Energy: (very) long-term perspectives
- Global warming forces us to project ourselves into a very different world, where the question of energy is crucial.
- Technological innovation is at the centre of many scenarios, and not without reason: major breakthroughs have already taken place over the last ten years.
- Foresight also requires us to think of a future where no disruptive innovation has changed the game.
- Rich countries are evolving rapidly; emerging, poorer countries could follow by leapfrogging on richer ones by directly adopting decarbonised solutions.
- But the competition for resources also forces us to consider geopolitical tensions.
The Zenon think tank makes efforts on very long-term forecasting. Does the issue of energy pose any particular problems?
Foresight is the effort to map out possible paths for the future. Futurists do not just draw lines from what exists, they include the possibility of more or less radical innovations in the thought process. But in the case of energy, the possible futures are framed by several constraints. The first is the requirement for decarbonisation, which is imposed as a general framework.
If 2050 is often mentioned as a target date, it is both because it is an important marker in this framework, along with the objective of carbon neutrality (to have a chance of staying below 1.5°C of global warming), and because the 25- or 30-year horizon is fairly common – futurists are used to thinking in the medium-term. But it is possible, without slipping into science fiction, to move this horizon back and reason in the long-term.
This is because the climate models upon which we base our ideas run over the very long-term, due to strong inertia effects. The heat or salinity of the oceans, the major marine currents and even certain atmospheric flows are already undergoing changes that are beginning to produce their effects, and which are not reversible in the short- or medium-term. Similarly, we can significantly reduce annual CO2 emissions, but reducing the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere is a completely different matter, and this stock is the main determinant of what will happen in the coming decades. Finally, our equipment also forms a stock: 14% of cars sold in 2022 will be electric, i.e. 11 million vehicles; but there are 1.4 billion cars on the roads in the world.
The long term is therefore essential. But isn’t there a risk of thinking that in 50 years’ time we will have found the miracle solution and that there is no need to panic?
Foresight requires us to explore scenarios that include technological or other disruptions. The faster we fail to reduce our emissions (and therefore the lower the probability of meeting the commitments of the Paris Climate Agreement), the more the scenarios will include technologies still in the development stage. The possibility of managing a temperature overshoot, for example, implies having net-negative scenarios that reduce the stocks of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But at the moment, on the contrary, methane emissions are exploding! Ambitious policies can make a difference. Even if the example of methane illustrates the complexity of these issues, which are marked by feedback loops: during containment, fewer pollutants (CO, NOx) were emitted, and these help the chemistry of methane decomposition in the atmosphere. All systems are coupled.
Among the disruptive innovations that can occur, nuclear fusion is often mentioned, or geoengineering (controlling solar radiation to cool the earth, which raises huge questions). There are also those that are happening before our eyes: like batteries, for which price has dropped by 90% in ten years while energy density has almost doubled. This is a game changer for mobility, and fifteen years ago we could not have imagined it. However, the possibility of inexpensive storage makes other applications relevant.
But foresight also requires us to think about a future where no breakthrough innovation has changed the game. Even if nuclear fusion were available today, it would take thirty years to deploy it. So, we must go through the short-term and extend the trends to understand how they can be changed. Foresight also thinks in terms of arrival points, by outlining the scenarios that will enable us to get there. Hypotheses are made, and the conditions to be met are specified.
Let’s take a global, systemic hypothesis: decarbonisation. To draw up possible paths, we will first ask ourselves what can be electrified, then what can be transferred to hydrogen, then to biogas, and then we will complete our reasoning. Exploring the “how” leads us to consider the specificities of a territory – offshore wind power is not possible everywhere! But these conditions change, sometimes very quickly. On key issues such as mobility and electricity production, the movement has begun, and we are now seeing exponential growth. Thanks to political efforts, regulations, and subsidies, we are no longer very far from parity in terms of price (if we reason in terms of total cost of ownership, for vehicles, or, for renewable energies, in terms of the discounted cost of the kWh, a metric that takes into account all the costs and production of a piece of equipment over its lifetime). We are reaching a point where the market will be able to function without subsidies. In other areas, such as hydrogen for example, subsidies are still needed.
All these developments are taking place in the rich countries. Isn’t the challenge in the emerging and poor countries? And if so, what are the possible scenarios?
If we think in terms of the future, we see two very different scenarios. The first, which is optimistic, is leapfrogging: these countries directly adopt decarbonised solutions. What supports this hypothesis is that in Africa, for example, the networks have yet to be created, and the issue of intermittency is different when you start from nothing or almost nothing. There is no path dependency. The weak point of this hypothesis is the investments, with the question of financial stability in the background. India, for example, is a large consumer of locally produced coal. At the last COP, it said yes to accelerating its transition but is demanding the means to do so.
This brings us to political issues, with public choices: for emerging countries, to commit themselves; for rich countries, to help them (or at least to stop investing in fossil fuels in emerging countries). The problem is that all these choices interfere with each other: Pakistan, for example, has switched back to coal since Europe turned to LNG to do without Russian gas. If we buy more of one resource (whose production cannot instantly increase), we cut off access to someone else’s market. And conversely, if we turn away from a resource, we make it more accessible to other buyers. This brings us to a second scenario, where the coal, gas, and oil that we no longer consume will be consumed in emerging and poor countries.
Part of the equation lies in the still uncertain balance between China, the supplier of the transition (solar panels, nuclear power, batteries, electric vehicles) and the developed countries, which are trying to recover their industrial sovereignty. As a result, there is competition for resources and critical metals such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earths. Are the tensions linked to this competition taken into account by futurists?
This question is related to that of extreme political shocks. They are rarely taken into account in the models (one of the five IPCC scenarios, known as the SSP, takes into account ‘regional rivalries’). The effects of climatic crises on production (particularly in agriculture) are taken into account to a greater extent, but little account is taken of the possibility of geopolitical shocks or the collapse of states. The implicit bet is that the shocks will be absorbed, that the market will find the solution. This is what it does in many cases: for example, the lithium crisis predicted ten years ago did not happen, solutions were found and production and reserves were greatly increased. But it is also because of a lack of imagination, and because they are difficult to model, that these extreme scenarios are rarely used.
We could proceed as we do in project management: identify the risks and make sure they don’t happen; make the scenarios evolve. But we tend to want to follow one scenario, rather than putting it in dialogue with another to imagine other paths. This is one of the great misunderstandings of foresight work: those who read it believe that we must choose one scenario or another. The lesson of the past is that we tinker and adapt.