9 December 2019

The energy transition

Beyond carbon?

We have to get to net zero soon. The question is how

By Giles Whittell

BP on Tour Podcast

“The world is on an unsustainable path… We have to rethink how this all works… We have to change or we won’t exist in 20 to 30 years.”

This could have been the UN Secretary-General at the opening of the COP25 conference in Madrid. In fact it was Peter Mather, head of BP in the UK and Europe, at Aston University for a Tortoise ThinkIn.

The event was the first of three to focus on the question of whether we should stop using fossil fuels altogether. The consensus answer was yes – in principle. As Professor Hongming Xu put it, we’d stop using them tonight if it was possible. But what is possible in the real world, where 7.7 billion people and counting need energy to live and feed and clothe themselves?

There was broad recognition that the rich North has no business telling the “Global South” how much energy its people are entitled to. There was less support for the view that there has to be a linear correlation between energy use and human development. Several speakers said the UK has shown that link can be broken. Others said rich countries have to find ways to help poorer ones leapfrog “dirty” industrialisation.

But how? How to bridge the gap between where we are and where we need to be? Solid, serious ideas were not in short supply, albeit tested in think tanks and academia rather than the laboratory of human experience.

Price carbon properly. End fossil fuel subsidies. Insist on tougher regulation of oil and gas companies. Use investor pressure to persuade those companies to divest from fossil fuels and reinvent themselves as clean energy suppliers and distributors. Mather offered an example: DONG, the Danish Oil and Natural Gas company, has become Orsted, a wind power behemoth. Could that become a template for the industry?

For many, nothing less will do. This has been the year of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. All three sessions were well-attended by XR. At each one there was a tension between the desire on the part of radicals in the room to register a protest, and the instinct to engage in constructive conversation.

“Fear doesn’t help people make decisions”

Engagement won. The level of agreement reached between people who walked into the ThinkIns fearing a shouting match, or expecting one, was striking. No one disputed that big change is needed in how we harness and distribute energy. We need a moonshot worthy of Kennedy. The question still unanswered at the end was where the push for change will come from – people, businesses or government? We could only guess, and the best guess is all three.

Aston University 

It seemed appropriate to kick off our tour in one of Britain’s most forward-looking universities with some bold futurology. It went roughly like this:

The key to ending our reliance on fossil fuels is to make renewable energy cheaper. And the way to do that is to make fossil fuels more expensive.

Professor Robert Steinberger-Wilckens is a fuel cell expert whose vision of a green energy future rests on mass production of hydrogen by electrolysis of water with power from renewable sources. It’s a stirring vision, but is it realistic? If carbon were priced appropriately, he said, it would make green energy the cheapest available.

Carbon at, say, $75 per tonne could also put legacy oil and gas companies out of business if the transition were too sudden.

Mather made the case for a more gradual shift – for the decarbonisation of oil and gas with large-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS). He reminded us that £1 in £12 in most people’s private pensions is invested in BP, so we all have a stake in its stability. That said, increasing pressure from investors for more sustainability is one of many reasons net zero carbon emissions by 2050 – the official UK target – is not just ambitious but achievable.

Cue scepticism from students and activists in the room.

The 2050 target is too late, they said. On current trends we’re looking at 3.2 degrees of warming this century, far more than the IPCC considers safe. According to the “Hothouse Earth” study runaway climate change could already be inevitable, and experience shows that companies like BP can’t or won’t react fast enough if left to themselves.

Not everyone blamed Big Oil. We’re all “addicted to perpetual growth,” said James McMullon, 22, a journalism student from Sheffield who wants companies like BP to do more to change people’s minds.

On that front, actions will surely speak louder than words. At the start of the session Mather invoked the “dual challenge” that frames BP’s approach to the climate change debate – the twin goals of lowering emissions while increasing energy supply. Many in the room weren’t buying it. Anna from XR asked how the company can talk about a dual challenge while 97 per cent of its investment continues to go towards oil and gas extraction and only 3 towards renewables.

Much of BP’s investment in solar, for example, is in fact off balance sheet – but another XR member said she found the fact of the company making a profitable investment in renewables “disgusting”. She clarified afterwards that she supported any expansion of renewable capacity. It was the appearance of profiting off a crisis BP helped to create that she found troubling.

Was there any sympathy for BP’s position? Perhaps. Breno, with a PhD in sustainability, warned against the unforeseen consequences of an unplanned transition to net zero. The poorest could be hit hardest. Steinberger-Wilckens had the last word: “You can blame the companies or ignore the problem,” he said. “But at the end of the day it’s the consumers’ decision, and people tend to choose what’s cheapest.”

