COP21 and the Age of Gas

by Jon Mainwaring, Senior Editor, EMEA 

Whether you believe Mankind is having a significant effect on the planet’s climate or not, the recent COP21 meeting in Paris showed that many governments and other powerful institutions are convinced that our increasing use of carbon-based fuels since the Industrial Revolution is a major factor behind global warming. The meeting saw the world’s governments agree to cut carbon emissions in order to try to hold global warming to below two degrees centigrade.

Hailed by environmentalists around the world as a step in the right direction, oil and gas producers also welcomed the COP21 agreement. The International Association of Oil & Gas Producers said the agreement was consistent with its policy on climate change, “which recognizes the inherent risks of greenhouse gas emissions”, and made the point that “burning natural gas for power generation is a pragmatic and efficient way to reduce … emissions”.

The IOGP went on to state that oil will also remain essential for the foreseeable future because it has no practical rivals in three crucial applications: lubricants, feedstock for products such as fertilizers and as a transport fuel (particularly in aviation).

In the UK, the last Labour government’s 2008 Climate Change Act committed the country to reducing its carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 when compared to the country’s 1990 carbon emissions. The COP21 agreement should see developed countries around the world attempt to achieve a similar scale of carbon emissions reduction while developing nations will also have to be careful about the growth in their emissions if they are to abide by the agreement.

But this seems like a tall order. Although one should never underestimate human beings’ ingenuity when it comes to technological development – perhaps we may be able develop sufficient reliable, on-demand energy sources that emit no carbon gases by 2050 – projected economic development in what were once regarded as Third World countries suggests that fossil fuel usage by mid-century could well be far greater than what they use today.

Out of curiosity I recently tried out an online “carbon footprint calculator” operated by the WWF. A rather rough-and-ready tool, it involves spending five minutes of your time to input such things as non-business flights you have taken during the past year, how you heat your home, how often your drive your car, and so on. I scored 213 percent (which means that if everyone lived like I do we would need 2.13 planets).

I put this score down to the two long weekends I spent in New York this year as well as a flight I took to Croatia for my summer holiday (when I included the flights I took to attend conferences for Rigzone in 2015 I scored closer to 400 percent).

I don’t feel a huge amount of guilt about this. For a start, I know plenty of people who are on a plane somewhere almost every week and who drive much more fuel-inefficient cars. But there is also the fact that for every First World consumer like me there will be dozens of people around the world who travel very infrequently and, when they do, they don’t travel far, and neither will they run cars or own energy-hungry washing machines and fridge freezers.

Yet economic growth in the developing world means that within a generation, there will be hundreds of millions more people who will take for granted their cars, long-haul flights and the white goods in their homes, just as I do now.

Unless there is a major technological innovation in how we humans produce the bulk of our energy, such as the invention of some kind of nuclear fusion-based power plant, it seems that today’s renewables – and even existing and promised nuclear power plant – will not be enough for us to forgo fossil fuels completely.

And this means we have to be smart about which fossil fuels we burn. Of the three main fossil fuels, natural gas appears to produce the fewest carbon emissions, so using gas to replace oil as the main transportation fuel, while replacing coal and oil with natural gas for electricity generation as well as for a wide range of industrial processes, looks to be the future. COP21 confirms that we’re embarked on the Age of Gas.

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