climate change

Anne Hidalgo (left), Mayor of Paris,  and French energy minister Segolene Royal celebrate the Paris COP21 climate accord.

Anne Hidalgo (left), Mayor of Paris, and French energy minister Segolene Royal celebrate the Paris COP21 climate accord.  © Getty Images

The Paris agreement on climate change has been ratified, earlier than most people expected. Some believes that means the issue is on its way to being resolved. That is absolutely not the case.

Donald Trump’s election as president is a major setback because it removes any sense of American leadership on the issue. But that is not the only cause for concern. The inconvenient truth is that the use of coal in growing emerging economies continues to outpace anything being achieved elsewhere. The global energy market is changing; oil demand is coming to a peak and renewables are getting cheaper. But that, however important, is as yet having no more than a minor effect on the climate issue. We have to be realistic and prepare accordingly. Read more

  © Getty Images

The buzz word of the moment in the energy business is “transition”. It provided the theme for the ONS conference and exhibition in Stavanger in Norway two weeks ago as well as the title for several recent consultancy studies.

Unsurprisingly, transition is the main concept in many of the corporate strategy reviews now being undertaken by some of the leading energy producers and utilities. The meaning of the word, however, is loose and variable. It is not even clear whether some of the big operators in the market understand the breadth of the transition that is already taking place and the extent to which it could reshape the prospects for their businesses.

The transition is normally discussed in terms of the move from hydrocarbons to lower or zero-carbon sources of energy supply. Driven by the fear of climate change and by the adoption of various public policies, the shift has been under way for two decades and more. The Paris conference at the end of last year provided new impetus, even if the end product fell somewhat short of a global deal backed by law and a carbon price. Different countries are moving at different speeds, and the result is a gradual shift in the energy mix, which now promises to be accelerated by advances in technology. Low carbon sources of supply are falling in price and some are within reach of the point where they can be competitive without subsidy. Read more

A solar farm in France. A European common grid would help overcome the problem of intermittancy with renewables  © Getty Images

With a few honourable exceptions, the debate on British membership of the EU has so far consisted of a contest between the outs and the half outs – that is, those who want Britain to leave completely and those prepared to stay only if the country is protected from further incursion by immigrants or European policy makers. The other approach – active engagement to change and improve what happens – has barely been articulated. In several areas positive engagement is much needed and offers substantial benefits. Energy policy is a good place to start.

The EU has only limited competence when it comes to energy policy. The mix of fuels and the tax system under which they are traded remain matters of national choice. That isn’t likely to change. It would be a waste of time to try to force France to accept fracking or to tell the Germans that they are going to have to keep nuclear power. Any attempt to centralise such emotive decisions will fail. Read more

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014 © Getty Images

Is climate change the cause of extreme weather events? Until now the link has been suspected but never confirmed with scientific confidence. That position is now changing. A new study from the US confirms that for some extreme events there is a causal connection.

This link between climate science and immediate weather conditions can only strengthen the case of those arguing for policy change. The impact of a damaging heatwave in terms of deaths, sickness and other social and economic costs is much more likely to rouse public opinion than the distant prospect of what might to some sound like a modest increase in the global mean temperature. All politics are local, and they are also immediate. The discount rate applied to future possibilities is very high: what could happen to a future generation decades matters much less than what is happening to me here and now. It brings climate to the foreground and diminishes the argument of those who say that since we don’t know everything we should do nothing and wait until we see how things turn out. If the impact is immediate and people are dying as a result, the call for action will be loud.

One of the most dangerous illusions in the debate around the implications of climate change is the notion that the impact will only be material when the carbon concentration in the atmosphere exceeds some defined limit — usually quoted as 450ppm. At that point global mean temperatures will rise by an average of 2 degrees centigrade and the problems will begin. I do appreciate that the science is much more complicated but I think this is how the challenge is seen by many non-expert policy makers and politicians.

That view is mistaken. It implies an accuracy in the knowledge of the relationship between carbon concentration and the effect on temperatures that doesn’t yet exist — not least because, as Martin Rees, the former President of the Royal Society puts it, we are conducting an experiment with the earth’s atmosphere which has never been tried before. We don’t know with any degree of certainty that 450ppm will produce an average rise of 2 degrees and we don’t know what the variations around that average figure might be across the world. The case for action is driven by the precautionary principle. But there is another known unknown and that is the extent and nature of the impact in the shorter term — before we get to 450ppm.

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Flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in 2014  © Getty Images

Is climate change the cause of extreme weather events? Until now the link has been suspected but never confirmed with scientific confidence. That position is now changing. A new study from the US confirms that for some extreme events there is a causal connection.

