Environment

CHINA-ENVIRONMENT-CLIMATE

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The signals are clear – but contradictary. China has embraced the concept of climate change and is allowing officials to discuss the risks openly. Two weeks ago Zheng Guogang, head of the Chinese metereological administration warned of droughts, rainstorms and the threat to major infrastructure projects. He could not have spoken without permission.

But at the same time economic growth remains the prime objective of Chinese policy and growth requires the consumption of ever greater volumes of primary energy, led by coal.

Demand may have slipped by a small amount last year but new coal plants are still being opened. Coal consumption in China has doubled in the last ten years. China is now the world’s largest economy and consumes more than half of all the coal used worldwide each year. Within two decades, even on quite modest assumptions about economic growth it will have an economy twice the size of the US with personal living standards equivalent to those of the US in 1980. But it will still be an economy powered by coal – with demand on current policies up by another 20 to 25 per cent according to the forecasts produced by the International Energy AgencyRead more

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I have never given much credence to the idea that an international agreement on climate change capable of establishing a global carbon price was likely to be reached – either in Paris this December or anywhere else – anytime soon.

If Europe, which is way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to climate policy, can’t set its own carbon price, what hope is there that the US, India and all the others will?

As a result I’ve never taken seriously the view that a vast amount of energy investment by the oil and gas companies will be left stranded as carbon-generating fuels are priced out of the market. The argument has always felt like wishful thinking. If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments there would be no prisons and the police forces of the world would be redundant.

But, and it is a very important qualification, change doesn’t come just through legislation and international treaties. Technology is arguably much more important and there is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in the old energy systems. Read more

Applications closed last week for the chairmanship of the UK’s Environment Agency. Lord Smith of Finsbury, much criticised by some ministers during the recent floods, has not been sacked but has reached the end of his term. The appointment of a successor is important for the energy sector, and many others, but what happens next will also a test of whether public appointments in the UK have been politicised. Has meritocracy been abandoned? Read more

Do renewables represent the future of the energy business or a minor contributor in a sector which will continue to be dominated by hydrocarbons? That will the underlying question at the FT Renewables conference this week. The answer looks to be the latter but financial engineering or a major technical breakthrough could yet change things. Read more

Can anyone really predict what the world’s energy market will look like in 2040? Many certainly try – including companies and governments – but they don’t deserve to be taken too seriously and certainly shouldn’t be the basis for decision-making. Read more

Congratulations to Ben van Beurden, the new chief executive of Shell. We are moving into a period when gas is the dominant fuel and Mr van Beurden has great experience in that area, particularly in liquefied natural gas. He is also Dutch which is a good reminder that despite everything Shell has not lost its nationality, after all. The candidates who lost will all soon find alternative jobs. Shell is now the great training ground and there is a shortage of talent at the top level in the international energy business. Mr van Beurden meantime will have to focus on Shell’s big problems, of which I will focus on three. Read more

US oil rig. Getty Images

I have always been sceptical of the extensive theories of peak oil built around the study first published in 1956 by M King Hubbert. Those studies have always seemed to ignore the reality of technical progress that opens new frontiers and reduces costs. They have been much used to support the idea that oil prices should be ever increasing, on the basis that scarcity should be reflected in high prices.

The reality is that oil provinces (think of the North Sea) keep going well beyond their original schedule, and recovery rates from established fields keep rising. On average, even after some advances in reservoir management technology, only some 50 per cent of the oil in place is recovered from most fields, so there is a long way still to go. On top of that, we now have tight oil (the oil equivalent of shale gas), which BP in its latest Long Term Outlook now expects to provide some 9 per cent of global production in 2030. Read more

Fires rage in Australia following record high temperatures. Getty Images

A few days after Typhoon Bopha tore through the Philippines in December, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless, a representative from the battered country began to speak at the UN climate talks in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Naderev Saño, the Philippine climate change commissioner, broke down as he made a plea to his fellow delegates, in what turned into one of the conference’s most riveting moments. Read more

The growth of wind farms and other renewable energy projects is heading for a sharp slowdown after 2020 according to official forecasts, despite ministers’ claims they want the UK to become a global centre of green power.

Figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change predict a tenfold increase in the amount of new renewable power capacity added between 2012 and 2020.

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Drilling barge the Kulluck Getty Images

Shell's drilling barge the Kulluk. Getty Images

There are two important lessons from the mounting problems facing Shell as a result of the series of accidents that have afflicted its drilling programme in the Arctic.

The first is that major companies must have the capacity to call a halt and to break the inexorable internal momentum that so often makes it impossible to stop projects once they have started. The ability to reconsider is a great sign of strength not weakness.

The second is that a company such as Shell which prides itself (rightly) on its environmental performance is only as good as its weakest contractor. Read more

Scroby Sands offshore wind farm in Norfolk, just two miles off Britain's east coast. Image by Getty

A good rule in politics is never to take on those who care about a particular issue more than you do. I was in Norfolk at the weekend and came face to face with the new force in UK politics – a regiment of middle-aged ladies burning with indignation and determined to use their considerable powers of organisation to protect what they hold dear.

The issue at stake is not Europe, which is the obsession at Westminster, or the recession, or gay marriage. The issue is the growth of wind farms and the march across the beautiful Norfolk coast of developers planting the farms in order to milk the generous subsidies on offer. Norfolk, of course, is not an isolated case. Read more

Mitt Romney has given Barack Obama a free pass when it comes to energy and environmental policy.  Obama needs only to point to Romney’s energy plan - with its proposed demolition of federal controls on new energy developments and its omission of any mention whatsoever of climate change to claim the votes of the environmental lobby.

Even those most disappointed by the last 4 years can hardly fail to back Obama when the alternative is someone who used his acceptance speech last week to mock Obama’s commitment to the environment and to contrast Obama’s aim of helping to save the earth and the oceans with his own commitment to helping ordinary American families get jobs.  But what won’t be said this week at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte is that the American energy outlook for the next four years at least is already very largely set, and won’t be much altered by whoever is elected in November. Read more

Images provided by NASA

Evidence from the American space agency NASA published at the end of July shows the remarkable and disturbing degree to which Greenland’s ice cap has melted.  Taken in combination with extreme weather conditions in the US and Asia over the last few months, what is happening in Greenland raises again the unresolved issue of climate change and what should be done to mitigate the associated risks.  But the traditional approach of gradually reducing emissions by changing the energy mix may no longer be a viable option. Read more