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Climate Emergency will trigger action on wartime scale post COVID: Sustainability / ESG will dominate politics for 300 years. Green tech will radically transform life on earth, but not in time to prevent global crises / environmental catastrophes

Futurist Keynote Speaker: Posts, Slides, Videos - Future GreenTech, Sustainability Keynote Speaker

SUSTAINABILITY WILL BE A DOMINANT THEME FOR NEXT 300 YEARS

Expect global responses to the climate emergency on a wartime basis - far beyond scale of any normal government measures.  

Just look at what happened in the War against COVID.  And COVID caused a generation to ask deeper questions about the future survival of humanity, about what we have done to our planet. So which will have the greatest impact? One new virus or wrecking our planet's future? ((Written 4 April 2021 - based on many corporate keynotes given at major events on sustainability, energy use and decarbonisation.)

The only question is how long we will have to wait to see such radical action happen. What we have seen so far is almost nothing compare to the response that will eventually come.

Expect far greater concerns over the next 30 years about sustainability and what kind of planet will remain in 100 years, with shortages of water, food and other resources and major threats to other forms of life.

All the world's largest economies will unite in a common aim to protect our future planet.

Expect massive changes in large corporations re ESG issues

In many cases, multinationals will race further ahead than government regulations, to prove their ESG credentials (Environment, Social Responsibility, Governance) to customers, shareholders media and local communities.

We've seen hugely accelerated corporate responses before in many other areas of ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) such as food safety and food labelling, animal welfare in farming, vehicle safety and so on, where companies in many nations rapidly delivered - while governments dithered.

The Construction Industry will be the front line for radical change towards zero carbon - linked to 38% of carbon emissions (building, demolishing, heating and cooling) - see below.

Expect massive catch up in America following the exit of President Trump, and fresh initiatives on massive scale to be proposed by both China and India, ramping up rapidly their own national responses over the next decade.

Zero carbon and biodiversity boom

While the main focus will be shift towards zero carbon living, or decarbonisation, biodiversity will also be a constant theme, because of stats like these:

- A quarter of all 4000 known mammal species are likely to be extinct by 2035 without aggressive action

- One in eight plant types are also threatened

- Stocks of  large fish in the ocean have fallen by 90% over the last few decades

- Seawater acidity has risen by 25% since the industrial revolution, because of rising levels of dissolved CO2, altering chemistry of trillions of sea organisms

As a key indicator of global ecology, numbers of insects have also fallen globally by 45% in 35 years, because of insecticides and other chemicals used in farming, as well as changes in land use.

Farming impacts entire ecosystems: insects have fallen 75% in German nature reserves, and insect numbers have also collapsed in Puerto Rico rainforests.

Concerns about global warming will intensify rapidly

China is now producing almost twice as much CO2 as America, more than any other nation.

On current trends, China alone will emit more CO2 from 1990 to 2050 than the entire world produced from 1750 to 1970. But how much does this really matter?

The science of global warming is just a ‘best guess’ about what life will be like in 2100, and about the contribution of carbon emissions to what is happening now.

But by the time we have proved whether the science is right, it will be far too late to respond, if the consensus of almost all climate experts is correct.

Emotional reactions to climate change matter more than science

In the meantime, emotional reactions to climate change data is what will matter most in predicting the shorter term impact of global warming trends on business and government. 

Most people in the world are becoming more aware of risks from climate change, and more concerned that human activity may be contributing to it.

Expect these concerns to grow, except where nations are temporarily distracted by other crises.

This will mean more laws, international agreements, carbon taxes, and so on.

Likely long term impact - more than 2.5 degrees centigrade of global warming

What of the long-term future?

My own view is that there is a very significant risk that our world will become warmer by at least 2.5 degrees centigrade, as a result of CO2 emissions, by 2060.

But even if you think that risk is as low as 5%, in other words very unlikely even by 2100, the potential consequences could be so huge that by the time we know for sure, the damage will have been done.

And that argument alone will guarantee vigorous action, with an increasing sense of urgency over the next 40 years.

