The stress on our environment and resources is growing as the world’s population increases. By 2050, the Earth’s population is expected to grow to nine billion, up from seven billion today, half of which may live in Asia.
More people will demand greater amounts of energy to produce food, fuel transport and power communications. Balancing this surge with minimal impact on the environment will be a priority for Asia, where urban populations have almost doubled in the past two decades. Some 44% of the population now lives in urban areas. This may rise to two thirds by 2050. Pressures on the environment already exist. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution alone causes more than two million deaths in Asia every year.
In new research commissioned by Shell Eastern Petroleum (Pte) Ltd, future energy needs loom large in the minds of Asia Pacific respondents, with at least seven in 10 in Australia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand pinpointing it as a top future concern. In Singapore, climate change and cost of energy were singled out as the top future energy concerns.
The Future Energy survey findings reinforce a recent report by the Shell scenarios team, a group of economic, political and energy experts. The New Lens Scenarios looks at how economic, political and social forces might play out in the 21st century, and the consequences for the global energy system and environment.
The scenarios reinforce how we face a shrinking window of opportunity to find solutions to the world’s resource and environmental stresses. Global energy demand could double by 2050 from 2000. And over the next seven years, the world could generate new energy demand, above what we use today, equivalent in size to China’s entire current energy system.
Smart policy decisions, community engagement and consultation are essential to meet the world’s rising energy needs, while seeking to safeguard the environment for future generations. For example, in one scenario, China, India and other major energy importers pursue a path of controlled urbanisation, supported by government incentives and private investments. More compact cities emerge and measures to impose vehicle fuel economy standards are implemented.
Industry and government must jointly ensure the right investments in resource development and infrastructure to meet future energy demands. We must work together to create policies to access long-term secure supplies of energy at competitive prices.
This energy demand is a major concern from the results of the survey. When asked about consequences in the Future Energy survey, Asia Pacific respondents – and those from Singapore in particular – said they are worried about water and energy shortages, as well as higher energy prices.
These challenges require strong partnerships between governments, businesses, academia and communities; and Singapore respondents seem to agree – over 42% of them identified collaboration as the most important factor in building future energy solutions, though the majority said the Government has the biggest role in creating a better energy future. The younger respondents (18-30 years old) felt the general public also has a role to play apart from the Government.
There are several areas I see where if we act now we will reap major benefits.
Individuals can modify their behaviour to support a better energy future. Our survey findings show a great many Singaporeans say they are already doing so. Nine in10 respondents rated reducing CO2 emissions as an important goal, similar to the proportions in Thailand and Vietnam. Four in five are using less energy, and nearly the same proportion are recycling and using energy-saving products. But less than half say they will pay more for cleaner electricity.
One area to make a real impact is to build a future energy mix that is cleaner and more sustainable. In the survey, solar energy was the most preferred for the future, followed by natural gas, wind, and hydro energy. These findings show we believe it will take all forms of cleaner energy to meet future energy needs while reducing CO2 emissions.
Renewables and natural gas can be pursued in tandem. Solar power and wind need back-up because they cannot produce electricity all the time, unlike gas-fired power. An energy mix that includes cleaner burning natural gas combined with renewable intermittent energies can be achieved relatively earlier than 100% renewables which will require significantly more new infrastructure. And importantly, these energy choices will result in less harmful air pollution.
We can do more. Having a global mechanism for pricing carbon will help boost energy efficiency, and lower power consumption and emissions. Putting a price on CO2 emissions should mean that the fastest and lowest-cost CO2 emission reduction measures are implemented first and that all such measures are considered for use. Smaller countries like Singapore, where a local carbon market may be too small to be viable, stand to benefit from having a global system.
The Shell New Lens Scenarios and Future Energy survey help to bring an uncertain future into sharper focus. More importantly, they highlight how choices today may prove decisive in tackling the world’s resource and environmental stresses tomorrow.
Lee Tzu Yang is Chairman of Shell Companies in Singapore.