It’s too soon to ditch fossil fuels

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no doubt that the world must transition away from its dependence on fossil fuels to a low-carbon energy future.

The question now is not whether we should make the transition to a lower carbon future — but how and how soon, and how do we keep the world turning as normally as possible while we do so.

The challenge of the 21st Century is to achieve development and decarbonisation. To deliver both a better life for all and a healthier planet.

I put it to you, that if the world is to achieve both – it is just too soon to ditch fossil fuels.

Tonight, as the sun sets down the length of Parramatta Road, you’ll see the lights and TVs flicker on in people’s homes after their day at work.

We think nothing of hopping on the internet, on computers or smart-phones, to see what friends are up to, watch Netflix or order some UberEats.

We’re so used to having access to reliable electricity, gas and petrol supplies for our climate-controlled, internet-connected homes, offices and cars. Technology and progress enabled by energy have solved so many of our challenges.

And that makes it easy for us to think that the answer is straightforward – that all we need to do is switch to electric mobility, to embrace renewables as quickly as possible and to stop using coal, gas and oil.

But this approach is too narrow and too simplistic.

We need a broader perspective.

Tonight, I’d like you to think for a moment of the hundreds of millions of people around the globe who today don’t have ready access to energy in their daily lives – for warmth, light, cooking or study.

Only it’s not hundreds of millions.

Right now there are more than one billion people on the planet who won’t have lights to switch off at night, who still live by candlelight.

Those who have to spend hours carting water from wells. Those who don’t have refrigeration, who need to find food every day. And because they don’t have lights or internet, it limits their children’s education.

I put it to those opposite that society has a moral obligation to support all those striving to fulfil their potential and give their children opportunities for a better life.

And the population is growing.

The UN forecasts the world’s population to grow from 7.6 billion people today to about 10 billion by 2050.

In their New Policies Scenario, the International Energy Agency expects that energy demand could rise by 30% between today and 2040.

This is the equivalent of adding another China and India to today’s global demand.

Together, we need to lift people out of energy poverty and we need to address climate change.

Quite simply, we need more energy and we need cleaner energy.

And we need fossil fuels to help us get there, because we can’t rely on 100% renewable electricity to solve our growing energy needs.

Why? ……. Because electricity is not the same as energy.

Today, electricity only makes up 20% of the energy the world consumes.

So, even if we use renewables to power everything with a plug in the world right now, about 80% of our energy demand remains.

And it is much harder to decarbonise.

The production of glass, steel, cement, plastic and chemicals is, for now, only possible using traditional hydrocarbon fuels because of the extremely high temperatures, chemical reactions or dense energy storage needed.

Aviation, heavy freight, and shipping rely on energy dense liquid fuels. Today, without fossil fuels, none of us could fly from Sydney to Melbourne, let alone overseas.

Society will continue to rely on fossil fuels for decades to come — even as we embrace technological innovations in renewable sources of energy.

Let me acknowledge there are innovations coming.

For example, the company I work for — Shell — is actively investing in EVs (and the infrastructure that supports them), in wind, solar, hydrogen and in second-generation biofuels.

We do this because Shell sees commercial opportunity in participating in the global drive to provide more and cleaner energy solutions. 

We believe that hydrogen could play a big role in making the most of wind and solar energies; in heavy or long-distance transport where batteries have limits; and later in light vehicles too.

Electric cars should become more and more prevalent, especially in cities with higher population density.

Meanwhile the use of natural gas for shipping, which is growing significantly, is a great demonstration of the role that natural gas can play in lowering emissions in the transport sector.

Natural gas will be the backbone of the energy transition, as the energy system pivots over time from hydrocarbons to being electron-dominated.

In the coming decades, it’s likely that renewables and gas working together will displace coal to reduce emissions and provide reliable energy to customers.

Gas is the cleanest burning hydrocarbon – it means cleaner air and less emissions.

Natural gas, delivered to Asia from Australia, means reduced air pollution — making a tangible difference to the hearts, lungs, throats and eyes of the people who live there.

The energy transition is regularly portrayed in terms that compare it to a revolution – to a moment in time when everything changes.

In truth, there is no one answer – the transition will happen at different paces in different places.

The energy transition in Sydney won’t be the same as in Kenya, in California or in Kolkata.

We cannot just “flick the switch”, but we can achieve a much more “rapid switch” to a net zero carbon emission world. To do that, we need to collaborate like never before and fossil fuels like natural gas have a role to play.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is too soon to ditch fossil fuels.

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