Despite growth in green tech, we will struggle to stabilize CO2 emissions over the next decade, depending on speed of growth of the global economy. Thereafter, expect year-on-year declines.

How high will sea levels actually rise?

Expect continued debate about rising sea levels.

We know that the oceans rose 17cm in the last century and rose a further 3.2mm a year on average from 113-2010, double the rate from 1901 to 1990.

On that basis alone we would expect a minimum rise of 24‒30cm by 2100.  

But this does not allow for higher emissions over the last 15 years, nor for melting highly reflective polar ice on a large scale, exposing land and sea to further rapid solar warming.

A rise of half a metre would affect most of the largest cities in the world in a significant way, since they are all built around sea ports.

Over 3 billion live within 100 miles of the sea, a significant proportion of whom will be affected in some way by rising sea levels, for example, by higher taxes to pay for coastal protection. 

We will also see changes in agriculture and fishing, as some areas become more arid, and others are flooded more often. Warmer air will mean greater sea evaporation and greater rainfall with major changes in where it falls. 

Expect global action on climate emergency - on wartime scale

So what will be the scale of global response?  

The answer is that it is likely to be gigantic, eventually, once governments across the world become convinced, together with their populations, that global warming is something approaching a global emergency.  

In times of war, a very significant proportion of national economies is spent funding military costs.  

Just look at what happened globally in the War against COVID.

It is easy to imagine 1-2% of global GDP being diverted to decarbonize the world, capture and store carbon dioxide, which would give a government budget equivalent to around $1 trillion a year. Such spending will also stimulate economies.  

That $ compares with $3 trillion spent on renewable energy globally from 2014-2018 – mostly by companies and individuals to save money, in a process which will accelerate. 

Unstable oil prices will create chaos for energy companies

We have already seen how 40-year energy policies can be overturned by a single 40-second event, and why energy markets will continue to be very unstable at times.

We should expect a number of oil price peaks and slumps, created by over-production, stop-start investment, economic cycles, decarbonisation of energy production,  carbon taxes, and regional conflicts.

Oil prices are likely to swing below $40 and above $180 per barrel at various points over the next three decades.

Prices fell from over $140 to below $40 in a few weeks of 2008, and to below $20 in 2001.

Such extremes will continue to cause chaos and pain for oil and gas companies, as well as for green tech.

Why low carbon prices are disastrous for our warming world

However, it is likely that the average oil price will be above $75 a barrel for much of the next 30 years, which will help drive transition to a carbon-less future.

Indeed, many oil-rich countries need to achieve above such a price to balance their budgets.

And it is hard to see how we can transition as rapidly as necessary to a low-carbon existence without such an average price.

Whenever oil prices fall below $75 a barrel, huge damage is done to green tech investment.

Fund managers can easily lose confidence. Businesses and private individuals delay energy saving measures.

And green tech companies can rapidly run out of money if they cannot sell energy at a high enough price. 

Future oil prices will depend (among other things) on whether low-cost producers hold back production, since a nation like America or Saudi Arabia can easily flood the world with oil for years, and still make a profit at prices of less than $45 a barrel.

But they cannot do so for long without squandering limited oil reserves.  

Expect gigantic infrastructure investment in nations like Saudi Arabia in green tech - solar farms, new forests and so on, alongside unprecedented investment in education, startup grants and so on, to reduce dependency on carbon revenues.

At the same time, theft of oil from pipes in emerging nations will continue to be an issue with loss of around $7 billion a year of revenues. Long pipes are impossible to protect. Expect further tragedies as low-income farmers in remote rural areas or slum townships continue to make holes in pipelines to fill containers, risking massive explosions and fires.

Truth about peak oil – global supplies

There have been many wild predictions over the last 30 years about how oil and gas would soon run out which I have consistently dismissed as nonsense.

The truth is that from 2008‒2013 alone, energy industry estimates for global gas reserves went up from just 60 years to 200 years at current rates of consumption, just because of shale gas innovation.

And every year, proven oil reserves also continue to rise, while only a third of geological formations that could contain oil have so far been explored.

Every time energy prices rise, more carbon can be extracted.  Around 65% of oil in most wells had to be left underground in the past, too hard to extract.

