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Shell scenarios – a net-zero CO2 emission world

November 23, 2016

Why net zero CO2 is important

In a report which supplements the Shell New Lens Scenarios (NLS) published in 2013, Shell have concluded that a net-zero CO2 emissions world is attainable by 2100:. A rising level of CO2 not only puts pressure on the climate, but also warms and acidifies the oceans, raises sea levels, threatens land-based ecosystems and affects patterns of food production. There is broad scientific consensus that the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people stands to suffer from this.

The Paris agreement

An important and constructive milestone on the journey was the recent Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015. At this, 196 countries adopted the Paris Agreement, which will enter into force after 55 countries that account for at least 55% of global greenhouse emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification. The agreement sets out a global action plan intending to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C.

The architecture of this agreement has been described as a “motorway” to address climate challenges in which there are different lanes, with different economies going along these lanes at different speeds and using different vehicles. But they will all be moving in the same general direction on the same motorway – and this movement, over the course of the century, will bring us towards increasing decarbonisation of our economies and transitions in the way energy is used.

It is valuable to recognise, however, that a net-zero emissions world is not necessarily a world without any emissions anywhere. It is a world where remaining emissions are offset elsewhere in the system, an outcome that is more rapidly achievable and hence more consistent with limiting the accumulation of greenhouse gases. This means that the world will need “negative” emissions in some sectors to offset remaining emissions in others such that zero additional emissions enter the atmosphere – the so-called “net zero.”

Demand for energy will double to 2100

Shell point out that the energy system responds to the demands of a growing number of people in the world with aspirations to make life materially better for themselves and their children. Meeting this demand will probably require approximately doubling the size of the global energy system over the course of this century. And that means the potential growth of atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases – unless something is done at the same time to reduce these emissions so that there are no net additions. The challenge is how to supply this demand while at the same time halting the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere – ensuring a healthy planet.

The New Lens Scenarios

Scenarios offer plausible alternative stories of the long-term future. They do not describe what will happen (a forecast) or what should happen (a policy prescription), but what could happen. The NLS scenarios – Mountains and Oceans – considered alternative ways influence in society could evolve and described different routes for the future evolution of the global energy system. The write up can be found at

The Mountains scenario represents much of the current status quo, and Oceans is a more fragmented and diverse set of actors. Both the Mountains and Oceans scenarios led to CO2 levels which led – in the MIT model widely used for this modeling – to temperature rises in excess of 2 degrees.

Can the world do it?

In the report building on the New Lens scenarios, Shell construct a “Goldilocks” scenario combining the “best of both”. By analyzing the hurdles and opportunities in each of the four pillars of the energy system – transport, power, buildings and industrial use – they conclude that three areas are critical.

The first area is the use of fossil fuels. Shell assess that this will still be significant right through the century, so imaginative approaches to carbon capture are needed. They discuss the use of oceans, the impact of agriculture and forestry policy. And they also suggest that solar power costs are reducing at such a rate that it would be economically viable in the medium term to retire coal burning plant.

The second area is renewable, where solar energy in particular is obeying – and will continue to obey – learning curve pricing, and also can be generated in bite sized components, giving individuals the capability of making their own choice.

The third area is energy efficiency, in all four pillars of the system.


Shell conclude by suggesting that, even taking into account the greatly increased demand for energy over the next decades, this goal can be met. However they emphasise that many of the hurdles are political and societal rather than technological.

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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