Ten countries are planning to produce 120% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, according to the the Production gap report. The oil and gas industry has plans to expand gas infrastructure for more than 100 billion Euros in Europe. Does all of this surprise you?
No, I am not surprised. Once investments have been made in pipelines or other infrastructure to extract and export coal, oil or gas, the temptation for investors is very high to use that infrastructure for as long as possible, to get their money back.
That is bad news for the climate.
Today, we know what is causing global heating. And we are only starting to see the impact — be it fires in California, floods in Sudan or drought in Western Europe. With everything we know about those impacts and their intensification, if we continue to stay on the present course, governments should go away from that kind of behavior. If we want to keep the planet inhabitable, we cannot afford to burn everything that is planned to be extracted.
Do you understand why the divergence is so big between what the governments have committed to, and what they seem to be able to do in practice?
I am not sure a climate scientist is the best person to answer this question. It would be better to ask the heads of governments and CEOs of companies themselves, to ask them whether they have children and if they talk to them about these investments. That would be interesting.
Common for environmental problems is short-term thinking and lack of understanding of the severity of the impacts induced by the continued usage of fossil fuels at that scale. Some of the factors are inertia and greed. The fossil fuel lobbies make efforts to maintain the status quo, and they are not constrained enough, neither in the US nor in Europe.
Fossil fuels are how we power most of our economy and our way of life on this planet. It is easier for fossil fuel companies to continue what they have been doing than to change fundamentally.
It seems that many of the energy grids in Europe have been constructed from a need for energy security as well, and even military security, if you look at the tensions between Turkey and Greece.
I don’t know whether the tensions between Turkey and Greece around energy aim at increasing security, or if there are security problems because of the interests in some sources of energy on both sides. Of course, there are connections between security issues and energy issues and environmental issues in general. But the direction of the relationship needs to be understood properly.
Do you see the lock-in effects — that you mentioned if we continue to invest in fossil infrastructure — as a deliberate strategy from those pushing for those investments, or as laziness? Some of the fossil infrastructure is said to have a future in transporting renewable energy.
That is out of my expertise. My answer would be very subjective. But of course, the temptation to paint whatever decision taken, with green colour, is always very high. I am not saying all those investments are useless for a hydrogen economy that may come later, as it is not my field. I am just saying it is a possibility.
What would you say to the Norwegian government, which licenses new blocks for exploration in the Barents sea, claiming these resources are needed for a long time still?
Any government that today doesn’t have an explicit plan to decrease basically to zero the burning — without carbon capture and storage — of fossil fuels in the next 20 or 25 years, is not respecting the spirit and commitments of the Paris agreement.
The IPCC special report published two years ago about the 1.5 degrees warming shows that if we want to respect that target, we need to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 at the latest. This means actually reducing emissions close to zero. It could mean still emitting some CO2 and capturing it. But there are strong limitations to the quantities that could be realistically stored that way.
So all governments of the world, including the one you mentioned, should have in mind how to reduce emissions close to zero in the coming two (or maximum three) decades.
If you invest today in new infrastructure and new extraction capacity, it is not going to be used for five or ten years — it will be used presumably for much longer. That probably means later than 2050. On the other hand, the carbon budget we have left if we want to avoid the 1.5 degree Celsius warming threshold, is very small. That carbon budget has been used mostly by the developed countries so far. Developed countries have a historical responsibility to reduce emissions even more than those who have started to use fossil fuels more recently.
It is very strange at this late stage to begin new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure anywhere in the world, including in Norway.
You also have Greece, wanting to start its oil and gas adventure now.
Unfortunately, the list is much longer. Many countries are doing that.
Looking at Europe as a whole, there are still new investments being made. If it defies all logic, how does that make you feel?
It is not illogical at all. It is quite logical if you don’t care about the environment and about future generations. That is why I am saying please meet those responsible for these investments and ask them what they are saying to their children and grandchildren. Their answers will be interesting.
What would that answer be?
I don’t have many opportunities to ask the CEOs of fossil fuel companies. But if I had them in front of me, I would ask them that question. I would be interested in the answer. It could be that those kids have been misinformed as well about what their parents or grandparents have been doing.
Journalists most often don’t make these issues personal.
Why? I read the press, and you ask them what is their preferred wine, and where they go on holiday, and which islands they possibly bought. You could just as well ask them if they have had that conversation with their kids and grandkids. That would be very interesting.
