80% zero carbon energy by 2040 achievable, says oil-backed commission

texas wind
CC BY-NC 2.0 DrewKolb

When I wrote about the arrival of unsubsidized wind farms (onshore and off), I noted that even Royal Dutch Shell was lobbying for a massive increase in offshore wind.

There may be good reason for that: Forbes reports that the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC)—which was founded by Shell and is backed by other energy giants like Statoil—is predicting that the world's energy systems could be powered by 80% zero carbon sources by 2040. As Forbes notes, that's a pretty astounding figure, given that many environmentalists were skeptical of the ETC's original remit of establishing a pathway to 50% zero carbon by 2050.

Of course, others will argue that it's still not enough, and that we need to get to zero as quickly as possible. But I tend to think that such arguments miss the point. Predictions are, after all, only predictions. From cheaper solar to new kinds of batteries, the chances are that there will be many, many innovations and new developments on the road toward decarbonization.

Whether individual commissions or think tanks are aiming for 100% zero carbon, or 80% zero carbon, by 2040 is not really the issue. The issue is that environmentalists, big business and—increasingly—big energy are all seeing a future that's headed in the same direction. At some point, investors and corporate leaders are going to want to rip off the band-aid and go for broke. As Steve Howard of IKEA has argued, in some ways, "a 100% goal is easier than 90 percent, or 50 percent." After all, why continue to invest in the solutions and infrastructure that will eventually become obsolete anyway?

Now, the ETC report does take some umbrage with that view—arguing that it's easier to see a pathway to decarbonizing the first 80%, than the last 20%. We've yet to see truly viable alternative fuels for aviation, for example. And the ETC is arguing for a continued "optimization of fossil fuels—moving from coal to natural gas, and getting serious about slashing methane emissions. But given that we were envisioning rapid growth of coal in China for many decades to come—and that industry is now well and truly on the ropes—I am learning to put less weight on prediction as prophecy, and more on it as an indicator of intention. In that, we can be thankful that investment will continue to flow from high carbon to low carbon sources regardless of what happens in Washington.

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