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The impacts of climate change

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

A recent report, Climate change: Implications for the energy sector, highlights that the energy industry is both a major contributor to climate change and a sector that climate change will disrupt.

Climate change impacts the energy industry

In the absence of strong mitigation policies, economic growth and the rising global population will continue to drive energy demand upwards, and hence GHG emissions will also rise. Climate change itself may drive increased demand, as cooling may be increasingly required.

The means and infrastructure to produce and transport energy is likely to be adversely affected by climate change. The oil and gas industry is likely to suffer from increased disruption and production shutdowns due to extreme weather events affecting both offshore and onshore facilities.

Power plants, especially those in coastal areas, will be affected by extreme weather events and rising sea levels. The briefing emphasises that critical energy transport infrastructure is at risk, with oil and gas pipelines in coastal areas also affected by rising sea levels, and those in cold climates affected by thawing permafrost.

Electricity grids will be impacted by storms, and the rise in global temperature may affect electricity generation including thermal and hydroelectric stations.

 The energy industry impacts climate change

According to the briefing, the energy sector is the largest contributor to global GHG emissions. In 2010, 35% of direct GHG emissions came from energy production. From 2000 to 2010, the growth in energy sector missions outpaced the growth in overall emission by approximately 1%/y. This was due to the increasing share of coal in the energy mix.

Projections indicate that in the absence of policies to constrain emissions, the emissions associated with fossil fuel use, including the energy supply sector but also energy use in transport, industry and buildings would contribute 55 – 70 Gt CO2/y by 2050.

In order to reduce emissions to acceptable levels in accordance with the internationally agreed goal of keeping the temperature increase since pre-industrial times below 2 °C, the share of low carbon electricity generation by 2050 will need to triple or quadruple. Use of fossil fuels without carbon capture would have virtually disappeared by 2100 at the latest, the briefing holds. The energy sector would be completely decarbonised and it is likely that technologies able to withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere would need to be deployed. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is one such technology.

Replacing existing coal fired heat and/or power plants with highly efficient natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants or combined heat and power (CHP) plants can reduce near term emissions (provided that fugitive methane release is controlled) and be a ‘bridging technology’ to a low carbon economy.

In 2012, more than half of net investment in the electricity sector was in low carbon technologies. Nevertheless, the briefing holds that a number of barriers and risks to accelerated investment exist. Additional supply side investments required to meet the 2 °C target are estimated at US$ 190 – 900 billion/y on average up to 2050.

Adapted from a report by Emma McAleavey.

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