The Paris Agreement aims to “strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.” Unfortunately, energy poverty is often forgotten in the global debate on our energy future.
An effective energy transition must incorporate this crucial aspect, balancing growth and sustainability. A new balance of economic growth, energy access, and environmental conservation is needed for an energy transition pathway.
One of the most talked-about solutions to climate change proposes a ban on fossil fuels. But with oil serving a significant part of global energy demand, calls to “keep it in the ground” reflect a frankly unrealistic perspective. It is critical to understand that improving living standards and expanding the global economy will cause energy intensity — the amount of energy used per unit of gross domestic product — to also rise.
The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2019 projects that future energy consumption in developed countries will decline, but that total primary energy consumption will increase substantially, led by developing countries. These countries are limited in developing infrastructure that is needed for renewable energy because developing such infrastructure is costly and generates low returns. The increasing energy needs of developing countries and the limitations in funding and developing infrastructure means these countries have to rely on energy with a high density — primarily oil and gas.
Energy density is essential in understanding the context of our energy future. It allows us almost endless opportunities in the advancement of a modern lifestyle. The energy density of gasoline is roughly seven times that of a lithium battery. Even with rapid technological change, the energy density advantages of oil, such as well-developed and efficient distribution mechanisms, will not be surpassed.
Refueling a vehicle, compared to recharging, should also be considered within the context of developing countries, where charging stations and grid infrastructure both require further development. A full tank of gasoline can, on average, take a modern car between 700 and 900 km before a refill is needed, which only takes a few minutes. The difference is more pronounced when considering the example of jet fuel and plane refueling. No current advancement in energy technology is able to support travel and transport as safely, efficiently, and affordably as modern fuels.
With the global economy forecast to double in size and billions of additional energy consumers anticipated by 2050, we cannot simply turn off hydrocarbons at the flick of a switch. Instead, it is better to use a pragmatic approach to ensure that emerging middle classes and least-developed nations have access to modern energy, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use. The key to combating climate change for energy companies and other industries is to focus on reducing emissions.
In addition, plastics and other derivatives of hydrocarbon molecules have broad and essential applications, ranging from electronics and construction to health care. The ongoing fight against the coronavirus has shown us that single-use plastics play a vital role in ensuring safety throughout our lives. Proper waste management practices that ensure and reward the suitable disposal of plastics will help address the challenge of plastic pollution.
Aramco has recently deployed the concept of the circular carbon economy as a pathway for the energy transition in which technologies that recycle emissions are deployed. In this framework, carbon can move in a closed-loop system, much like the natural carbon cycle. A key technological component of this framework is a group of technologies known as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
The company is also leveraging other technologies that can deliver real economic value while protecting the environment. These technologies can be summarized along the circular carbon economy principles of “Reduce,” “Reuse,” and “Remove.”
Reduce means emissions reduction through increased energy efficiency and better emissions management. An example is the gas flaring reduction pioneered by Aramco through deployment of the Master Gas System, which contributed to the company’s industry-leading low-carbon intensity (defined as the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per barrel of oil and gas produced). Aramco is also investing in the development of technologies that convert crude directly to chemicals. Yet another area for the reduction of emissions is the deployment of non-metallic materials made from crude in pipeline construction and other industries.
Reuse includes capturing emissions and reusing them in industrial processes or recycling emissions into useful products. Examples are carbon dioxide-enhanced oil recovery and supercritical carbon dioxide applications, such as curing technology for pre-cast concrete materials that can store up to 20 weight percent of carbon dioxide in the concrete while delivering superior mechanical strength and reducing curing time. Another example is conversion technology that uses captured carbon dioxide to create useful materials such as plastics, with just one third of the carbon footprint of conventional materials.
Remove means capturing emissions and removing them from the atmosphere. An example is Aramco’s Uthmaniyah project for carbon capture and enhanced oil recovery, which has the capacity to sequester 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year by compressing it and injecting it into an oil field. Nature-based solutions will also contribute greatly, including reforestation activities, such as Aramco planting 1 million trees across the Kingdom.
With the global economy forecast to double in size by 2050, we cannot simply turn off hydrocarbons at the flick of a switch.
Yasser M. Mufti
A sustainable energy future requires substantial research, investment and preparation today. Countries and companies have an obligation to be pragmatic advocates for an energy mix that balances sustainability with the forces of economic growth, the future demands of society and preservation of the environment.
The best way forward is through a sustainable energy transition in which our industry continues to adapt and evolve as we find critical energy solutions for the future. Oil and gas will have a key role, along with renewable energy, in the energy system of the future. We must continue to embrace the versatility of oil as we focus on achieving more breakthroughs in sustainability, such as the CCUS technologies discussed here. Oil is a critical enabler of a low-carbon energy system that is also able to meet the growing global energy demand. Only with oil as part of the energy mix can we balance growth and sustainability across the world.