‘THE FUTURE BELONGS TO THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN THE BEAUTY OF THEIR DREAMS’
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Starting from this beautiful and inspiring quote, I must admit that listening to the raging debate on the future of our planet, the disastrous effects of climate change and everything related to it, it seems as if there are very few beautiful dreams floating around these days.
Let us not despair and see if we can still recover a beautiful dream from all of this.
Within our line of work or “space” we usually do not talk about dreams, but about scenarios; future scenarios. Usually such a scenario starts with questions like: “What if we could do this and that, would we be able to change the world for the better?”
In the early sixties and seventies Shell pioneered scenario planning. Here you ‘dream’ about possible futures and see how this would affect the business. Based on that a business plan can be developed including what needs to be done to prepare for the future. It seems that Shell’s success in deep sea drilling was based on a scenario anticipating an energy crisis, which happened in 1973, enabling SHELL to exploit the technology they had developed anticipating this scenario.
More recently SHELL’s scenarios (which they partly publish) have become less detailed and less colorful, and I was told that this was caused by the fact that it was hard if not impossible these days to come up with a positive scenario for the future of our planet.
Personally, I have become completely confused and lost between the extreme scenarios proposed by on one hand the hardline environmentalists (“De-carbonize: Stop Fossil Fuels”) and on the other hand the business as usual big-oil CEO’s (“Full speed with Fossil Fuels”). This last scenario is usually tempered a bit by applying more biomass/biofuels and/or the application of Carbon Capturing and sequestration.
The environmentalists call this greenwashing and point to examples like the publicity stunts from ExxonMobil promoting their R&D on Algae and Algae fuels, which eventually was dropped completely.
Recently Direct Air Capture (DAC) of CO2 was called “the Most Dangerous Idea in the World.” (www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2023/08/03/direct-air-capture-of-co2-the-most- dangerous-idea-in-the-world)
Having worked on DAC myself I am biased, but I obviously do not agree with such an extreme statement. I understand the point that the Fossil fuel industries are using minor token investments in these fields as a cover (“Green washing”) to continue their exploitation of fossil fuels and thereby the pollution of our planet with CO2.
As mentioned, Exxon was not so long ago extensively using their limited R&D on Algae in the media to give the appearance of being green until they stopped their whole masquerade. (See: All Gore’s TED presentaGon: hHps://youtu. be/xgZC6da4mco?si=jeg6FGLdhvvhcRSx)
However, in my opinion the problem is not technology. In fact, we should strongly support all technologies which can help us avoid and repair the damages that we are doing to our planet. Some technologies like Carbon capturing, may cost more time and money to develop and will probably not look commercially viable, but the same was the case with the idea/technology of the first personal computers. Because of a strong commitment and funding by the government, initiated by John F. Kennedy’s vision (Dream!), the space program brought the computer to what it is today.
In my view we should promote multiple solutions: and may the best technologies win!
In order to have a big impact, like for instance in CO2 reduction the real large producers/polluters need to take corrective action, and they are not. On the contrary, companies like Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and others, are still active in denying the effects of CO2 and climate change, although they have known for many years (1970-1980’s) that the continuous burning of fossil fuels would have disastrous effects on our planet.
Moreover, from the governmental side, only minor action is taken to stop or limit the pollution caused by the industry. This can most likely be explained by the fact that many of those in power are funded by the same industry of polluters. The industry presently has the “Freedom to pollute” and externalities are not included as a cost item when calculating the ROI. The new Shell CEO recently clearly stated that the ROI’s of Shell’s fossil fuels projects are higher than those of renewables and consequently Shell will stick to higher investments in fossil fuels.
Presently ROI and shareholder value seems to be the only thing that counts. If this is the case, it does not really mather which technologies we develop, they will not be able to save our planet as they will not be implemented.
The most dangerous idea in the world we are dealing with is the freedom to pollute!
Having noted the foregoing, I must admit that the “Stop Fossil Fuels” scenario proposed by the hardline environmentalist is just as unlikely to solve our problems. Pulling the fossil fuel business out of business would mean an enormous loss in economic activity, employment etcetera by pulling the fossil fuel business out of business. Furthermore, it will cost a gigantic amount of investments to replace the energy and materials now being supplied by the fossil fuels industry by Solar, Wind, Hydrothermal and or Nuclear. All these investments and mega projects would need to occur within the next 20 years or so.
My conclusion: Both scenarios are unrealistic and will not result in sufficient reduction in the temperature increase of our planet, meaning that we are toast! (Or will be toasted)
Not too fast, there must be a way out!
Like in the old-style Hegelian fashion, where we have a thesis (Big Oil) and an anti-thesis (Environmentalist), what about a synthesis of the two? Is it possible to work together by combining the ideas of both sides
I believe there is a way, and that way opens if we are able and willing to revisit the issues we are trying to solve.
The emphasis from the environmentalist is on decarbonization, meaning reducing and even stopping completely the use of fossil hydrocarbons as fuels and chemicals. The term decarbonization has caught on and there are now many conferences, websites, publications, action groups all focused on decarbonization
But is Carbon the real problem we are facing?
