Energising the world, sustainably

Tome Gilks/Alamy

Global energy demand is expected to grow by 50 per cent over the next two decades. The dual challenge of broadening access to energy and reducing carbon emissions remains, says Abdalla Salem El-Badri, Secretary General, OPEC

With the world’s population expected to reach more than 8.6 billion by 2035 – an increase of around 1.4 billion from today’s level – and energy demand anticipated to expand by more than 50 per cent over the same period, the need to find sustainable energy solutions is profound. And in the search for solutions, it is important to appreciate what ‘sustainable energy’ means to people across the world. It is clear it means different things to different people.

Energy has been fundamental to a great deal of progress over the centuries. It has positively affected the lives of billions by providing fire, light, power and mobility. And the industrialised world has been built on a base of fossil fuels. However, this has not been the story for all. When each of us starts our car engine, switches on a light or turns on our mobile phone, we need to recognise that these everyday things are unknown to billions of people across the world who continue to suffer from energy poverty.
Today, around 2.7 billion people still rely on biomass for their basic needs, and 1.3 billion have no access to electricity. These are people whose voices need to be heard. They need access to reliable, safe and secure modern energy services to live and prosper. Without this access, many will continue to suffer as a result of health and environmental problems, and their economic opportunities will be limited. Energy enables sustainable development.
The basic challenge is twofold: first, to supply enough energy to meet demand and help provide access to modern energy services for those currently without. And second, to do so in a sustainable and efficient way that balances the needs of people in relation to economic situations, social welfare and the environment. In looking at the first challenge, it is evident that all forms of energy will be needed. However, it is crucial to appreciate just what each energy source can offer.
There is no doubt that some of this demand increase will be met by non-fossil fuels. Renewables, from wind, solar, hydro and geothermal, will play a role, but they are not the only solution, nor are they available at scale today. Of course, biomass and nuclear will also continue to be part of the energy mix, but again they are not expected to play more than a supporting role. It is fossil fuels that will continue to play the dominant role in meeting energy demand to help drive economic growth, although their overall share is expected to fall slightly, from 82 to 80 per cent.
By 2035, the shares of each fossil fuel – oil, coal and natural gas – are likely to be around the same level, at about 27 per cent of the overall energy mix. There are some who may ask whether this growth can be achieved. There is no doubt that it can. There are plenty of available resources.
Of course, having the resources available is only part of the story. To accompany this, oil and energy markets also need to be stable and predictable in order to help deliver investments and sustain the world’s energy future.

The role of OPEC

From the perspective of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), its members continue to invest in order to maintain existing capacity and add new oil production. OPEC’s projections see oil demand rising by around 20 million barrels per day during the period from now to 2035, with OPEC expected to supply slightly more than 50 per cent of this increase. It is committed to making sure there is a balanced market between supply and demand. However, like any investment, supply and demand will be influenced by various factors – such as policies, oil prices and overall economic conditions.
This leads to the second challenge concerning the importance of a sustainable and efficient energy future that takes into account the needs of all. Climate change, the need to protect the environment and the more efficient use of energy are obviously serious issues. This is something OPEC fully recognises. OPEC members have positively and constructively engaged in the United Nations’ climate change negotiations and are committed to achieving an effective and comprehensive outcome based on full consensus – one that fully complies with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Moreover, initiatives in environmental protection and sustainable development are being carried out every day in member countries. These include investing in carbon capture and storage, reducing gas flaring, constructing Masdar City (intended to be the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city), developing hybrid solar-gas power stations and solar-powered desalination units, and producing cleaner petroleum products.

A balanced approach
With oil continuing to play a leading role in the global energy mix, it will be important to continually advance the environmental credentials of oil, in terms of both its production and its use, to improve operational efficiencies and recovery rates, and to push for the development and use of cleaner fossil-fuel technologies.

In all of this, however, it is essential to keep in mind the three pillars of sustainable development, which are economic growth, social progress and environmental protection.
For part of the world, the future is about looking to reduce carbon emissions and using energy more efficiently. But, for other parts of the world, it is clearly not. It is about having access to reliable and affordable energy services and receiving the energy that so many people take for granted; it is about reducing the burning of indoor biomass that prematurely kills hundreds of thousands people every year; and it is about the need for adaptation measures to reduce vulnerability, increase resilience and moderate the risk of climate impacts on lives and livelihoods.
The world needs to take a balanced approach to a sustainable energy future – one that takes into account the diversity of needs. This means continually evolving everyone’s understanding of future energy challenges, and taking on board the viewpoints of all. When the G20 looks to discuss energy and sustainable development issues, this perspective should be kept in mind.