In shift to green energy, a matter of when, not if

Why We Wrote This

A major geopolitical shift could slowly be taking shape as the world’s 20th-century focus on access to oil gives way to competition for the technologies and resources needed to power a cleaner-energy economy.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Electric cars recharge at a solar-powered charging station on March 8, 2017, in Samso, Denmark. The island is now an international leader in wind and solar power, and an example of how to live carbon-free.

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Sometimes a moment of high election-campaign drama can obscure an important political trend. That could well prove true of President Donald Trump’s debate dust-up with Democratic challenger Joe Biden over oil and gas policy.

While the candidates were sparring, there have been growing signs that many other countries now view a shift toward lower-carbon energy sources as inevitable, the only question being how quickly it will happen. A major report from the International Energy Agency this month suggests they’re right. 

The signs of a shift in attitude are coming from a range of governments as well as international business leaders.

That shift is partly catalyzed by growing popular concern, and activism, on climate change. But there are new economic drivers as well, especially the huge economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The European Union, with its nearly $900 billion recovery plan, has pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. China has announced a net-zero target of 2060. Britain hopes to harness the North Sea’s windswept waters to become “the Saudi Arabia of wind.” 

In the U.S., the long-term future of oil, gas, and other energy industries could ultimately depend less on political decisions than on changing market forces.

It was a moment of high drama in the final debate of the American presidential campaign: the accusation by President Donald Trump that Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s climate change proposals would “destroy the oil industry” in the United States.

And while Mr. Biden is actually proposing only to cut federal subsidies for oil, and “transition” to cleaner energy sources, President Trump clearly hopes the issue will resonate with industry-dependent voters in key states like Pennsylvania, Texas, and Ohio.

But no matter who wins the Nov. 3 election, their dispute could end up proving academic.

Even as the candidates sparred, key voices in the wider world – governments and corporate leaders, analysts and investors – have been asking a different question: not whether there will be a major move away from high-carbon energy sources like oil, but when

A full-scale shift is probably many years away, if only given the likelihood of continuing demand for oil in developing economies, as well as for industries like petrochemicals.

Yet the timetable seems to be accelerating. And the overall direction of travel – toward lower-carbon energy sources – is unmistakable. 

Growing consumer awareness and activism around climate change is one major catalyst. But there are new drivers as well, above all the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The modeling is changing

The picture is made strikingly clear in the latest annual report by the International Energy Agency, called World Energy Outlook 2020 and published this month. It sets out four alternative scenarios, tracing not just the implications of various climate policy choices, but the huge economic effects of the pandemic.

All its models foresee an increasingly dominant role for solar energy in generating electricity, and a steady decline for coal. The importance of wind turbines is also projected to increase.

The report does expect a post-pandemic rebound in demand for oil. But even under its most conservative scenario – a fairly rapid economic recovery, and no major new climate change policy initiatives – demand is projected to level off in the 2030s. The report adds that the fall in oil demand and price during the pandemic has been focusing the minds of investors, and governments in oil-dependent countries, on the longer-term need to diversify.

That message has already hit home in many developed countries. And as governments prepare huge packages of investments, subsidies, and incentives to restart their economies, cleaner energy sources like solar, wind, and hydrogen are getting a closer look. A number of countries have already mandated a shift away from selling new gasoline-powered automobiles in favor of electric vehicles. 

The 27-member European Union, with its nearly $900 billion recovery plan, has pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Britain has made the same pledge. With revenues from North Sea oil fields on the wane, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has expressed his hopes to sow the sea’s windswept waters with energy turbines and make the country “the Saudi Arabia of wind.” 

China – the world’s second-largest economy and largest carbon emitter – has announced it will become net-zero by 2060.

How such pledges are turned into action remains to be seen.

China continues to commission old-style coal power stations – and provide them as part of its Belt and Road infrastructure deals with countries across Asia and Africa. But just as Xi Jinping’s government has sought to stake out a major place in high-tech, it may well be seeking a leading role in a greener world energy economy. China already makes most of the world’s solar panels.

Business is changing, too

The business world seems to be changing as well.

The auto industry is a prime example, nowhere more so than in Germany. Top manufacturers there at first shrugged off the prospect of a wide-scale move to electric cars. Now, galvanized by the success of America’s Tesla, they’re scrambling. The German government has also announced a major investment in a national network of charging points. 

Japan’s Honda recently announced it is getting out of the Formula One engine business. The stated reason: to focus on new electric car-engine technologies, in response to what the company called a “once-in-one-hundred-years period of great transformation.” 

In Australia, still a major coal exporter, the government is backing a new power station project in a western desert area: a “green hydrogen” complex where the world’s largest solar and wind energy farm would power the production of carbon-free hydrogen for export to Asia.

Signs of change are even appearing in the oil industry. In Europe, France’s Total, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP have announced plans to begin transitioning from reliance on oil and invest in lower-carbon energy sources.

The American take

American companies are still betting on oil and gas remaining by far the world’s main source of energy, while hoping to address climate change concerns through mitigating technologies like the capture and storage of carbon emissions. Since natural gas seems likely to remain in high demand as economies transition to cleaner energy, there are no major signs yet of European-style diversification.

Nor has there been any sign of a major move away from an increasingly controversial source of U.S. oil and gas: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale rock. Mr. Trump has made that an election issue as well, for while Mr. Biden has made it clear he’s not going to try to end fracking, he would ban new sites on federal land.

Yet the huge expansion of fracking in recent years – making America energy independent and opening up new export markets – was achieved through large-scale, speculative investment and borrowing, against the promise of long-term profit. That hasn’t materialized.

So it may turn out that, like the energy-mix changes gathering pace elsewhere in the world, the future of fracking could be decided less by politics than by new market forces. Over time, we may see a major geopolitical shift as the world’s 20th -century focus on access to oil supplies in regions like the Middle East gives way to a new kind of competition: for the technologies, resources, and equipment needed to power a cleaner-energy economy.

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