President Donald Trump can forget reviving America's fossil fuel sector, because the future belongs to renewable energy titans like Tesla's Elon Musk. According to a new report, there may not be any growth in oil and coal use worldwide after the year 2020.
This contrasts with Trump's vision of a revived coal, oil and gas sector in the U.S., which was central to his electoral victory in states such as Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia.
The report, co-authored by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative, found that solar and wind power plus electric vehicles will each experience explosive growth in the coming decades, to the point where electric vehicles alone could slash global oil use per day by 2 million barrels by 2025. This may rise to 25 million barrels per day by 2050, the report states.
Like others before it, the analysis offers a warning to fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, whose former CEO, Rex Tillerson, is now Trump's secretary of state, that they are underestimating advances in low-carbon energy technologies and may lose billions due to this miscalculation.
Such companies are instead planning for a future in which oil demand continues to grow. They're making major infrastructure and investment decisions on such a bet, and if it turns out to be wrong, as the new report suggests, then these companies could find themselves to be the owners of so-called "stranded assets." Such assets in this case would be oil, coal and gas reserves that won't be burned, and therefore won't make them any money.
The new report, which was produced using computer modeling, uses a different starting point for its forecast that includes the recent declines in solar prices and increased access to electric vehicles.
"Electric vehicles and solar power are game-changers that the fossil fuel industry consistently underestimates," said Luke Sussams, senior researcher at Carbon Tracker in London, in a statement.
Trump should be taking note of this report, too, Sussams said. Like many energy experts, he doesn't think the Trump White House can do much to jump start the fossil fuel sector given the huge drops in prices for renewables.
However, Trump has already promised to bolster the U.S. coal sector, open up more federal lands to oil and gas drilling and swiftly approve the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, among other policies.
“It wasn’t really policy that killed off the U.S. coal industry, it was actually just on a pure economics basis that natural gas and renewable energy served to outcompete coal," he said in an interview.
Once an energy source becomes the cheapest option, Sussams said, “Policy isn’t the thing driving it anymore, just the pure economics."
A key point in this report is that "business as usual" projections should be discarded, since they don't include the steep cost reductions in solar panels and electric vehicles, along with the emissions cuts countries committed to under the Paris Climate Agreement.
Image: Steve Helber/AP/REX/Shutterstock
For example, the cost of solar photolvoltaics has plummeted by 85 percent during the last seven years alone, the report notes, leading to rapid growth in residential and commercial solar installations.
Using updated information that includes these recent shifts, the research team found that solar power could supply about 30 percent of global electric power by 2050, with coal phasing out completely and natural gas left with a measly 1 percent global market share.
Image: carbon tracker initiative/grantham institute
Exxon sees a far different future ahead, with all renewables providing just 11 percent of global power generation by 2040.
As for electric cars, the report projects that they could comprise up to a third of the road transport market by 2035, and grab more than two-thirds of market share by 2050. This prediction stands in stark contrast to a recent projection from the oil and gas giant BP, which found that electric vehicles would comprise just 6 percent of the global market in 2035.
These projections, if they are born out, would be good news for the climate, given that burning oil and gas for energy emits planet-warming greenhouse gases. And there is reason to think that this report could be born out in reality, considering that, as Sussams points out, it's extremely difficult to predict the rate at which new technologies will enter the mainstream, with a long history of famous underestimates, from mobile phones to personal computing.
The scenario envisioned in the report would limit global warming to between 2.4 to 2.7 degrees Celsius, or 4.32 to 4.86 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels by 2100.
This still would violate the commitment that world leaders made in the Paris agreement, which was to limit global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels through 2100.
Many scientists doubt that we will be able to limit global warming to the 2-degree target even with stringent emissions cuts and considerable technological progress. With 2016 ranking as the warmest year on record for the globe, temperatures are already flirting with the 1.5-degree Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above the preindustrial average.
A study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change found that in order for the world to meet the 2-degree temperature target, the annual growth in total energy use would need to stay stable or decline while renewables continue to grow. That is not likely to happen, given population growth and aspirations for higher living standards in the developing world.
“Coal use in the United States plunged by one quarter in the last two years and by almost half over the last decade,” said study co-author Robert Jackson, a professor at Stanford University, said in a statement. “Natural gas and renewables are taking its place, and there is little... the current Trump administration can do to stop it.”
“The rapid deployment of wind and solar is starting to have an effect globally, and in key players such as China, the U.S., and the E.U.”, said Glen Peters, a scientist at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo (CICERO). Peters, who also co-wrote the Nature study, said wind and solar power alone won't be enough for the world to meet its Paris agreement targets.
For that to happen, we need a way to capture and permanently store carbon from burning fossil fuel and bioenergy. Such technology is known as carbon capture and storage, and it is still in its infancy when it comes to deploying it in an affordable and effective manner.
However, scenarios that would limit global warming to the Paris agreement's temperature target would require tens of thousands of facilities that have carbon capture and storage technologies deployed by 2030, and so far there are nowhere near that many in development.
“We are already at a stage where we have effectively emitted too much carbon dioxide, and the only feasible pathway to keep temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius is to physically remove carbon from the atmosphere,” said Peters in a statement.
“The rapid and continued deployment of wind and solar is welcome, but the real challenge required is to develop technologies and behaviors that shift the entire global energy system to be carbon neutral by mid-century.”