's chief executive, Peter Voser, and Jeremy Bentham, the head of Shell's scenarios team, unveiled a pair of "New Lens" scenarios, dubbed "oceans" and "mountains," and available in much greater detail here. In essence (and it's more complicated than this), the "mountains" scenario envisions a strong role for government and coordinated global policy, while the "oceans" scenario sees dispersed power, greater volatility, a stronger role for markets and rapid economic growth. Shell has been generating scenarios for about 40 years, to help guide the company's long-term planning as well as influence policy makers.
Underlying both scenarios, though, are assumptions about the world's increasing population and economic growth that together will drive demand for energy by about 80 percent by 2050. That rising demand is all but unavoidable, Bentham said, even assuming strong policies to promote efficiency or high energy prices that discourage consumption.
Meeting that demand for energy, while reducing carbon emissions dramatically, will be extremely difficult, to say the least, the Shell executives said.
"At current trends," Voser said, greenhouse gas emissions "will far exceed what is widely to believed the upper limits for climate change."
Shell's two scenarios generate different energy mixes for the future. The policy-driven "mountains" analysis leads to a shift from oil and coal, which are the world's biggest energy sources today, to natural gas. The company says:
New policies unlock plentiful natural gas resources -- making it the largest global energy source by the 2030s -- and accelerate carbon capture and storage technology, supporting a cleaner energy system.
Next page: Predicting the future
The more chaotic "oceans" scenario has less regulation, higher cumulative emissions and higher energy prices. The company says:
Market forces rather than policies shape the energy system: oil and coal remain part of the energy mix but renewable energy also grows. By the 2060s solar becomes the world's largest energy source.
But Bentham said that "neither scenario is able to meet the 2 degree" target agreed to during U.N. climate negotiations by the world's governments, including the U.S. "That's one of the troubling features in the work," he said.
The report says, in a section called "Reflections on development and sustainability":
One conclusion that can be drawn from the New Lens Scenarios is that substantive change will not come about by itself -- as a result of pricing signals or policy responses delayed until crises become apparent. A positive outcome requires a series of proactive, far-sighted and coordinated national and international policy developments that, to date, seem beyond the bounds of plausibility.
Then again, as Yogi Berra may or may not have said: Predictions are hard, especially about the future. Shell didn't see the global financial crisis coming in its last scenario, and either political organizing or technology breakthroughs could affect the climate-change equation, in unforeseeable ways.
So what is Shell doing about all this? The company has invested in biofuels and advocated strongly for technology to capture and store CO2 emitted from power plants. In the policy arena, unlike other fossil-fuel giants, Shell supports greenhouse gas regulation. The company says: "Government action is needed and we support an international framework that puts a price on CO2, encouraging the use of all CO2-reducing technologies."
Said Bentham: "It's not a question of clean fossil fuels or green renewables. It's clean and green."
[Shell is currently updating its scenarios website and when it does, I'll post a couple of relevant charts on energy mix and CO2 emissions scenarios. Disclosure: In 2011 and 2012, I was paid by Shell to moderate events on the environment in Houston.]