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Decarbonisation of the energy system – no company can sit on the sideline

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In energy-intensive industries such as steel, mining and chemicals, net-zero solutions will be available, but they will co-exist with today’s hydrocarbon-based energy system. Image credit: WhyAfrica

By Eric Croeser 

22 June 2021 – Decarbonisation of the energy system – from a hydrocarbon-based to a sustainable, low-carbon energy system – poses an existential threat to the oil and gas industry. However, it also presents opportunities. No company can afford to sit on the sideline.

Decarbonisation of the energy system not only poses a threat to the oil and gas industry, but it also presents oil and gas companies with new portfolio opportunities to build adjacent businesses, shape and participate in new markets, and drive new sources of value from existing assets and capabilities.

No company can afford to sit on the sideline. The core climate-related target, agreed at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, is to hold the global average temperature increase this century to within 2°C (3.6°F) of preindustrial levels.

The Paris Agreement has formed the backdrop for much of today’s greenhouse gas narrative and serves as the standard against which country and company sustainability commitments are judged.

Nationally declared commitments (NDCs) are also used to describe sustainability goals, but they typically fall short of meeting the Paris target. By 2050, we should have a clear understanding of what is acceptable across the ecosystem and every country should be in line with or have achieved the Paris target.

Climate change as we know it

In recent years, as understanding of the climate change imperative has accelerated, we have seen greater alignment and consensus across the scientific, political, and business communities around the need to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Against this backdrop, there is a strong business case for oil and gas companies to change what they do and how they do it. At the beginning of 2020, Accenture analysis found that global energy-related CO2 emissions totalled 40 Gigatonnes (GT).

Nearly two-thirds of those emissions were related to oil and gas; coal was largely responsible for the remainder. Of the two-third emissions attributable to oil and gas, activities around extraction, processing, transportation, and refining, accounted for about 20%.

The other 80% occurred when hydrocarbons were converted for other uses such as fuel for transportation or heat, or in the production of petrochemicals.

The imperative for oil and gas companies is to take actions that will limit not only the 20% of emissions that occur in their operations but also the 80% of emissions that occur beyond their operations at points of conversion or consumption.

Requirements for the Decarbonisation Transition

  • Energy sustainability

Sustainability requires steady movement toward a carbon net-neutral energy system, and the elimination of processes that release emissions that negatively impact the environment. Our analysis finds that as much as 80% of the energy system’s emissions can be eliminated by 2050. There are three possible scenarios that energy related supply and consumption sectors may find themselves in on their sustainability journeys between now and 2050. In one scenario, no clear pathway emerges. Sectors such as aviation – which require energy-dense, yet transportable solutions – will likely not have developed fully scalable, zero-emission alternatives that can compete with hydrocarbons by 2050.

In the second scenario, a few pathways may emerge. In energy-intensive industries such as steel, mining and chemicals, net-zero solutions will be available, but they will co-exist with today’s hydrocarbon-based energy system.

Success will be based on a combination of technological advances, aligned regulations and policies, consumer preferences for low-carbon products, and the complementary deployment of carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS) solutions.

In the final scenario, multiple pathways emerge but full transition will require more time and investment. Sectors such as light vehicle transportation and buildings will have mature solutions beyond today’s hydrocarbon-based approaches, for example, connected autonomous shared electric (CASE) battery-powered vehicles.

While a complete decarbonisation transition is possible, the timing of the transition will depend on how quickly a sector can phase out existing capital stock.

  • Energy equity

Oil and gas companies need to ensure that a move to decarbonised solutions improves access to reliable, affordable energy. The global population is expected to grow from seven billion today to over nine billion by 2050.

That growth will occur primarily outside of today’s developed economies, in nations where energy consumption is rising sharply. At the same time, up to two billion people are expected to move out of energy poverty and gain access to modern energy systems.

Today, per capita energy consumption in the developed world is up to seven times higher than in developing countries. Meeting this growing need equitably and with low prices while maintaining progress on sustainability is fundamental to a successful energy transition.

Pathways and speed of migration will differ from country to country, depending on their starting points and access to resources. The extent of international energy policy coordination, technology transfer, and alignment of energy transition agendas will affect their momentum.

  • Energy fundability

Our estimates place the operating expenditure (OPEX) and capital expenditure (CAPEX) required to support the decarbonisation transition at between USD3-trillion and USD3.5-trillion per year through to 2050.

A significant portion of this investment will be dedicated to building out the energy transmission infrastructure. Substantial spending will need to occur across upstream, midstream, generation and energy management, spanning every type of energy supply, including hydrocarbons.

However, the sector will only be able to attract this investment if there can be an expectation of a competitive return. Accenture analysis has shown that energy infrastructure investments have traditionally achieved payback within 10 to 15 years and positive cashflow within four to seven years.

However, over the past decade, few oil and gas companies have generated sufficient cash from their operations to meet their annual CAPEX requirements and also return cash to shareholders.

More recently, margin declines and the Covid-19 pandemic have further limited the industry’s ability to fund long-cycle investments. Investments in oil and gas are expected to drop by over 30% in 2020, compared to 2019, whereas investments in the power sector are only estimated to drop by 10%.

In short, the industry’s struggle to attract capital will continue. In response to this challenge, industry leaders have started to explore shorter-cycle investments, asset-light business models and alternate funding structures. They are also focusing on delivering against holistic environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments.

Balancing sustainability with equity and fundability

Successfully navigating the decarbonisation transition is about more than achieving emissions-reduction targets and ensuring sustainability through carbon net neutrality, nitrogen oxide reductions and environmental stewardship. It is also about ensuring equity in energy access to enable global growth and improve living standards and ensuring fundability of the transition. Companies will need to generate competitive returns to attract the infrastructure investments the transition will require.

Eric Croeser is Industry X and Applied Intelligence Managing Director for Accenture in Africa

WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. WhyAfrica specialises in African affairs and natural resources. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message.


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AgricultureEnvironmental Management & Climate ChangeEnergyESGInfrastructureMiningPolitical EconomyTourism and ConservationWater Management