How climate action will dominate energy in 2022 - Business Extra

The Atlantic Council's Randy Bell explains that the impact of October's Cop 26 Glasgow summit will continue to be felt as the industry transitions

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As the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic recede, the most critical issue faced by those leading the energy industry becomes the transition to a less carbon-intensive world after the commitments made at Cop 26 climate summit in Glasgow.

How will this be managed amid an evolving global landscape which also includes heightened geopolitical risk and the concern around security of energy supplies.

Randy Bell, senior director, and Richard Morningstar, Chair for Global Energy Security, of the Atlantic Council joined hosts Mustafa Alrawi and Kelsey Warner in the studio in Abu Dhabi to look ahead to what could be the main factors shaping the sector in the coming twelve months.

A transcript of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity, is below.

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Mustafa Alrawi 01:44

Randy, it’s good to have you here from DC with us in the studio in Abu Dhabi. We’re going to talk about the outlook for energy. And you’ve written recently that, well, you’re suggesting that 2022 could be tumultuous when it comes to energy. You know, is that because of what’s going on globally right now or is this something that’s been brewing for some time?

Randy Bell 02:07

Well, first of all, it’s great to be back here in Abu Dhabi after a couple of years of not being able to travel, so it’s just wonderful to be back here in this great city. You know, the energy world has been tumultuous for the past couple of years with, first, the dramatic drop in prices because of Covid in 2020 and then, last year, we started to see prices go up. The oil price was a major cause of inflation in a number of importing countries and, of course, the gas crisis in Europe, and also high prices in Asia, were dominant in the headlines in the second half of 2021 and continue to be a problem. You know, the oil price recently crossed over $90, though today it’s, it’s, it’s back a little bit below 90, in part because what we’ve seen from Opec, increasing, increasing production, though there are still some questions about if certain Opec countries, some of the smaller Opec players, can actually deliver on their increased quotas. And then there is a lot of geopolitical risk as well, that’s sort of baked into the current oil price but could could get worse, whether that’s the Russia-Ukraine situation, which could have a major impact on gas in Europe, but also on the oil market. There’s, of course, the, the ongoing talks with, with Iran, and then potential tension with ever-increasing tension in Taiwan. All of those, all those issues could, could have a really outsized impact on the energy markets. And then just you know, just to make matters worse, just this right now, in the United States, we’re seeing a major winter storm that could potentially cause outages again in Texas. Well, well, the governor there had promised earlier that there wouldn’t be any power outages this winter. He walked that back and said it’s possible that there’ll be power outages over the course of the next couple days. And that could have an impact on, on energy production in the United States. It had a pretty significant impact last year, and also a human impact. So we’re seeing just a large number of factors playing into what, what is very likely to be at least a dynamic year for energy, if not tumultuous. Then you bring into it the climate question and the pressures that many, many governments are feeling: the desire to act from the corporate side, and it just adds a whole another layer of complexity to the energy conversation in 2022.

Kelsey Warner 04:21

My sense is that sentiment around the pandemic is ‘We’re leaving the pandemic, but it’s being replaced by this feeling of geopolitical risk’. Could you speak to a bit of that relationship and ‘we’re in recovery mode, it feels, economically, on the pandemic, but now geopolitical risk enters into the frame. What does that mean, and and how are we managing this this transition of new harsh realities?

Randy 04:24

Right? Well, you know, every year the Atlantic Council Global Energy Centre conducts a survey at the end of the previous year to get an assessment for how energy experts are feeling, going into the next year. So going into 2022, we had, we had a very different set of responses on questions about risk than we had going into 2021. So going into 2021, we had nearly 40 per cent of our survey respondents thought Covid-19 was the biggest risk for energy, And with, with cyber attack and interstate conflict totalling maybe less than 30 per cent. Now, this year, cyber attacks and interstate conflict are 43 per cent of our survey respondents, with Covid-19 only 11 per cent. So it’s really flipped. And so the energy expert community is really much more focused on, on the more geopolitical-type questions than they are on Covid. Now, Covid isn’t, isn’t gone, as we all know. But it’s having a, you know, much less of an impact than it did, for sure, in 2020, and even, even less of an impact in, in 2021, than it did in 2021. We’re expecting oil demand, for instance, to be back up to pre-pandemic level, levels by the end of 2022, barring any new variant or any new, any new challenges from Covid-19, though it’s also very hard to imagine the level of lockdown that we saw in 2020. There’s not a political will for that in many, many parts of the world. But as, as I was talking about earlier, the geopolitical risks are far greater. The issues that I talked about, but also then the, the fear of cyber attacks is, is a real one and and can be, can be related to some of those Russia-Ukraine issues, but also just have been ongoing in, in the United States and in Europe, and in many parts of the world. And those are caused often by non-state actors that are just looking, to looking to make a quick buck. And so you saw, in 2021, the cyber attack on the Colonial pipeline in the United States which caused a temporary price spike in gasoline prices in the United States and, and was very worrisome and really showed the, the fragility of the system. So there’s just a lot to worry about on the, on the political side this year, even as we get closer to a pre-pandemic normal.