Until oil prices collapsed in 2014‒2015, companies were routinely drilling around 10km below sea beds to extract oil, because technology improved and because they expected future oil prices would make their effort worthwhile.

Frozen methane and other untapped carbon reserves

We have not even begun to explore extraction of frozen methane, which is one of the world’s largest carbon stores, and also one of the world's greatest climate emergency risks.

Energy stores under the ice caps or oceans are probably as large as all proven oil, gas and coal reserves today.  

One of the most worrying problems is that as the ice caps melt, frozen methane starts to bubble up in an uncontrolled way leading to runaway global warming.

No expert on earth can be sure of the impact of this.  It’s already started:  there are now many places above the Arctic circle during the Summer where you can hit the ground with a stick and ignite a flare of methane gas leaping into the atmosphere. 

Expect the Arctic to become one of the world’s most important new areas for extraction of fossil fuels, iron ore, uranium and other resources.

The Arctic probably contains up to 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15% of the oil. Expect $60bn of Arctic investment by 2025.

We will see growing geopolitical tensions over who has rights to what is under the ice – with Canada laying claim to the North Pole, and Russia increasing its military presence in the region.

We will also see similar disputes over ownership of tiny islands and surrounding sea beds across South East Asia, to secure drilling rights, with growing risks of regional conflicts, especially involving China, but with the potential to involve many other nations, including America and the UK, through all kinds of military alliances.

Carbon reserves will never run out – carbon consumption will fall from 2028

The truth is that carbon reserves will never run out, because there will always be more that can be extracted, if the price goes even higher; because there is more carbon available than it would be wise to burn; and because it will eventually become illegal to extract more than a limited quota in many nations. 

Renewable energy is growing so fast that it will supply all growth in annual power consumption globally by 2028 or earlier, which means that fossil fuel consumption is likely to fall year on year from peak consumption in that year. 

Indeed, our world is likely to take steps to ban use of more than 40% of the reserves we have already discovered, unless we find better ways to capture CO2 emissions from power stations, and store them back underground.

And of course we can already convert any form of carbon into more or less any other form: gas to a coal-like substance, energy to gas, rapeseed oil to petrol, coal to gas, wood to oil, waste CO2 to petrol, and so on.

We can also use wind power to manufacture methane or hydrogen gas as a way to store energy, or transmit it over long distances in pipes. 

And ammonia can be transported or piped as a liquid, as a way to deliver hydrogen through a chemical process nearer where hydrogen is needed.

Fastest route to reducing emissions: switch from coal to gas

The fastest and cheapest way for many nations to reduce carbon emissions in the short term is to switch from coal to gas.

Replacing five coal power stations with gas is the equivalent of installing 9000 megawatts of wind power.

In America, emissions fell by 12% from 2007 to 2013, primarily because the shale gas boom drove more than fifty coal-fired power stations out of business.

Gas will still be widely used in power generation in 2060, as a rapid and flexible balancer between sources like nuclear and wind or solar, and will be a central element of national power management.  

Not because our world will need so much gas power by then, but because of legacy gas power stations owned by large utility companies, built decades previously in a rush to replace coal.

Fracking will grow over next decade - despite major issues with water etc

Fracking will become far more widely accepted, partly encouraged by national security fears in the EU, threatened by the thought of unreliable gas supplies from Russia.

Fracking revolutionized the energy market in America, which overtook Saudi Arabia in 2018 as an oil producer.

But fracking has brought hidden environmental costs, in particular because the process requires up to 10 million gallons of water per well, which is then contaminated with dangerous chemicals, and can also result in contamination of underground aquifers.  

Nations like Russia and Saudi Arabia will be negatively affected as fracking becomes more widespread.

We can expect official and covert initiatives to try to slow the fracking industry down, including funding activist groups, and flooding the market with cheap oil.

We will also see rapid investment in facilities to ship liquid gas around the world, partly to handle the glut of American shale gas, and also to reduce dependence in Europe on Russian gas.

Expect huge investment in ports, ships, pipes, gas storage and infrastructure.