There is nothing wrong with Carbon, in fact we are made (mainly) out of Carbon:
“We are stardust, billion-year-old* carbon.” (Woodstock – Joni Mitchel)
(*The atoms in our bodies are billions of years old, when stars die, they emit Carbon.)
The problem we are facing is that of Greenhouse gasses (GHG), when we burn the billion-year- old Carbon that we extract from the land as fossilized Carbon and emit that into the air as greenhouse gasses like CO2, CH4 etc.
Is it possible to make use of fossil fuels without causing an increase in GHG?
The answer is yes. If we carbonize fossil hydrocarbons, we can convert the hydrocarbons into gaseous hydrogen (H2) and a solid Carbon. The hydrogen can be used as an energy source which burns just as clean and CO2 free as any renewable Hydrogen, while the Carbon can be utilized as soil-improver and/or as a precursor and building blocks for all kinds of materials. This implies that we can decarbonize (reduce CO2 emissions) by carbonizing the fossil hydrocarbons.
It is also possible to carbonize biomass and biomass wastes. In this case the CO2 that is absorbed from the air by the biomass can be permanently sequestered and stored in carbon based materials (for instance Carbon Cement). This is a negative CO2 emission, i.e., CO2 from the air captured in biomass is not released as CO2 but as Carbon. In addition to the negative CO2 emission the Carbon itself is a valuable product. Today this is far out the cheapest way to reduce CO2.
Decarbonization by Carbonization!
As more often in life turning the ‘question’ upside down opens clues to new answers.
But how does this revelation help us with generating a viable and realistic scenario for our future?
First, as we mentioned before, just discontinuing the use of fossil fuels would imply an enormous loss in (potential) resources and economic activity. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to force Big Oil to just terminate their business, while the resulting shortage of energy and materials (‘plastics’) will be unacceptable for most of the population, meaning that there will be no political will to support any of this.
If the fossil fuels industry can be incentivized to focus on Carbonization, they can become the large-scale producers of the green Hydrogen which we will need in any scenario, while the Carbon products will open the opportunity for new businesses, like Carbon Fibers instead of Plastics. In any case their large hydrocarbon reserves/resources will not instantly lose all their value.
A recent study by MIT discusses the possibility of replacing fossil fuels in the USA within 20 years. The key issue appears to be the availability of green hydrogen and heat required to convert the available (waste) biomass into biofuels and chemicals. In their consistent scenario they solve this problem by converting natural gas into green hydrogen by capturing and sequestering the CO2 produced while adding nuclear energy plants as an extra source of heat and electricity.
(Can We Replace All Crude Oil Within 20 Years with Cellulosic Liquid Hydrocarbons? www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2023/05/29/can-we-replace-all-crude-oil-within-20-years- with-cellulosic-liquid-hydrocarbons)
Carbonization of fossil fuels can add an alternative option to address the shortage of hydrogen and heat, by producing hydrogen (and heat/energy) from fossil sources (including natural gas) while producing Carbon as a valuable product with the potential to replace present day environmentally negative materials such as fertilizer, plastics, and concrete/cement.
Pulling it all together a possible dream scenario looks like the following:
1. Renewable energy (Solar, Wind, Hydrothermal, Ocean) continues to grow delivering more of our required energy in form of electricity and/or Hydrogen.
2. The energy will be stored and transported in the form of liquid fuels (Electric fuels or E-fuels like Methanol) converting CO2 from Carbon capturing and/or Direct Air Capture.
3. The refining industry will shift to using more biomass as feedstock enabling the production of biobased Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) and/or Marine fuels.
4. The refining industry will exploit Carbonization technology (Catalytic Cracking and Catalytic Carbonization) to convert fossil fuels and/or biomass into Hydrogen and Carbon components to produce Sustainable Circular Materials.
5. The presently “forever” plastics which are polluting our planet will be replaced by Sustainable Circular Materials produced from Biomass (Cellulose & Lignin) and/or Carbon.
The above “dream scenario” has the potential to drastically reduce the pollution of our planet (and our bodies) by green house gasses and other pollutants (PFAS, Micro plastics). Above all, this scenario opens the opportunity to forge a fruitful cooperation between the existing fossil fuel industry (“Big Oil”) and the newly emerging renewable fuels and biobased materials industries.
I remember being at a Systems Thinking conference many years ago, organized by Peter Senge. He was one of the advisors on generative thinking of SHELL in their productive scenario planning era. During the conference we had several group discussions on what the key concept would be to solve the important challenges of and on our planet.
The answer we came up with was: TOGETHER.
Together we are stronger, we can bundle our forces to address the issues at hand.
This brings me to a great thinker, visionary, dreamer I mentioned earlier: JFK.
“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” (Commencement Address at American University in Washington, D.C.,1963)
Maybe I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one!
“You may say I’m a dreamer.
But I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us.
And the world will live as one.”
(Imagine – John Lennon)