Mustafa 06:55

I wonder, you talk about these risks, and some of them feel like they’re not going to go away like cyber attacks, or cyber risk, is going to be with us, you know, as long as we are digitalised, if you like. And hopefully the geopolitical risk will will wane over time, although, you know, given the news flow at the moment, it doesn’t look likely any time soon. But if I pick up on what you’re talking about in terms of climate action, that’s something that, that’s quite interesting in terms of the research that the Atlantic Council has been doing, that almost there’s been a reality check for a lot of leaders, when it comes to energy leaders, that is, energy experts, where perhaps sort of that optimism we had, maybe because the world stopped in 2020 and the skies cleared and we saw a little bit of hope in terms of the battle against global warming. Now, after all the energy spent, if you’ll excuse the pun, at Glasgow with Cop26, the, now, people perhaps aren’t as optimistic about climate action, but maybe as well as sort of the second half of this, this discussion, which is maybe that they’re not really looking at what’s happening on the ground but sentiment has somehow flipped.

Randy 08:03

I think that’s absolutely right, that sentiment is flipped. Going into 2021, the energy expert community had, had a sense that Covid-19 really was going to spur climate action, that it was a great ... it had created the space for increased climate action. And then there was a lot riding on Glasgow, and perhaps global leaders over-promised on what was actually possible. But, but in our research, we found that people were quite, quite negative about the outcome from Glasgow. You know, we asked this question, ranking the outcome of Cop26 on a scale from more “blah, blah, blah”, as Greta has described it to, to, on the one hand to creating a foundation for achieving global net zero by 2050. On the other hand, 51 per cent of our respondents thought it was more blah, blah, blah. Only 11 per cent thought that the outcomes from Glasgow were created a foundation for achieving global net zero by 2050. Now, my personal feeling is that while Glasgow did not accomplish as much as some people had hoped, that it actually there was a lot to be proud of, a lot came out of it that really sets the scene for more action in Egypt, and then in Abu Dhabi, in 2023, at the Cop27 and Cop28.

Kelsey 09:16

Randy, that is such a bleak picture that you just painted. What made you hopeful? you you need to pay? What made you optimistic coming out of Cop26? Because to me, that sentiment flip sounds like an utter failure.

Randy 09:27

Right? So you know, if you look at some of the data, that from 2021, there’s actually a lot that was accomplished. Again, a record year for investment and deployment of renewable energy capacity, a record year of investment in clean tech start-ups. If you look at electric vehicle sales, they’re, they’re continuing to to increase. Now, in specifically in terms of the Cop, they actually got to an agreement on Article Six on carbon markets, which, which a lot of people thought was not going to happen. So they resolved the Paris rulebook, which is, which is a very big deal and allows, allows carbon trading, international carbon trading, to move forward, and that’s going to be very important. Now, you know, they were aiming at, Alok Sharma was aiming to phase out coal, and they were really trying to make Cop26. The End of Coal, they didn’t get quite that far. So the language was “phase down” coal instead of “phase out coal”, but but that’s still the first time that fossil fuels were specifically mentioned in a cup communique. So I think, well, it didn't achieve what they had, you know, people were hoping it actually is still quite an accomplishment. So as Alok Sharma, has said, Cop26 kept the goal of keeping 1.5 degrees alive, kept 1.5 alive is what what they say. And I think that’s true. You know, there’s still a lot of work to do, but the direction of travel is correct, in that there, that we’re actually moving in the right direction.

Kelsey 10:49

You mentioned carbon markets. And that is something I wanted to ask you about. Can you just take a step back, just for our listeners who are maybe not familiar with this concept, I think we’re going to be seeing it more and more as it was brought to the fore, as you said, Cop26. And it passed. Can you just explain what role carbon market serves and the outlook for them in the years ahead?

