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Climate change: the devil isn't in the detail but many key issues are

Christian petroleum geologist Nick Holloway urges believers to swot up on energy and climate change

Energy use and climate change has long been a contentious topic, hotly debated by individuals and groups who, by and large, want to care for people and the wider natural world, before it’s too late. But, it is a complicated story of moving parts, so Evangelical Alliance member Nick Holloway, who has served for 47 years as a petroleum geologist in the oil and gas exploration, production and related businesses, explains the technical details, challenges and opportunities, in a bid to build a clearer picture which arms Christians with insight as they steward all that God has created.

It was announced recently that summer 2018 has been the warmest on record in England. Weather and climate are not equivalent, so weather extremes do not necessarily indicate climate change. But, in this case, meteorologists state that this summer’s heat supports evidence of a long-term warming trend. So, I for one, believe that human-induced climate change is a real phenomenon – a view also shared by such an august and feet-on-the-ground’ publication as The Economist.

It is vital that, as Christians, we step back from emotionally charged debate and consider first what the Bible has to say about how mankind should manage the planet and look a few facts. Genesis 1, verses 26 – 30, describes God’s creation of mankind and the giving to him of stewardship and lordship over the earth. Although the passage refers only to plants, animals and fish, I believe it must be taken as referring to all the earth’s natural resources, including fossil fuels. 

Fossil fuels must therefore be taken as part of God’s blessing to mankind. Without them, the world’s technology and wealth could not have moved much beyond what they were in the early 18th century. Nevertheless, as with so many of God’s blessings, mankind has an unfortunate ability to overuse and over exploit those blessings. There is no question that the coal and petroleum industries have been at times driven by greed, money and lust for power. However, the industries have also brought massive benefits and advancements in science and technology. I contend, therefore, that the various fossil fuel industries have been much more of a blessing than a curse and should in no way be considered as the villains of the industrial world. 

To gather some critical facts, I have made extensive use of BP’s 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy and its companion Energy Outlook for 2018, which looks at anticipated trends in world energy demand and production between now and 2040. Before you dismiss this material as one of the oil industry big beasts pushing its own propaganda, I make two comments. Firstly, BP uses not only its own analysis but several other independent sources to help shape its long-term business strategy; it cannot afford to deceive itself and its shareholders. Secondly, BP’s prediction for the percentage use of renewable energy in the 2040 power generation energy mix is amongst the most bullish of several sources. 

In the introduction to the Energy Outlook, Bob Dudley, BP’s CEO, says: The third, and most important, takeaway for me is the need for more downward pressure on carbon emissions. The Outlook’s Evolving Transition scenario (the base case scenario) suggests that a continuation of the recent progress and momentum in policies and technologies is likely to cause the growth in carbon emissions to slow markedly relative to the past. But this slowing falls well short of the sharp drop in carbon emissions thought necessary to achieve the Paris climate goals. We need a far more decisive break from the past.” Dudley goes on: There is no silver bullet that will achieve this break: as the Outlook shows, policies focused on specific fuels or technologies are unlikely to be sufficient on their own.” 

Renewables – only part of the solution

So, why can’t we just switch to renewables for all our needs? By far the greatest growth in the overall global energy consumption is in the power sector. About 70 per cent of energy growth by 2040 is accounted for by this, as the developing world continues to electrify. Only in the last few years has renewable power generation (solar and wind – hydro has obvious geographical and environmental limitations) become commercially competitive with fossil fuels, owing to huge falls in the cost of manufacturing solar cells and massive improvements in wind turbine technology. Nevertheless, BP’s Evolving Transition’ (ET) scenario (based in the assumption that government policies, technology and social preferences continue to evolve as in the recent past), indicates that about 20 per cent of power generation will be from wind and solar by 2040. But critically, both these power sources are intermittent. Battery technology has yet to reach the stage where the necessary amount of power can be stored economically to maintain baseload power supply. Fossil fuels will still be required for many years to supply reliable baseload.

What about nuclear?

What of nuclear? This is another very emotional topic. Nuclear power generation has been around for more than 60 years, and the world now generates just over 10 per cent of its electricity from nuclear from hundreds of plants. The horror of a full-blown nuclear disaster is cataclysmic, but they are incredibly rare. In fact, there have been only three: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. For many years France has produced about 75 per cent of its electricity requirements from nuclear plants. Several of these are in northern France within easy wind shot’ of Britain. Do we lose sleep at night worrying about these? 

It is vital that, as Christians, we step back from emotionally charged debate and consider first what the Bible has to say about how mankind should manage the planet and look a few facts.

When Germany decided to run down all its nuclear plants as a kneejerk reaction to the Fukushima disaster, it massively increased its coal imports from the US. In 2017, Germany produced 37 per cent of its electricity from coal and is by far Europe’s largest coal consumer, much is dirty, inferior lignite coal. Germany is also downwind of several of France’s nuclear plants located along the Rhine where the river forms the boundary. So, Germany is in no way protected from any incident which might occur in France.

So, I don’t believe safety is the key issue with nuclear. It’s all about the economics. The new Hinkley Point plant, currently under construction in Somerset, requires a massive, effective electricity price subsidy to be commercially viable. While small, modular nuclear plants, sometimes for off-grid generation (for example in parts of India and Africa), may be a viable option, nuclear is unlikely to help much in reducing carbon emissions. Indeed, BP sees the share of nuclear in power generation declining a little by 2040.

