Energy Darwinism III

The Electrifying Path to Net Zero Carbon

Growing up next to a small lake provided year-round entertainment — swimming and a rope swing in the summer when the sun was out and ice skating and hockey when the lake froze over in the winter. The only time we thought about the weather was when it rained and we couldn’t go to the beach or when it warmed up and we were threatened with falling through the ice. But things are different now. Concerns about the weather aren’t just about our activity schedules; they are now mixed with a growing awareness around climate change and the effects of global warming. While we snuck away from school to get some extra time at the lake, kids are now using their stolen time to demonstrate for climate change awareness in hopes they can stop the planet being damaged by rising temperatures.

If scientists are right, and we’re moving down a path in which rising average temperatures could lead to huge changes in our ecosystem, it would make sense to at least have a plan to mitigate the danger. And unfortunately this isn’t tomorrow’s problem — at current rates of carbon emissions we could hit the ‘carbon budget’ in 10 to 15 years. At that point, we would have to stop producing carbon emissions or risk major issues such as drought and rising sea levels. But where do we start? Well first, let’s look at what we’re doing now and how that’s affecting climate change. Then we should look at what the future would look like if we keep doing the same old same old. Now, let’s see what happens if we tweak a few things. What can we change today that will have a positive effect in the future, i.e. what’s the sensitivity of our actions today on future climate change?

To do this we introduce Citi’s Global Integrated Energy & Emissions Framework, which assesses current energy usage and carbon (CO2) emissions around the world by fuel, by industry, and by country. The framework poses a bunch of ‘what if’ scenarios, such as what happens to CO2 emissions if we increase renewables penetration to 70% in the U.S., or if China switches to all electric vehicles by 2050? The results are sometimes surprising as at times changes we thought would have had the most meaningful effect are more than offset by knock-on effects elsewhere.

A few solid observations emerge across the scenarios: (1) Transportation remains a key challenge and despite aggressive assumptions in some scenarios regarding electric vehicle (EV) penetration, the legacy effect of old vehicle fleets remains high. Solutions include incentivizing EV uptake and speeding the removal of legacy fleets; (2) Freight and aviation emissions grow or remain high long into the future. Here new technologies like hydrogen trucking and new fuel mixes need to emerge; (3) Industry’s use of fossil fuels for both heat and motion remains high. Increasing industrial energy efficiency as well as mass electrification of industry are key to reducing emissions; and (4) Fossil fuel use is significant in buildings for both heat and cooking, and energy-efficient measures need to be introduced.

With massive electrification a key solution for many emission issues, moving power generation away from fossil fuels and towards clean power is crucial. Technologies already exist to make this happen but the rise of energy storage will be the tipping point for adoption and the potential offered by new business models.

Here’s to hoping the future will be more about what we can do in the weather rather than what the weather will do.