Randy 11:09

I’m not an expert in, in carbon markets and carbon trading, so I’ll keep it at a very, very high level. But the the, the general general idea is that by by enabling the trading of carbon and offsets, that you will be able to accelerate climate action because some countries will be able to move faster in decarbonisation than others. And it’ll incentivise those countries that can move faster to do so and allow those countries that are, are not able to move as fast to help support those who are. And so by, by trading carbon, you actually enable a faster global decarbonisation. But the rules of that are very important, because it’s very easy to double-count it, if you look at carbon offsets, the voluntary carbon offsets right now, there’s various various schemes, some of which are highly reputable and some of which are, you often question the legitimacy of those schemes. And so by creating a rulebook that, that governments can use, in in this trading, they actually create, create a market that is transparent and that allows for legitimate action and legitimate efforts at decarbonisation instead of, really, so really a carbon trading that ultimately doesn’t accomplish what it says it’s going to. So a really big deal to allow, allow carbon trading at the international level to happen.

Mustafa 12:19

I want to dwell a little bit on the “blah, blah, blah” from Greta Thunberg. And, you know, that statement, if you can call it, from her really generates a lot of headlines, and people focused on that. And actually, you know, we owe a debt of gratitude to the activists who, over decades, have really put sort of climate change or climate action at the forefront. Otherwise, you know, we may not, never have got to this point, and there is obviously an urgency. But I wonder, at this point, whether the voices of the activists, whether it’s at Cop26 or in the those that are on the investors, they’re looking at some of the energy companies, the shareholders, you know, we’re getting to a point now where some groups are running scared when it comes to investing in the sources of energy that we need to manage the bumpy road to net zero, that we’re going to be, you know, the, it’s a transit, as people have now, quite rightly saying, there’s a definition to transition, and it means that, you know, we can’t do this tomorrow. So we’ve seen what it’s like when we are short in supply. We’ve seen what it’s like when prices are high, and it’s going to be hitting households in the UK, elsewhere, in the pocket. So, you know, what point do we do we need to say ‘OK, we get it the debate is done, we understand, but you have to let us manage the transition in a responsible way’.

Randy 13:32

So, the first point I want to make is it the the high prices right now …[Oh, sorry, I'm too far too far from the microphone]. So the high prices right now are not almost exclusively not a result of a lack of investment due to climate action. That, that, though that is highly possible in the future, that right now, the, the what we’re seeing is due to underinvestment because of the low price environment we’ve seen, really, since 2014. I think, just as a very good example, there were a number of LNG projects the United States that could not get to final investment decision to FID, during the Trump administration, which was the most pro-fossil fuel administration we’ve seen in the United States in a long time. And so had nothing to do with climate action. It had everything to do with economics. Now, if they had one or two of those had gotten FID, boy, they’d be happy right now. But, you know, there, there, there is some climate policy that did play, particularly in Europe, because they they’re underinvested in gas storage, and we’re reliant on probably too much wind power, and the wind did not blow as strong as it usually does in August. And, and then I don’t call this climate policy, I call this bad energy policy, but when, but the other issue in Europe is Germany shutting down its nuclear, nuclear power plants prematurely. That’s that's actually, you know, nuclear is an important zero-carbon electricity source. But there are other, other issues that the Germans have with nuclear power. So I want to be clear that what’s happening right now is not really about climate and climate policy. But it could but but what we’re seeing is what could happen if we don’t have enough investment in oil going for oil and gas going forward? Because yes, it is a it is a transition. And so we need to make sure to meet energy, energy demand, as long as we have that demand, for oil and gas. So I think the best policy is to work on the demand side, and changing the demand picture instead of changing, really focusing on the supply. And you see a lot of activists, as you say, who really have brought this to, to the forefront and really made climate the crucial global conversation it is right now, but they’re really focused on cutting off supply of energy of fossil energy, instead of focus on focusing on changing the demand so that they’re the that you don’t need that fossil energy any more. And I think that they’d be better served if they did that. And so what I’m hoping from from Greta, you know, if she comes to Egypt or to Abu Dhabi for the Cop27 and Cop28 is that instead of sailing to the Cop, which she she did when she sailed to the to the US for, for UNGA in 2019, because she didn’t want to fly, that she demands to fly on a plane that is fuelled entirely by sustainable aviation fuel. So there is a technological solution, and I would love it if she used her platform to advocate for that solution, instead of instead of just making a big statement without actually talking about what, what actual practical steps can be made.

