Taking Aim

Article by Malcolm Wilkinson FIChemE, Colin Pritchard FIChemE, Richard Darton FIChemE, Aidong Yang AMIChemE, David Foxley MIChemE and Ugur Tuzun FIChemE

Malcolm Wilkinson and members of IChemE’s Sustainability Special Interest Group discuss the future of the oil and gas industry

CLIMATE change is happening and appears to be accelerating. The signals are global temperature increases, rising sea levels, the reducing extent of Arctic sea ice, more frequent and severe weather events, and the growing rate of habitat destruction and species extinction. We know the increased rate of climate change results from anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), world governments agreed in Paris in 2015 to limit the global temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5°C to avoid potentially catastrophic impacts on human existence.

More recently, the 1.5°C target has gained increasing focus. IChemE’s Sustainability Special Interest Group has prepared a series of thought pieces on how this target might be achieved and this first one looks at the potential impact on the oil and gas sector, laying out the challenges to an industry in inevitable decline.

Emissions targets

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report1 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels included emissions pathways to achieve this target. To achieve a 1.5°C rise with a 50% probability the remaining carbon budget is 580 GtCO2. For a 2°C rise with the same probability the carbon budget is 1,500 GtCO2. Except for a 1.2% fall in 2016, global CO2 emissions have increased annually since 2010, and in 2019 global emissions were 38 GtCO2/year2.

Continuing at this level, the available budgets would be consumed in 15 years for a 1.5°C rise, and 39 years for a 2°C rise. These emission levels are for CO2 alone, including CO2 from land use change, but do not include other GHGs, of which methane is a significant contributor. The economic downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced 2020 CO2 emissions by about 7%, largely due to mobility restrictions, though emissions of other GHGs have been less affected. There is uncertainty on how the recovery from the pandemic will impact longer-term trends. 

Except for a 1.2% fall in 2016, global CO2 emissions have increased annually since 2010 and in 2019 global emissions were 38 GtCO2/year

In summary, the IPCC emissions pathways to limit warming to below 2°C require net zero CO2 emissions by around 2050 from a peak in the 2020 to 2030 period. These emissions targets also require action on other GHGs, particularly methane, and also require the deployment of negative emissions technologies. The current levels of national emissions reduction commitments fall well short of this target, though encouragingly in 2020 some 126 countries covering 51% of global GHG emissions now have net-zero goals that are formally adopted, announced, or under consideration. It is vital that countries, in planning their recovery from the pandemic, take the opportunity to translate these commitments into strong near-term policies and actions to secure the required emission reductions.

Article By

Malcolm Wilkinson FIChemE

Consultant; Chair of Sustainability Special Interest Group

Richard Darton FIChemE

Emeritus Professor of Engineering Science, University of Oxford

Aidong Yang AMIChemE

Associate Professor Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford

Ugur Tuzun FIChemE

International Consultant, University of Cambridge

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