Warwick University 

Twenty-one miles from Aston, Warwick University is home to a radical and vocal student union – and to the BP Archive. We had been told a confrontation of some sort was possible. There was certainly a clash of views, but it didn’t trouble security.

Todd Olive, editor of the Warwick student sustainability newspaper, said BP had been responsible for more than 2.5 per cent of global carbon emissions since 1965. More generally, he said there was no excuse for rich northern countries failing to decarbonise.

On the need to decarbonise, Peter Mather broadly agreed. Climate change is the defining issue of our era, he said, and BP sounded the alarm before its rivals. He drew attention to a speech at Stanford University by the company’s former CEO, Lord Browne, in 1997. That was the start of the company’s effort to go “beyond petroleum,” based on an expectation of carbon pricing that did not materialise. “We need a return on our investments,” he acknowledged with an eye on the past.

With an eye to the future he highlighted BP’s hopes for carbon pricing – which will impact any oil firm’s bottom line – in combination with large-scale CCUS, which is essential in practice for the use of hydrocarbons in a net zero carbon economy.

XR and “Occupy Warwick” – a radical student collective – were well-represented. Their chief concerns were, respectively, BP’s record as an emitter and its long history in developing countries during and after colonialism.

Felix Englisch, from XR (and Germany), conceded that Lord Browne had been progressive. Since then, he said, “it’s all been greenwash”. Students from Occupy Warwick accused BP of complicity in violent 20th century struggles in Colombia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq.

There was a sense at some points of conversations running in parallel, doomed never to intersect. At others, well-aimed facts and smart ideas hit home with at least some of the audience. Chris Goodall, writer of the Carbon Commentary, questioned the wisdom of a $10.5 billion investment by BP in North American shale oil last year. Rebecca Advani, from the Transport Systems Catapult in Milton Keynes, mapped out low-carbon futures for HGVs (bigger, better batteries and overhead power lines) and shipping (ammonia from hydrogen instead of highly polluting bunker oil).

The most telling moment of this ThinkIn came after it ended. Five Warwick XR members stayed behind for half an hour to talk more with Peter Mather. It would probably be an exaggeration to say their world views edged closer to each other in the process, but on one thing all agreed. The conversation had been worthwhile.

Manchester Metropolitan University 

Five minutes into the third and final ThinkIn of this series, Zoe Cohen, a former coach and full-time XR activist from Manchester, warned that she might not be able to say what she wanted to without crying. Through tears, she said: “This conversation is committing the next generation to an early death.” She implored everyone to “tell the truth” and to lobby their MPs to do the same. By “the truth” she said she meant “the full extent of the science”, including a recent paper in Nature warning that several tipping points on the way to uncontrolled global warming may already have been passed.

Her anguish and sincerity were plain to see. They set the tone. They were a personal challenge to many in the room, including Kathrina Mannion, BP’s director of environmental policy.

An ecologist by training, Mannion said she started her career as an idealist, becoming a realist while working in government. She said she hoped to be “part of the solution to the climate challenge”, but did not attempt to put a gloss on it. She was deeply depressed, she said, by the latest UN Environment Programme report, which calls for a five-fold increase in governments’ ambition on climate.

What followed was a conversation that went beyond those of the previous two evenings by going beyond BP’s role and reputation. It covered the language of the climate debate, which Daniel Johnson, a history student, said had become, in XR’s megaphone, too apocalyptic. “Fear doesn’t help people make decisions,” he said.

It covered practicalities, including climate-related challenges and opportunities for local authorities such as how to persuade householders to move out for energy efficiency retrofitting, or to reorganise their finances to lease an electric car. It covered the need for activists, teachers and businesses to focus on positives as well as warnings – such as the jobs and improved air quality that will come with decarbonisation. And it came back in the end to human nature: our tendency as humans to boil complex issues down to (false) binary choices and, more specifically, to limit understanding of climate change by defining it too narrowly.

When it was over, Zoe and Kathrina exchanged contact details. It felt like progress.

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Further reading

Chris Goodall, a speaker at the Warwick ThinkIn, writes the Carbon Commentary blog on all aspects of the transition to net zero, from tree-planting to renewably-sourced hydrogen.

BP’s annual statistical review of world energy is a dispassionate and often alarming compendium of facts about the recent past rather than projections about the future.

For a hard-hitting Oxford academic’s view of the future of fossil fuels, try Dieter Helm’s Burn Out (2017). The title gives a flavour of the argument.