Mustafa 16:06

Yes. And I think that that is the the hope, that we can have a nuanced conversation now. And I understand before that it kind of needed to be black and white, because some of the opposition to climate action was quite black and white. But now I think that we can, we can agree that largely, as I said, before the debate is done. And so now we need a nuanced way of how we can keep the lights on as we save the planet.

Randy 16:32

Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And, and there are ways of doing this and there are ways of being thoughtful about it. It’s going to be bumpy. Because energy markets are bumpy. There’s there’s nothing that says that you’re not going to end the commodity cycle. When you start transitioning to clean energy. You’re going to see commodity cycles throughout the energy transition. So it’s going to be bumpy. We have to be ready for that. But, but we absolutely can be practical about it at the same time.

Kelsey 16:55

And I offer if you have I mean, it’s a so what I’m also hearing is not only as the debate over but the time for invention is also likely over, that the tools we need to navigate the energy transition actually already do exist. What we need now is, as you said, the demand side and scale and investment. So looking ahead to 2022. I know that you said that you’re optimistic, but what is the path of travel for energy companies who are managing this really short-term volatile, fossil fuel-centric energy reality? With the transition, what is the path ahead?

Randy 17:28

I want to go back to the first part of your question, which was about the, the tools being available. There are a lot of tools that are currently available, but they’re not, we don’t have everything that we need. And so we do need to continue to invest in new technology, in innovation, the hard-to-abate sectors there, whether you’re talking about steel or cement, there, there’s a lot of a lot of work to be done in those sectors. But at the same time, there’s a lot that can be done with existing technology, just deploying renewables, deploying carbon capture, energy efficiency is never talked about enough. But if you look at any, any of the net-zero scenarios, is about 40 per cent. Of any solution. The IEA’s net zero scenario they released last year, which was very controvert controversial because of how it talked about oil and gas. I actually think what’s more interesting about about that scenario, is that the amount of energy efficiency work that needs to be done to get to get to where they want to be in 2050, where that scenario says it needs to be in 2050. The world, in that scenario, actually uses less energy than it did in that scenario in 2050 than it did in 2021. And so there’s a, that’s just a huge amount of work in the energy efficiency space that that can get done. So there’s a lot we can do right now but there’s still a lot of innovation and technological development we need to do. So now to your original question about, you know, what, what do oil and gas producers do? I think what, what we’re going to see, I think, is a, you know, we’ll see more investment in in oil and gas over the course of 2022. Rig counts are going up in the United States, you’re starting to see more production, and Opec and Opec+ countries. We’ll see if how, how many of them can actually meet their production targets. So I think that the, the market signals will ultimately get us where, where we need to go. But what we also need - and this is what’s going to be really hard - we need ESG funds to be thinking not just about the binary between clean and fossil but to be thinking about transition. There needs to be some sort of transition funding to provide funding for fossil energy that is, is getting cleaner. So you there’s a lot of opportunities in the fossil industry to make cleaner fossil fuels, which are going to be crucial, because we’re going to need fossil fuels throughout the transition that should be as clean as possible. You see oil and gas companies making these investments, making these scope one and two net-zero commitments, and there’s a lot of work that they can do. And so we need to find funding for that work, so that they are able to continue to invest in the production of different necessary fossil fuels, while still making them cleaner. And I think that’s probably the solution. But there needs to be a framework. That is, a financial framework that’s accepted. The finance, the finance industry has some work to do there. And then there probably needs to be a policy framework for that as well.

Mustafa 20:08

Is that like blue hydrogen, blue ammonia, as opposed to …. So blue versus green? Is that transition fuel?

