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Geopolitical ramifications of energy transition hard to exaggerate: experts

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Austin, Texas — The geopolitical landscape is likely to be significantly modified by the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable and low-carbon resources, both on the global and sub-national level, experts said during the University of Texas Energy Week's second day of sessons.

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In a keynote address, Paul Hudson, president of Blackstone Group's General Infrastructure investment firm and former Public Utility Commission of Texas chairman, identified climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and the environment as dominant factors in energy markets over the past few years.

Over the past 10 years, almost $2.7 billion in "clean energy" asset financing has taken place, Hudson noted, and coal-fired generation's share of the US power generation mix has dropped from 45% to 23%, while renewables' share has surged from 10% to 18%. Cleaner burning natural gas' share also increased strongly, from 25% to 39%.

"We're going to be dealing with this stuff the rest of our lives," Hudson said.

In a panel discussion entitled, "Geopolitical Ramifications of the Energy Transition," Morgan Bazilian, professor and director of the Colorado School of Mines Payne Institute of Public Policy, compared historic trends for annual carbon dioxide emissions, which grew from less than 3 billion metric tons in 1990 to nearly 40 billion metric tons in 2018, with scenarios that would be required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C, in which CO2 emissions would fall to 1900 levels between 2040 and 2070.

"We've never done anything remotely like this," Bazilian said. "Since we have no experience 'bending a curve' like that, it's not as simple as it sounds. ... Zero carbon doesn't do away with zero-sum games. A global win-win scenario is but one plausible outcome, and an unlikely one, in my estimation."

When Samantha Gross, Brookings Institution fellow on foreign policy, energy security and climate initiatives, was asked what she would think in the year 2030 about what was the most important thing happening in 2020, she said, "I think this year it is absolutely critical with regard to what we do with climate change."

However, Gross was unsure which way world and industry leaders would move, whether toward cutting emissions or loosening restrictions for short-term economic gain that might result in more emissions.

"I think we will look back and see this year as critical, one way or the other, but I can't say which direction," Gross said.

The benefits of scale

Fred Beach, a UT lecturer on energy policy and economics, said about 75% of the world's population has not been industrialized. Therefore, that population has lacked the material benefits from a developed economy, which prompts that population to seek to increase its use of energy, while the developed economies represented by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development "have almost certainly hit peak energy," Beach said.

In nearly every non-OECD country, issues related to climate change are not in the top three priorities, Colorado School of Mines' Bazilian said.

Bazilian said, "In this energy transition, whatever it's going to look like, there's going to be friction, and by that I mean there's going to be trouble for some countries, maybe more."

But UT's Beach offered hope if OECD countries accelerate their use of zero-carbon resources, which would over time decrease their cost, through economies of scale, so that poorer countries could find it easier to develop their economies without going through massive CO2 emissions increases.

"We have all the technical solutions we need today," Beach said. "They exist. We are just not using them enough. ... We have to continue to be the early adopters."

Once the economies of scale become large enough, those technologies "will trickle down into China and India."