Everything connects to everything in race to decarbonise energy

The shale gas boom meant that gas prices in America fell dramatically, and many smaller gas companies went bust.

At the same time, coal power plants became uncompetitive and in a single year over fifty went out of business, so global coal prices fell.

As a result, the Vietnamese began building very large coal-fired power stations.

Coal-fired power generation jumped 5% globally in 2012 alone as a direct result of low-cost shale gas. So what was the final carbon saving in the world?

$50 TRILLION IN GREEN TECH INVESTMENT

Over the next 30 years we will see over $50 trillion invested in green tech. Investment in renewable energy is now greater than all investment in coal, gas, , oil and nuclear combined. 

25% of global power generation is already from renewable sources, expected to rise to over 40% by 2040, mainly as a result of government-driven decisions. We will need a similar revolution in cutting gas and oil heating for buildings, and for transport.

When oil prices are above $85 a barrel, even the greatest climate sceptics become converts to energy saving. And as we have seen, an additional driver is government fear of dependence on rogue states for energy.

So cost saving, national security, protecting environment ‒ whatever the primary motivation, outcome will a frenzy of green tech innovation, even if held back sometimes by short-term falls in price of carbon. 

And even if we see zero green tech innovation for the next 50 years, we already have all the tools we need, at affordable cost, just by scaling up what already exists.

Tackling climate change at low cost

Much of the rush towards decarbonisation will cost nothing.

Take the normal process of replacing old fridges, cars or gas boilers. In real terms you will probably spend less than last time you bought one, yet the new model will be more energy efficient.

So, just by replacing things when they wear out, your energy consumption at home or when driving will fall rapidly over 10‒20 years, probably by more than 30%.

How to ramp up green tech investment at "zero cost"

There are many other ways to save energy that repay costs in 5 years or less.

For example, some companies are offering free upgrades of heating and air conditioning for 15-year-old offices and hotels, on condition that the owners continue to pay the company the same as they used to in energy costs, for a limited period.

The green tech company takes out a loan to pay all their own design and installation costs, and it also pays all the energy bills over the first four years.

At the same time, each month the owner pays the company the amount it would usually pay to the utility company for gas or power.

But the energy consumption is of course greatly reduced, once the new systems have been installed. The cost saving pays off the loan, and provides enough extra cash to fund the entire installation, plus profit on top.

We are seeing similar schemes for city-wide street lighting, which is 5% of all energy used in many nations.

Replacing lights can more than halve energy use, with payback in four years, saving up to 3% of the entire national energy bill.

Massive increase in scale of green construction - zero carbon buildings

38% of all global CO2 emissions are related to the construction industry: building, tearing down old structures, plus heating and cooling of existing ones.

The greatest single change in the race to zero carbon will be one word:

SCALE

Look at the largest green building projects we have seen over the last decade or two, and multiply by ten or more over the next twenty years - in individual size and collectively.  

We need to be far bolder and more ambitious in ramping up decarbonisation of our world. 

Take for example the targets announced by the UK government in November 2020. 4 times current offshore wind capacity by 2030.  

300,000 new homes, most to be carbon zero or ultra low in emissions.

First town heated entirely by hydrogen by 2030 with over £500m investment.

600,000 heat pumps a year installed by 2030.  

£1bn on carbon capture - and so on.  China will continue to dominate green tech investment globally.

Buildings will be required by regulators to last longer

There will be huge focus on creating smart, “carbon neutral” buildings that are ultra-efficient to heat or cool. 

But we will also see far more attention on how long those buildings will actually last.  My own home was built in 1842 and I expect will still be lived in by the year 2300.  

But I don’t know many commercial tower blocks or factories being built today that have a life-expectancy of more than 50 years - and many buildings being demolished today are less than 40 years old.

This really matters, because 30% of the entire energy consumed in the average life cycle of an office tower is the energy consumed in building it, and 10% more can be consumed in demolition.  

We need to see far more life-enhancing, iconic structures that people will love and enjoy using for generations to come. 

That means regulators, government planners, architects and project owners all working together with longer term vision. 

Re-purposing and recycling of old buildings

As part of this, we will also see rapid growth in repurposing older buildings, refitting their interiors, extending their useful lives.