This link between climate science and immediate weather conditions can only strengthen the case of those arguing for policy change. The impact of a damaging heatwave in terms of deaths, sickness and other social and economic costs is much more likely to rouse public opinion than the distant prospect of what might to some sound like a modest increase in the global mean temperature. All politics are local, and they are also immediate. The discount rate applied to future possibilities is very high: what could happen to a future generation decades matters much less than what is happening to me here and now. It brings climate to the foreground and diminishes the argument of those who say that since we don’t know everything we should do nothing and wait until we see how things turn out. If the impact is immediate and people are dying as a result, the call for action will be loud. Read more

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Climate change demonstrators during the Paris conference  © Getty Images

Two papers published in the last few weeks provide a sobering reality check after the rhetorical success of the Paris climate change conference in December. Getting any agreement was a diplomatic triumph but producing real change on the scale necessary will be much more difficult. The two documents are very different but both excellent pieces of work. Their calculations and assumptions are detailed, transparent and, most important of all, evidence based. Both, however, reflect a degree of unjustified optimism. Read more

National Tribute to The Victims of The Paris Terrorist Attacks At Les Invalides In Paris

Laurent Fabius  © Getty Images

The agreement on climate change in Paris will satisfy no one. The complaints are predictable and have already begun.

The commitments made are not legally binding and political decisions could be altered by future elections or regime changes. The funds available for adjustment are too limited and, of course, there is no carbon price.

All true, but politics is the art of the possible and what has been agreed is a triumph for French diplomacy and for the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius personally. Many deserve credit but success depends on leadership. He is the Energy Personality of the Year because he has played a crucial role in changing how the sector will evolve worldwide for decades to come. Read more

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A pump turbine at Alstoms' global technology and hydropower centre in Grenoble, France  © Getty Images

Storage — whether of grain or of knowledge through the printed word — has been a crucial element in human development. Of all the many technical advances that are transforming the energy business none is potentially more important than storage: it give us the ability to control the way, and crucially the timing, of energy consumption. Used on a major scale it could help to make heat and light available to those outside the commercial economy and could radically alter the energy mix.

Two excellent recent research reports summarise the current state of the art in the field and offer some predictions. The first is from Lazards and is the latest in a series assessing trends in the costs of different mechanisms. The second is from Moody’s and concentrates on the advances being made in reducing the cost of batteries.

In discussing storage it is important to demolish two myths. First, the technological advances are not about to transform the energy system to the point where a major proportion of consumers defect from existing distribution systems. Second, it does not require a dramatic breakthrough for making it on a significant scale to become economic. Read more

A look at how a climate change deal could affect oil majors Read more

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The potential impact of climate change is beginning to get serious attention beyond specialist climate scientists. Last week at the Ecole Militaire in Paris — the elite college for the French defence forces — military and civilian leaders debated the risks and the defence and security implications at a seminar organised jointly by the French Senate and the defence ministry. Three ministers, including those of foreign affairs and defence, led the debate.

Many of the risks are well known — such as the possibility of desertification in particular regions, of water shortages leading to inadequate harvests and a lack of food supplies and on the other hand the prospect of floods or sudden surges in temperature; and the risk of diseases and epidemics spread by dirty water. The problems are concentrated in areas such as Africa, where climate change will compound existing problems such as inadequate healthcare, poverty and weak governments. Read more

Protesters Take To Kayaks To Demonstrate Against Shell's Plans To Drill In Arctic

Protesters approach Shell's Polar Pioneer oil drilling rig in May  © Getty Images

Shell’s decision to abandon exploration in the Arctic is an acknowledgment of reality, although that makes it no more comfortable for those involved. Some $7bn (more, according to some estimates) has been lost in its Chukchi Sea campaign — the unsuccessful Burger J well must be the most expensive ever drilled, anywhere in the world. But, financially, Shell can afford it, and many in the oil company will be relieved that the issue is out of the way.

The exploration effort was a PR disaster for a company that prides itself on its environmental record. The prospect of success, followed by years of conflict over the next steps — the development of permanent facilities for actual production — worried some senior executives more than the prospect of failure. The possibility of facing up to a new US president in the person of Hillary Clinton who is on record as opposing Arctic drilling was hardly welcome for a company that believes itself distinct from companies such as ExxonMobil that take a more challenging line on climate change and other issues. These reputational issues were no doubt very important elements in the decision to pull out. Read more

Scottish Windfarm Starts Producing Electricity

The Braes of Doune windfarm, Scotland   © Getty Images

Organisations, especially those that are doing well, can easily get stuck on narrow views of the future and their own role within it. It can be useful and creative in those circumstances to give people the opportunity to think more widely. One method that I have seen used to great effect is to ask people to imagine the world in 10 years’ time and suggest what might have changed, particularly against the expectations of the conventional wisdom. The process can provide a useful counterweight to long-term forecasts, which tend to do no more than roll forward recent history.