Randy 20:14

Well, you’re getting into one of my favourite subjects, of hydrogen. So, if you look at the numbers in terms of current hydrogen demand, there’s actually a lot of current hydrogen demand - about 100 million tonnes a year. If you were to try to replace all of that hydrogen that is currently produced almost exclusively from natural gas a little bit, a little bit from coal, a minimal amount through, of green hydrogen, it would require all of the installed variable renewable capacity as of the end of 2018. So it’s just a huge amount of electricity, of clean electricity, that’s required to just replace the current hydrogen that’s, that’s out there being used today. And so you do have a problem if you want to scale hydrogen, using just so-called green hydrogen produced from renewable power and electrolysis because you also, while you’re deploying renewable power for hydrogen, you still have a lot a long way to go in terms of deploying renewable power on the grid. There, there are very few grids today that are maxed out on renewable power. In California, California has a lot but probably could absorb a little bit more. There are many places in the world that can absorb more renewables before you start running into serious intermittency challenges, and particularly places that have nuclear, that have gas as a backup, can continue to absorb more renewables. So the question is, do you deploy those in the grid? Or do you deploy those renewables for hydrogen? Because you can only build so, so much at a time. We continue to be build more and more renewables every year, but it’s never enough. So blue hydrogen produced from natural gas with carbon capture, I think, is not, not just sort of an interim step. I think it’s part of the story over, at the very least, the medium term, because if we want a hydrogen economy at the scale that I think is required to meet our decarbonisation goals, you’re going to need as much clean hydrogen as you can get. Now, to get blue to, to actually play an important role in decarbonisation, it has to meet some very strict criteria in terms of methane emissions, which is a real problem but a solvable problem. It’s not an intractable problem as some analysts have have posited. And and then the other issue is making sure that the carbon capture rates are are real, and very high percentage of that percentage of that CO2 is captured. That’s also it not a solvable problem. It’s not intractable, but it has to be done right. And you’re seeing projects around the world that are starting to go in that direction. So I really do think you’re going to need blue hydrogen at least for the medium term, because we just need so much hydrogen. And then you can produce hydrogen from nuclear, you can produce hydrogen through pyrolysis. There, there are other ways of producing it that are also potentially useful, as we think about really growing a hydrogen economy at scale.

Kelsey 22:49

The other molecule I always want to ask you about is of course, carbon and the idea of the circular carbon economy, which was endorsed by the G20 in 2020. It’s Saudi Arabia’s strategy. Are you paying attention to that and what its role is, in all of this? I think a lot of our attention is pointing to renewables, it is pointing to hydrogen. But there is, in the background, I think this idea that a circular carbon economy is possible. You spoke to carbon capture, of course, but, but what else is going on in that space? And is that possible? I’m so sceptical.

Randy 23:17

Carbon capture is a key part of the circular carbon economy. I think, you know, the other pieces of the circular carbon economy, renewables, if you look at the Saudi strategy, renewables part of it, nuclear is a part of it, carbon capture is a part of it. Utilising, utilising carbon, storing carbon, all, all a part of it. The key there is to be focused on emissions, and not focused on the technology itself. I mean, I think that’s really, really what’s important. And so to be technology-neutral now. So yes, I think carbon capture is going to be a crucial part of, of any solution. If you look at any analysis, with the IEA, or, you know, any of the any, almost any of the scenarios, you’re gonna have need carbon capture. You’re probably even going to need direct air capture. So not just capturing carbon off of, you know, the natural gas power plant, but actually capturing CO2 right out of the atmosphere. And that’s also part of a circular carbon economy. And then the other way of thinking about that is not just not in terms of CO2, but actually through pyrolysis, which is a production method, methodology producing hydrogen that produces carbon black and so an actual carbon product, not a gas, that can that can be utilised for carbon fibre, for any number of carbon, actual carbon uses. That needs to be scaled, the utilisation of that carbon, and create, create more demand for it, but it’s actually a usable product. And that creates a new opportunity for, for a circular carbon economy as well.

Mustafa 24:39

So you’re going to come back, Randy, in March, to the UAE at the end of March, for the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum. What are your hopes and dreams for that event?

Randy 24:49

Well, most importantly, we’re hoping that it does not get postponed by Covid. Again, it was supposed to be in mid-January, but with the Covid situation in the US, which was very bad, and in Europe, we just couldn’t get the right people over here to make that, make that event worthwhile. This is the sixth, will be the sixth annual Global Energy Forum. Of course, the 2021 forum was entirely virtual, so we’re just looking forward to being back and seeing everyone in person. But it’s a really important time to be discussing. Some of the issues we discussed here actually, the, the concurrent need to meet the energy demands that we’re seeing through all means necessary, while also making sure we continue to act on climate and seeing how those two work together instead of being being in tension. And I think that if there is one single goal for the forum, it is to get groups aligned on, on the need to have a, a pragmatic, ambitious energy transition that is beneficial for all and doesn’t cause the kind of pain that we’re seeing right now, which really, you know, unfortunately impacts lower-income populations much more, much more than it does higher-income populations. And so you want to make sure that the energy transition is beneficial for all. And so getting that conversation going and making that the, the topic of 2022, I think, would be a very, very good outcome for that conference.

Mustafa 26:10

Looking forward to it. Randy Bell, thanks so much for being with us.

Randy 26:13

Thank you so much. Really appreciate being back here in Abu Dhabi.

Updated: September 14, 2022, 12:43 PM