According BP’s ET scenario, about 50 per cent of power generation will still be from fossil fuels by 2040, of which over half will be from coal, a negligible amount from oil, and the rest from natural gas. Coal is by far the most polluting and carbon intensive of all fossil fuels. Not only is it the most carbon intensive, but it also produces all sorts of other impurities and harmful particulates. Although some of these can be mitigated by scrubbing’ flue gases, this is very expensive and often not economic.

On the other hand, natural gas burns cleanly, doesn’t produce particulates, and generates much of its energy from conversion of hydrogen to water. Displacing coal with gas in power generation is the biggest single win in reducing carbon emissions. It’s also the most easily and painlessly achieved were it not for the politics (subject of a future article). 

Globally, the fastest-growing power markets to 2040 are India and China. According to BP, growth in India will outstrip China’s during the study period. China has already made strides in converting from coal to gas and is politically committed to continuing this trend. However, its coal consumption will remain huge (about 38 per cent of power generation). India’s commitment to displace coal is much weaker and is expected still to be producing nearly 70 per cent of its power from coal in 2040.

Energy consumption drivers

So, what about energy consumption other than directly for power generation? This will account for account for a little over 50 per cent of total energy demand by 2040, according to BP’s ET scenario. Surprisingly, more than half of this will be consumed in buildings for heating and air-conditioning (AC). About 40 per cent will be for transport, and the remainder for non-combustible uses such as lubricants, petrochemicals and fertilisers, etc. The fastest growth is expected to be in the buildings and non-combustible sectors.

By far the greatest proportion of new building over the next 20 years is expected to be in developing nations, most of which are in hot climate areas where the demand will be more for AC than heating. This will be provided by electricity, so there is overlap here with the power generation discussion. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, described air-conditioning as perhaps one of the signal inventions of history”. To quote The Economist, it has transformed productivity in the tropics and helped turn southern China into the workshop of the world.”

The horror of a full-blown nuclear disaster is cataclysmic, but they are incredibly rare.

The Economist pointed out (25 August 2018) that AC has unfortunate environmental effects; cooling buildings warms the earth. But nevertheless, there is huge potential for improving AC efficiency thereby reducing carbon emissions. The newspaper notes that this is one of the least studied aspects of energy consumption but one of the biggest potential wins for greenhouse gas reduction. Combining greater efficiency in AC plants with maintaining somewhat higher temperatures in cooled buildings would further enhance the impact. Again, political will is required to make it happen.

Transport often gets the most publicity but is much less important than power generation. Growth in energy consumption in this sector is relatively modest to 2040, according to BP’s ET scenario, and this includes an increasing proportion of electric vehicles. However, the BP study calculates that even if a ban on new internal combustion engine private cars after 2040 is broadly introduced, the impact on total carbon emissions is relatively minor. Conversions of HGVs from diesel to liquified natural gas (LNG) would have a bigger impact, as would conversion of marine propulsion from heavy diesel (also rich in contaminants and particulates) to LNG

Increasing the content of biofuels in road fuels is a mixed blessing. Only in Brazil, where biofuel is generated from sugar cane, is biofuel production commercially viable. In North America, it is mostly produced from maize, which is inefficient and increases the overall level of agriculture with its attendant carbon emissions associated with fertiliser manufacture. It also has to be heavily subsidised.

Aviation is probably the most resistant to conversion from fossil fuel, where the very high energy density of jet fuel is critical in minimising weight. Research is taking place on introducing electric propulsion, but there are legion technical hurdles to be overcome and commercial application is probably many decades out.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, the biggest single gain in carbon emissions in the short- to medium-term is through displacement of coal by natural gas in power generation. Without a much faster transition than is currently likely, carbon emissions are likely to continue to grow, albeit more slowly, to 2040. This is totally incompatible with carbon emissions reduction required for the 2015 climate change agreement. While much can be done at the margins by individuals (I shall return to this topic in a future article), the biggest carbon emitters remain the US, China and India. In the US, the abundance of shale gas production through fracking and other technologies has allowed the US energy market to drive displacement of coal by natural gas on a huge scale, such that the US has greatly reduced its carbon emissions in the last decade. Current US government policy towards climate change and promotion of coal is highly counter-productive.

Nevertheless, the biggest potential beneficial impact of all is though coal displacement in China and especially India. The politics of this is also complex, and I also look at this in a future article. Should we continue to explore for oil and gas? We still have enormous reserves of both, particularly gas, so we are very unlikely to run out. There is an argument that quite a lot of these reserves may never be produced for climate change reasons, but, from the foregoing discussion, I do not believe this is the place to start. For non-combustible uses, power generation and aviation, oil and gas will be needed for decades to come. We also need to recognise that much of the world’s existing reserves are to be found in countries which are not necessarily the most reliable partners for consumer nations.

Nick Holloway worked throughout his 47-year career as a petroleum geologist in the oil and gas exploration, production and related businesses. He holds a degree in Natural Sciences from Emmanuel College Cambridge. 

Photo by Thomas Hafeneth on Unsplash.

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