In that spirit, and for the holidays, here are a few stories on the energy sector from the FT in 2025. These are not forecasts — just possibilities. Readers would be welcome to suggest additions to the list.

1. In Moscow, ShellGaz — the world’s largest energy company as measured by its listing on the FTNikkei 250 — announces that it is proceeding with Eaststream3, the latest in a series of export projects from eastern Siberia. Eaststream3 will take gas by pipeline to the rapidly growing cities of northern India. ShellGaz was formed in 2017 through the merger of Royal Dutch Shell and Gazprom and represented the first fruit of the reset of European-Russian relations after the agreed federalisation of Ukraine. Read more

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The shocking thing about the papal encyclical Laudate Si is not that it was leaked in advance nor even that it embraces the idea that most emissions of greenhouse gases are the result of human activity. The thing that should shock readers is its attack on science and technology — the very tools, indeed the only tools, which offer a solution to climate change.

I am not a student of theology and therefore do not claim to understand the subtleties of the Catholic Church’s teaching on science. But since the Pope has moved outside his own natural territory and into energy policy, some response seems appropriate.

From a distance, Pope Francis seems to embody decency. He is modest, frugal, concerned for the poor and hostile to the creepier side of the church hierarchy in Rome and beyond. That makes him stand out in a world of shallow and cynical “leaders”. He commands millions of followers and his words deserve to be taken seriously whether one is a Catholic or not. Read more

British Government Signs A Deal For New Nuclear Power Plant

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The election is over and against all expectations we have a clear result. When it comes to energy policy, however, the agenda will be set not by what the Conservative party has promised in its manifesto but by external events. A number of looming issues are already obvious and the government will have no control over most of them.

The first is the further postponement of the plans for nuclear development starting at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Two new reactors capable of supplying some 7 per cent of total UK electricity demand are planned. The first was originally supposed to be on stream in time to cook Christmas dinner in 2017. But despite the prospect of a lavish price — index linked for 35 years regardless of what happens to global energy prices – and £10bn of even more generous financial guarantees, funding for the investment required is not in place. The reluctance of investors to commit will not be helped by the technical problems in the reactor vessels, which are now under investigation by the French nuclear regulator. This problem has widespread implications for the companies involved (Areva and EDF) and for nuclear development in many countries across the world, starting with France itself. Read more

Downturn In Oil Prices Rattles Texas Oil Economy

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Almost all the major oil and gas companies I know are undertaking substantial reviews of their policies on climate change. That is true in Europe and in the US. Why now, and what will be the outcome ?

First, it is important to stress that the rethinking is not being driven by the recent attacks on the companies. Describing Shell and its chief executive Ben van Beurden as “narcissistic, paranoid and psychopathic” is just childish and reduces what should be a serious debate to playground abuse. The reviews began before the latest media campaigns and are driven by corporate strategic concerns. Read more

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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

A solar thermal research facility  © Michael Hall/ Getty Images

Given the seriousness of the messages contained in last week’s report from the International Panel on Climate Change, one might expect some sense of urgency around the search for solutions. Regrettably, that is not the case. Governments and campaigners especially in Europe seem rigidly focused on pursuing the holy grail of a global deal, under which the world’s major economies would move together in a synchronised process of decarbonisation. The futility of that approach is evidenced by the fact that Europe itself has been unable to set an effective carbon price and has done almost nothing to advance the technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which is one of the few ways in which emissions could be managed. Read more

At a painfully slow speed the consensus on climate change is building. There is a human impact on the climate as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Those who seriously question this view are now reduced by the sheer weight of the evidence in the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to the level of the eccentrics who maintained that the earth was flat long after the reality had been proved. Read more

Those despairing of the lack of progress in managing climate change or the absence of practical and realistic energy policies in so many countries should take a look at the work being done by some of the world’s great universities.

In Durham, the Energy Institute has focused on the societal aspects of changes in energy technology. One of their main projects is to look at the role and potential of smart grids. Thanks to advances in IT, smart grids now offer the prospect of managing the distributed production and use of power in ways which will transform the economics of the whole sector. Smart grids create automatic processes which can help both businesses and households not only manage what they use but also to become producers themselves –selling power into the grid. Read more