Secondly, we talk a lot about recycling as being good for the environment. And we will see massive growth in recycling of building waste.  But we can go a lot further. 

The truth is that most recycling in our communities is down-cycling.  

For example, plastic drinking bottles converted into lower-grade insulation products.  But closed-cycling is where those same plastic drinking bottles are collected, melted down and recast into new plastic bottles.  

Closed-cycling in construction industry

We already see closed-cycling construction - for example with recovery of steel girders and so on.

By 2050 many high-efficiency, carbon-neutral buildings will be going up in cities that are destined one day to be dismantled almost entirely into their component parts, so that most of the building materials (and some individual components) can be reused. 

Now if you achieve that, it becomes less of an issue to remodel an inner city landscape for every new generation.

How to save 30–40% of today’s global CO2 emissions at ‘zero cost’

Here are some specific areas of carbon saving:

Low energy streetlamps:  60% energy saving. 3% cut in global energy use.  4 year payback period on investment

Aviation efficiencies: 35% energy saving. 1.5% cut in global energy use. 3 to 10 year payback period

Vehicles: 35–70% energy savings. 10–20% cut in global energy use. 1 to 5 year payback period 

Building controls: 35–70% energy savings. 4–5.5% cut in global energy use. 4 years payback period

Insulating homes: 5–50% energy savings. 6–8% cut in global energy use. 3–15 years payback period

Heat pumps: 25–50% energy savings. 6–8% cut in global energy use. 10–15 years payback period

$300bn a year is already being spent on energy saving by companies and governments in just 11 nations ‒ and we have only just begun.

Nanotech coatings for every moving part in a car engine will alone save at least 5% of fuel costs. Condensing gas boilers save 30% of fuel. The list is endless, with hundreds of new energy-related patents filed every day.

Cost of solar panels will fall towards zero – by 12% a year 

Solar panels will continue to fall rapidly in cost, by up to 12% a year, but usually only convert 18% of sunlight.

The cost per watt has fallen to $3 for domestic panels.  But very large scale projects in America are generating at 6 cents per kilowatt hour, without any subsidy, lower than the cost of coal or gas power. 

The latest silicon-based panels are already so cheap that they can be bought by a home owner with a bank loan, and will earn money from the first day without government subsidy.

This is the case in Australia, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Germany already leads Europe in solar panels, because of generous subsidies, but this is nothing to what we will see in the future. Next-generation solar panels will twice as efficient.

Over 600 gigawatts of solar panels have already been installed around the world – and at least the same again will be installed every three years from 2025, equivalent to five times the entire energy consumption of the UK.

8% of Italy’s power already comes from sunlight. We can expect lift-off on a gigantic scale by 2025, and solar power is likely to become the world’s largest source of electricity by 2060. 

Most solar panels will be installed in places where there is no connection to a national grid – serving over 1 billion people who are currently off grid. Solar power installations are expensive to put in, but running costs are zero and they last many years.

Imagine a world where the cheapest roofing material is solar panels, when energy generation is included.

We can see how vast this solar boom will become, with solar cells covering cars, factories, walls, roofs, airports, fields, lakes and deserts. Owners of lakes in some countries are starting to cover part of the surface with floating solar panels – which do not disturb wildlife too much.

Farmers across Europe are covering land with solar panels. Research shows that biodiversity is often higher in fields with panels than in ploughed fields. 

Deserts could power all America and Europe

We will see enormous arrays of desert mirrors, reflecting light onto tubes containing gas, to drive steam turbines.

These have already been built in Spain and the UAE, but will be overtaken by silicon panels as costs fall.

A single solar farm just 50km by 80km, in the Nevada desert, could in theory generate enough energy to supply most of the US, assuming a smart grid, and large scale battery storage during the day for use at night (time differences will help spread load).

India has already built a 2 gigawatt installation and is planning another to generate 5 gigawatts.

One of the greatest challenges is dust: in Spain vast areas of such panels need cleaning only once a year, but in the UAE they need to be cleaned once a week. 

