BP Report: Three Emissions Scenarios

Published: July 2021

In September 2020 the company BP published their 2020 Energy Outlook. The report's Summary states,

The Energy Outlook explores the forces shaping the global energy transition out to 2050 and the key uncertainties surrounding that transition.

The company makes it clear that they are not predicting the future. The report’s purpose is to outline how energy consumption and production may change over the next 30 ‎years based on a range of assumptions to do with policies and societal ‎preferences.

Some of the report's assumptions would seem to be open to challenge. For example, it projects that road and air travel will double by the year 2050. If the climate change and resource constraints discussed at this site should turn out to be correct then it is unlikely that we will see such a dramatic growth in these modes of travel.

Three Scenarios

The report is structured around three potential scenarios. (Each scenario assumes that energy use will continue to increase over the course of the next 30 years.) 

1. Business-as-Usual (BAU)

BAU assumes that government policies, technologies and societal ‎preferences continue to evolve in a manner and speed seen in the recent past. In BAU, carbon ‎emissions from energy use peak in the mid-2020s but do not decline significantly, with ‎emissions in 2050 less than 10% below 2018 levels.‎

  • A switch to low-carbon fuels, i.e., from coal to natural gas, mostly in Asia.

  • A rapid increase in the use of Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS). The report projects that 4 gigatons of CO2 will be captured annually. Three quarters of this will be captured from industrial and power sectors emissions; the remainder from the production of ‘blue’ hydrogen.

  • Changes in the behavior, preferences and actions of companies and households.

2. Rapid Transition

The Rapid scenario assumes the introduction of policy measures, led by a significant increase in carbon ‎prices, that result in carbon emissions from energy use falling by around 70% by 2050 from ‎‎2018 levels. The Rapid response is broadly in line with scenarios that are consistent with limiting the rise in ‎global temperatures by 2100 to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.‎

3. Net Zero

Net Zero assumes the policy measures of Rapid Scenario are reinforced by significant shifts in societal ‎and consumer behavior and preferences – such as greater adoption of circular and sharing ‎economies and switching to low carbon energy sources. This increases the reduction in ‎carbon emissions by 2050 to over 95%. Net Zero is broadly in line with a range of scenarios ‎consistent with limiting temperature rises to 1.5°C, as discussed in the IPCC report Global Warming of 1.5°C. ‎

Trend Lines

The following chart is taken from the report. It shows CO2 emissions from energy use starting in the year 2000. The chart shows how CO2 emissions have climbed such that they are now close to 40 gigatons annually.

The green line corresponds to BAU, the yellow line corresponds to the Rapid response, and the blue line is for the Net Zero target.

CO2 emissions BP report

Carbon Capture

The report recognizes that, if we are to achieve the CO2 reduction goals called for, then it will be necessary to capture some of the CO2 that has been emitted and to either sequester it underground, or convert it to a useful product. Broadly speaking, there are three ways in which this can be done. The first is biological — it consists of planting trees that will remove CO2 as they grow. The second approach is point-source capture, i.e., to capture CO2 at the exhausts of power plants and industrial facilities. The third strategy is to remove CO2 from the ambient air.

The BP report appears to favor the first two of these.

Regardless of the option chosen, the cost of installing thousands of carbon capture facilities in just a few years will be very high. There is no revenue stream associated with the underground sequestration of CO2 so the operating expenses will have to be covered by some type of government subsidy. (Some of the CO2 may be used to make products that last for many years and thus serve as a form of sequestration.)  It is one thing to demonstrate a new technology, such as carbon capture — it is quite another to install it world-wide in less than three decades.

From BAU to Net Zero

The BP report does not discuss the formidable logistical challenges to do with achieving the Net Zero goal. (Some of these challenges are outlined in the article The Renewable Energy Paradox.)

The level of effort needed to transform our society away from carbon-based fuels will require an all-out political, social, engineering, project management and financial commitment. Currently we are at what the report identifies as the BAU level of commitment. Although there has been some progress, say to do with electrically-powered vehicles, there are no signs that society is ready to make the commitment to the Rapid case, let alone the Net Zero goal.

In conclusion, the BP report provides invaluable information to do with our current situation regarding greenhouse gas emissions, and what needs to be done to achieve Net Zero goals. However, the report does not address the massive logistical, financial and project management challenges that such an effort entails. Nor does the report address the challenges to do with implementing carbon capture technology on a world scale in a very short period of time.

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