Methane has been labeled “the blind spot” of Europe’s climate policies. How do you see this problem?
Methane is very important. Each tonne of methane has the same effect on climate (over a century) as 30 tonnes of CO2. Present emissions from oil and gas operations amount to 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, according to the International Energy Agency. This comes from leaks and from operations in oil and gas only, and does not include leaks from coal mines.
But these are estimates, not measurements?
Yes, there is an uncertainty around those numbers. But they represent more than 5 per cent of global emissions today, and that is significant. But very little is done about it. It is well known that the Russian network for gas is leaking. And every fraction of a per cent of leakage from those pipelines is producing huge quantities of CO2 equivalents per year. It is the same in the US. They also have a very old gas grid which is leaking in many places. Probably in Western Europe it is a little better.
This is a good argument for the Norwegian oil and gas companies, who boast very low methane emissions from their operations.
Everyone is defending their own business. But it is well known that the Russian grid is leaking, so there is some validity to this argument. All this is nevertheless happening in a context where very soon, no coal, no oil and no gas can be burned anymore, with very limited exceptions that include CCS.
But methane leaks are something that can be fixed, it is not rocket science?
Absolutely. It is probably one of the cheapest ways to reduce emissions. But of course it doesn’t preclude everything else that needs to be done to ultimately stop using fossil fuels.
Is there a risk that actual methane emissions are bigger than the estimates (due to the lack of technology to actually know) so we might be worse off than we believe?
It is possible that the emissions are underreported. But as the changes in the methane concentration in the atmosphere are more or less understood by the specialists, those emission estimates may not be exact, but not wrong by a factor of two. There is a limit to the underestimation.
That atmosphere concentration — the percentage of the atmosphere that is made of methane at the moment — is increasing. This increase needs to be explained. The explanation can either be a decrease in the way methane is destroyed in the atmosphere, due to chemical reactions in the atmosphere. Or it could be an increase in emissions of methane (from fossil fuel operations or from other sources such as ruminants). There needs to be scientific coherence between the measurements we have for the concentration, and the estimates for emissions.
Three of the four scenarios in the 1.5 report rely heavily on CCS — carbon capture and storage — to stay within that limit. Nevertheless, no such thing has been happening. What does that tell you?
The motivation to capture CO2 by economic actors, including fossil fuel companies, is not high enough. Motivation mostly means financial motivation, unless something is strictly forbidden. But CO2 emissions are not forbidden yet.
For centuries, it has been free to use the atmosphere as a dustbin. Now, in Europe, industry has to pay a low price for emitting CO2. If the price was high enough, it would be a much stronger motivation to implement CCS technologies. So the fact that very little CCS is taking place shows that the price of CO2 is not high enough. In Europe at present, the price is around €30. It needs to be hundreds of Euros.
Every year that passes without progress on the price of carbon (and therefore on CCS) shows that either those scenarios are unrealistic, or that the 1.5 degrees target will not be achieved, because not enough emission reductions have taken place. It is one or the other.
It seems that the CCS discussion in the EU is overshadowed by hydrogen. The EU strategy gives priority to hydrogen from renewable sources rather than from gas with CCS?
In theory, at least, it is certainly much better to have hydrogen coming from renewable sources and used at the same time as a vector and a storage means, than continuing to use fossil fuels.
I understand that gas companies are very keen on jumping on the hydrogen bandwagon, as it is perceived as something green. But when something is presented as clean or green or climate friendly, a basic question that needs to be asked is: what is the life-cycle analysis? Hydrogen is wonderful — if you burn it, all you get is water vapor. It is a very clean fuel. But that is just at the end of the pipe. If you look at what comes before, you need to be careful with every step of the hydrogen production and storage. On balance, is it so clean? I am not an expert in this, but if I had to work on that, I would be very careful with every step of the life-cycle analysis.
The issues are very technical and hard to understand. What should the public think of policymakers who promote the Green Deal on the one hand, while investing in infrastructure for fossil energy on the other hand?
It is very technical, but also not very technical. The problem is very simple: Today we are basing 80 per cent of our primary energy use on fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas. Every time we burn one kilo of carbon, we send 3.7 kilos of CO2 into the atmosphere. That thickens the thermal insulation layer around the planet. And slowly, we are starting to suffocate under that blanket, where temperature is increasing because the heat cannot escape any more.