Wind, waves and tides

We will also see huge growth in wind power between 2020 and 2050, especially offshore in the shallow seas of Western Europe, and across China.

Average blade length will continue to grow. The longest blades already dwarf the size of the largest wings on passenger jets.

Efficiency will improve, with hardly any moving parts, and better blade design.  Optimisation will soon be reached for blade size and other components, and wind innovation beyond 2030 will be less than solar.

Expect 250 gigawatts of installed wind capacity in the EU alone by 2025. China will dominate this global industry, with more turbines already than any other nation. 

We will also see more energy generated from waves and tides, with most of this from tidal barrages, which has the potential generate 15% of UK energy by 2050.

However, such projects require gigantic investment and are likely to look less attractive in future compared to solar, wind and other sources.

We will see more tidal turbines in places like Scotland and Brittany, where tidal currents are strong. But wave machines will prove very expensive and disappointing compared to solar or wind.

Smart grids - $10bn spent globally over next 20 years

The windiest and sunniest places on earth are often far from cities, so we will need new ways to transmit wind and solar power without high power losses.

We also need to connect hundreds of millions of home-based power generators, so that their own solar panels and wind turbines are part of the national grid. 

Supergrids will carry power over many thousands of kilometres, across entire continents, with almost zero power loss.

Supergrids use high voltage, direct current rather than alternating current, so power always flows in the same direction, which means very little power is lost into the atmosphere as electromagnetic radiation.

Expect over $10bn to be spend globally on building supergrids.

Germany alone has been planning to build 6,400km of supergrid, as part of EU100 billion European investment, but cost and impact on the landscape will be big issues, and are likely to slow construction down. Whatever happens, Europe will be far more joined up energy-wise in future.

Energy prices turn negative - energy stores to manage demand

We will see huge investment in low-cost energy storage to the point where it is no longer considered a major problem, using a wide range of existing tech and innovations that have yet to be developed.  

Up until now one of the most common ways to store surplus energy at night was to pump water from one dam, uphill to another. One approach that will be more widely used is salt caverns.

Natural spaces underground that are gas-tight, into which air is compressed using surplus power. When power is needed, compressed air is combined with natural gas to turbocharge gas turbines.

Entire nations running on battery power for short periods

We will use the batteries of hundreds of thousands of electric cars as additional power stores, as they will be plugged into the national grid most of the time.

Car batteries will act as power donors at times of peak demand, with agreement of their owners, who will be paid to participate.

We will also see many mega battery banks, like those being built by Tesla to serve entire cities or regions.  

Tesla’s 100 megawatt battery in Australia has been earning back 33% of it’s cost every year, replacing very expensive power stations that were previously used for only a few peak days a year.

When you add all these things together, the combined impact will be extraordinary.

For example, in June 2013 there was so much sunlight and wind in Germany that the national grid was threatened with meltdown.

Energy companies were forced to contact some of their biggest customers to persuade them to burn up more power, by any means. They were paid four times the normal cost of electricity for every unit they were able to burn up.

So energy prices actually became negative. Expect many more radical upsets in green tech energy markets.

Nuclear boom despite a meltdown - e.g. investing in Nuclear Fusion

Despite the Fukushima disaster in Japan, we are about to see a global boom in construction of new nuclear power stations – except in Japan and Germany.

Global spending on nuclear reactor pressure vessels alone is around $16bn a year, with 48 new nuclear power stations being built across the Asia-Pacific and a further 22 in other parts of the world.

The only thing that will slow this down would be another major nuclear accident, say in France, spreading radioactive dust across Western Europe.

We are likely to see a new generation of nuclear power stations by 2060-2070 (or possibly earlier) based on nuclear fusion, which is a radically different technology from splitting the atom (fission) and involves fusing two different atoms together to release energy, with far less radioactive waste.

The EU, America, Japan, China, India, Russia and South Korea are jointly building a 23,000-ton, 500-megawatt experimental fusion reactor in France that is likely to cost more than $30bn and with first plasma experiments scheduled for 2025.

Meanwhile, the global aerospace company Lockheed Martin claims to have built a small working prototype, and hopes to have a commercial-scale device by 2025. They say it will be small enough to fit on a truck and could power 80,000 homes using 20kg of fuel a year.

