“After 250 years of fossil-fuel fired growth, we are finally bumping into planetary limits.” This was among several messages conveyed to delegates who attended Gas Week 2014 in Johannesburg yesterday (Wednesday) by Dave Collins, Associate Director of MAC Consulting, one of South Africa’s leading management consulting groups focused in mining; oil, gas and chemicals; financial services and telecommunications.
Gas is currently receiving a lot of attention globally, but especially in South Africa, where either gas or nuclear, or both, could replace coal as the main generator of electricity.
Collins maintains that gas might, through emissions reduction, be a stepping stone to a global low-carbon economy and still provide the amount of energy needed to support the world’s nine billion increasingly demanding people by 2050.
“But,” he cautioned, “this still won’t be enough to fix the global warming problem, bearing in mind that the current trajectory is for around 4°C by 2100 - and 4°C globally means 6-7°C in Southern Africa”
He noted that the major published energy forecasts and scenarios were on average suggesting an average absolute increase in demand for fossil fuels of 35% by 2040.
Exacerbating the problem is that countries are largely focussing on providing energy security and energy supply right now, with inadequate responses on emissions reductions from energy consumption in the years or decades to come.
He said that fossil fuels currently contributed 68% of anthropogenic emissions by way of coal (28%), oil (25%) and gas (15%), and 82% of global energy supply, broken down into coal (29%), oil (32%) and gas (21%). While the use of fossil fuels was no more than a blip in the greater scheme of human history, the resultant emissions had been enough to exacerbate climate change.
“Demand forecasts and scenarios from organisations like the World Energy Council and the International Energy Agency trigger cause for some alarm.
“There is general agreement internationally that a rise in the average global temperature from anthropogenic warming should not exceed 2°C above pre-industrial times if the risk of runaway climate change is to be avoided. So far, there has been little action to prevent this.”
Collins said that for many reasons, it will take decades to shift significantly away from fossil fuels.
The message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had shifted significantly in the past seven years – from documenting dire impacts to finding solutions that integrate with broader societal challenges.
“Central to this is positioning climate change in a context of other risks, uncertainties and mega-trends such as poverty and social inequality, urbanisation, and the globalisation of food systems.”
The most recent (April 2014) IPCC assessment report is unequivocal about the need to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, although it is positive about using gas in the medium term instead of coal.
“The report maintains that GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced significantly by replacing current world average coal-fired power plants with modern, highly efficient natural gas combined-cycle power plants or combined heat and power plants.”
He noted that in mitigation scenarios, natural gas power generation without Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS) could act as a bridge technology’. However, CCS had not been applied at scale to a large, operational commercial fossil fuel power plant.
“CCS-equipped power plants could be seen in the future if they were incentivised by regulation and if the additional investment and operational costs are compensated by sufficiently high carbon prices (or direct financial support). However increasing the cost of fossil fuel energy will of course make renewables more attractive.”
Collins said that in order to limit global warming to a certain level, only a certain number of tonnes of CO2 could be emitted in future. The Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) had compared this number with the amount of CO2 stored in the reserves of fossil fuels of stock market-listed companies around the world.