It is very simple, and if you understand it, you also understand that as quickly as possible, and not waiting 10 or 20 years, we need to stop making that blanket thicker. It is too thick even today.
The science is clear: We need to get out of fossil fuel burning without CCS as quickly as possible. So investments now in new fossil fuel capacity represents money that would be better spent doing something else, like increasing energy efficiency, or developing renewables.
At the same time, your IPCC scenarios include mostly massive amounts of CCS technology, which is for decarbonising fossil fuels?
The amounts of CO2 that would in theory be stored through CCS in the scenarios, will be very hard to achieve. To store all that CO2, you also need space in geological formations. There are limits to the global storage capacity.
I think CCS will need to be used a little bit, and it will help; everything that is not in the atmosphere, is helping. But to rely entirely on CCS would be crazy.
If we are not going to emit carbon after 2050 at all — or only in very minuscule amounts — will the enormous investments needed to get CCS going become stranded assets in 30 years?
Yes and no. It is more complicated than that. The climate sees only net emissions, the difference between emissions and absorption — whether it is absorption by forests, by soil or by artificial techniques, like CCS or direct air capture. As a climate scientist, I should not speak about anything else but net emissions.
The scenarios shown in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C warming stop in 2100. But what happens in the following century and the one after that? If CCS is used just as a temporary help to reduce net emissions until we have converted our energy system to be fully renewable, that would be ok. But if it is just an excuse to continue using more and more fossil fuels, at some point the system breaks down, as you cannot store that CO2 anymore.
Because the geology required does not exist everywhere, as it does in the North Sea?
Also that. And the depleted gas fields are very nice to fill with CO2, apparently, but once they are filled, it is over.
What actions would you like to see from governments and the EU?
A key element is to change the perception that putting CO2 in the atmosphere can be done without consequences.
Since most people up to now do not understand the environmental consequences well enough, the alternative is to make them understand it through the financial consequences. It means putting an increasingly serious price on carbon and greenhouse gases, so that the atmosphere is not used as a free dustbin anymore.
The price of carbon is not the magic bullet, but it is an essential bullet in the strategy to reduce emissions. And it will not happen with the present European CO2 prices of €30. It needs to be hundreds of Euros.
Of course you cannot do that from one day to the next — the disruption would be brutal. But if it is done progressively, and if all the actors — especially the businesses — know in advance that the trend will be towards several hundred euros for emitting one tonne of CO2 in the next 10 to 15 years, they will start to think completely differently. That will transform thinking in the whole economy — about living, transporting and consuming things. A key element, though, will be to use the money collected in a clever way, so that it helps investments in energy efficiency and clean energy production, and also avoids disproportionately impacting the poor (otherwise you have the “gilets jaunes”).
Between Greta Thunberg and climate skeptics, how is society developing?
Many countries have so called climate skeptics. I prefer to call them climate confusers, because they should not get to monopolize the value of skepticism. Skepticism is at the root of scientific activity. If you are not skeptical as a scientist, you are not a good scientist.
In many countries, these climate confusers are old, white men who are getting a little older every year. They are slowly disappearing because of age. This is not universal, there is some renewal. Some in the fossil industry understand that it needs to change fundamentally. Some have started to change, but those who change the least are still feeding some climate confusion, particularly in the US.
But you think this phenomenon will naturally disappear as time goes by?
The nature of climate confusion is changing. 15 to 20 years ago, most of their efforts were focussed on whether climate change was happening. Then they moved to whether climate change was caused by human activity or not, and now increasingly it is not so much about climate science, but about solutions and the costs of the alternative solutions.
The arguments will focus more and more on the solutions space, and whether we need to reduce emissions with CCS, or by promoting hydrogen, or nuclear energy, or gas over coal, or gas over oil.
If they don’t want to change the present way of doing business, they present extravagantly overestimated costs and disadvantages. Of course, every technology, including renewable technology, has costs in terms of environment, space, landscape, or resources used. So you need to do lifespan analysis. And if you do that today, fossil fuels get a very bad score on those assessments.
There is a growing conviction among citizens of the world that climate is indeed changing, and a growing understanding that there is scientific consensus that human activity is causing it.
The debate about solutions, which sometimes will be nasty and dishonest, will continue. The stakes for the actors who have coal, oil and gas assets are so high that they will continue to sow disinformation about some of those aspects for a very long time. But this is not climate skepticism any more. It is politics.