While the Chinese are also exploring the use of thorium as a new fuel, there is no shortage of uranium, which forms around 3% of the cost of a new reactor.

If uranium prices treble, which would still be quite affordable, we can start to mine uranium from sea water, even using today’s Japanese technology. We could supply the world with uranium for over 10,000 years at current energy levels, from sea water alone.

Those that worry about very long term consequences of nuclear waste products, and risks of radiation leaks or explosions, will argue for solar and wind for safety and cost reasons.  

But some governments will say that such sources need supplementing with constant and reliable non-carbon energy.

Germany will follow an anti-nuclear path - cost impact on manufacturing

In contrast, Germany is quickly phasing out nuclear power as part of their policies to transfer to renewables – so quickly that even the meteoric rise of solar and wind power across the country will barely make up for the loss.

As a result, Germany’s use of carbon will change far less dramatically over the next two decades.

Germany achieved its green tech boom by offering very generous government subsidies.

The money for these subsidies is clawed back from all energy customers in a special green energy tariff which is added to normal energy prices. So the result of the green tech boom has been a jump in energy costs.

Energy prices paid by industry in Germany are now projected to rise to around $150 per megawatt hour, almost three times that in America, by 2020.

This is a major risk to 75% of its small- and medium-sized industrial companies. Energy-hungry companies like BASF, SGL Carbon and Basi Schoberl are complaining that they may be forced to relocate production out of Germany as a direct result, possibly to America, where shale gas prices are likely to remain much lower.

Germany spends $20bn a year on green subsidies, working out at over $200 to prevent a ton of CO2 from being emitted.

Boom in carbon trading and carbon offsets by companies

At the same time, carbon credits are being traded between companies for only $20 a ton of CO2, so some strange market forces are operating. It will be at least 5‒10 years before carbon pricing settles to a more sustainable level. The entire carbon trading market will be restructured.

Carbon emissions trading will be very important in future. 15% of global emissions are already capped, equal to around 7 gigatons of CO2.  So companies or nations needing to exceed a cap need to buy a carbon permit from companies that have made reductions – effectively funding the decarbonisation. The original carbon market was flooded by over-generous allowances during the 2008 economic downturn, that were then traded, as companies made simple energy savings. 

Hydrogen and fuel cells – some false promises

As I forecast some years ago, hydrogen is very unlikely to become a major global fuel for cars, trucks or planes, for several reasons.

First, it is an inefficient fuel to transport in tanks, as it produces less power per litre than a carbon-based gas.

Second, the gas molecules are very small, so leaks are harder to prevent.

Third, battery technology is improving rapidly as well as the efficiency of petrol and diesel engines. It is impossible to imagine a national hydrogen gas grid running across America, for example – too expensive to even consider.  

But we will see growth of hydrogen powered vehicles in cities – for example buses.

Expect further improvements in fuel cells that produce power directly from carbon fuel. However, like hydrogen, such fuel cells will face severe competition over the next two decades from next-generation batteries.

And we will also see ammonia being produced as a hydrogen store, as liquid ammonia is easier to transport than gas.

Biofuels – expect a radical rethink

Future generations will regard it a crime against society to burn food in vehicles, or to convert crops from farms into other forms of carbon, instead of growing food to feed the world.

By 2015, 40% of all corn grown in America was already being converted to biofuels. In Europe, all drivers are forced by law to burn food in their petrol or diesel cars or trucks – 5% of all petrol or diesel sold in the EU is from food, rising to 10% by 2020. 

The American government encouraged use of biofuels to help the nation become energy independent, but even if every ton of grain were converted to petrol or diesel, it would not be enough to keep more than 25% of the auto industry on the move, so the impact is insignificant on energy policy.

To make matters worse, up to 92% of theoretical savings in carbon emissions are lost because of energy used in fertilisers, CO2 emitted in transporting biofuel to factory, energy making biofuels and in trucking the fuel from rural areas to cities.  

Biofuels are often grown on deforested land, especially in nations like Brazil, which further undermines their environmental benefit.  

Biofuels are also expensive in terms of subsidies. For example, the EU is paying €1,200 per ton of CO2 saved by biofuels, which is six times the average subsidy paid by Germany for a wide range of green tech to reduce CO2 emissions.

Negative impact of biofuels on farming for food

Biofuel production is taking over the countryside in many nations.

Within the EU, an area of farmland the size of Belgium was recently being used to grow biofuels for EU use, and a similar land area outside the EU is also needed. Biofuel farms in the EU were recently using more water than the entire Seine and Elbe river flows combined.  

And then Argentina stepped in, flooding the EU with low cost biofuel, produced from their own farmland, bankrupting many EU biofuel producers.

At a time when 840 million are hungry, the EU alone is burning enough biofuel calories in vehicles each year to feed 100 million people.  And importing food as fuel is no better. It still impacts global food supply and use of fertile land.

Twice over the last 10 years we have seen prices of some foods soar by more than 50%. And each time, influential bodies like the UN have said that up to 70% of these rises have probably been caused by burning food in vehicles.

So it may be that over 30 million people in the world today are starving as a direct result of biofuels policies. And as we have seen, the real issue is not necessarily the facts (which may be disputed), but how people around the world feel about it all.

Food and oil prices will be locked together

One thing is clear: the moment we link food and energy together in this way, we create a single food-fuel market, so oil prices and food prices are now locked together across the world, which is a risky situation.

It means that land prices, farmland prices and woodland prices (because woodland can be cleared to grow grain) have also become linked to energy prices.

So a Middle East oil scare produces a food price spike. If the price of oil doubles over the next decade, prices of some foods may double too. Some counter that while this may apply to biofuels from food, it is different when you are converting biomass (non-edible crops).

But biomass still comes from the land. So we are seeing farmers devote huge areas to crops which count as biomass, while reducing the land area they use to grow food.

Biomass has certainly become a very fashionable concept in energy. One of the UK’s largest coal power stations ‒ Drax ‒ has been converted to biomass.

The only trouble is that this monster is impossible to feed from the UK alone, so bio-waste has been transported to Drax in containers shipped from Brazil – yet another sign of global madness.

Some claim that biofuels are a natural form of carbon capture: using sunlight to take carbon from the air to make fuel, but capture is only for a few weeks, and overall carbon impact is zero.  Growing food does the same thing. 

Some biofuel crops do grow very fast, capture more carbon than food crops, and can be grown in areas unsuitable for traditional farming, and may be more justifiable to use.

But as I say, this whole area is likely to become more controversial, and such crops will compete for natural wilderness, wetland areas and forests as well as for normal farm land.

Carbon capture will be widely used – eventually

An obvious way to reduce emissions of CO2 is to capture chimney gases from gas or coal power stations, and bury them underground in old gas fields, which of course have been proven to be gas-tight for millions of years. The process is still experimental, but expect rapid growth.

Carbon capture, utilization and storage is an industry already worth $3 billion a year, growing by over 20% a year.

A simple way to do this is to use some of the power station electricity to extract oxygen from the atmosphere, which is then pumped into the power station to burn gas or coal.

The only chimney gases are then water vapour (condensed to provide local water), a very little sulphur dioxide, and pure CO2 to be pumped underground.

The world’s first large-scale capture and storage plant was opened in Canada in 2014. Over a million tons of CO2 are being pumped into an oil field, which will also help further oil extraction.

We are likely to see more such projects in the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Australia. In America, growth will be accelerated by a tax credit of $50 per ton of CO2 buried underground, and $35 per ton used in other ways – not quite enough to cover all costs yet.

Imagine a world with free power

As we look beyond 2100, it is easy to imagine that ‘free’ electrical power will be part of normal life for hundreds of millions of people.

Indeed, this is already the case for people who have owned solar panels or wind turbines for some time, whose costs have already been paid long ago through savings on their fuel bills.

They will go on experiencing free power until those devices break down. The same applies to any farmer fortunate enough to have a small water turbine working off a local stream or river.

The lesson, therefore, is that electrical power in future will become more a question of capital investment than fuel consumption.


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