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OPINION: Jeremy Leggett

Five thousand delegates from more than 100 countries file into a cavernous convention centre in Daegu, South Korea, for the World Energy Congress 2013.

A huge screen above them in the foyer is filled with a spinning globe, that blue pearl in space that we call planet Earth, along with some writing: “Nature has provided our energy needs for thousands of years. As we make the choices to meet our future energy needs” — the camera dives in to pan across sweeping rainforests — “nature is relying on us.”

Readers of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report by hundreds of the world’s best climate scientists would know for sure what nature is relying on us to do. Cut out the burning of fossil fuels, all the way to zero, by 2050 at the latest, beginning well within this decade. Otherwise we risk destabilising the climate, ending access to clean water and viable agriculture for most of us, collapsing civilisation in the process.

But most people at this congress share a deeply entrenched belief system. They are essentially priests within a kind of religion that is built around the burning of fossil fuel.

The first speaker, Saudi Aramco chief executive Khalid Al-Falih, is typical of many who will follow him over the week. “The Earth is blessed with a colossal endowment of fossil fuels,” he intones. Fossil fuels are the “crown jewels” of the world’s energy mix. We have 50 years of oil supply and 250 years of gas. And we must let market forces decide how much of it we use. He does not mention climate change, or the message on the giant screen outside.

Others are less comfortable ignoring the message, and so invent a mythology around it, in the way religions so often do.

A relaxed GDF Suez boss, Gérard Mestrallet, sits on a stage, being interviewed by a journalist who is unprepared to ask any hard questions. Mestrallet explains why he wants the US shale-gas boom exported across Europe, including to his own country, France, which has foolishly banned it. In parallel, he and the chief executives of nine other European utilities want to see subsidies for renewables ended. Why do they want this? “We are for the security of Europe,” he says. “We are for the climate.”

The journalist does not ask how he thinks such a proliferation of gas can lead to the end of fossil-fuel burning less than four decades from now. He does not ask how cutting renewables subsidies can be “for the climate”.

Had the uninquisitive journalist asked about the climate implications of all this gas, Mestrallet would doubtless have responded that burning gas creates fewer emissions than burning coal, which would have been true. But he would have omitted the worries about fugitive emissions of gas all the way from the well head to the home that cancel out the advantage of gas over coal. Big Energy bosses usually do. He would have dodged the issue of all the investment flowing to gas depressing the development of renewables. Big Energy bosses are good at that too.

The World Energy Council’s latest scenarios, published during the congress, offer a window on the dysfunctional group-think at work.

The “Jazz” scenario envisages total primary energy increasing by 61% to 2050, amid little multilateral effort to co-ordinate fossil-fuel reductions. The “Symphony” scenario envisages an increase of 27%, with a degree of policy co-ordination. In 2010, fossil fuels provided 79% of the world’s primary energy. Their share by 2050, by which time climate scientists tell us they must be phased out, would be 77% in the Jazz scenario and 59% in the Symphony scenario. In both scenarios, gas expands significantly from its current share.

And the climate implications? The target set by the EU is a 2°C temperature increase. A likely chance of staying below that requires returning CO2 equivalent concentrations below 400 parts per million (ppm). At present the figure is more than 420ppm. The Jazz scenario would take us to 590-710ppm of CO2 equivalent. The Symphony scenario would take us to 490-535ppm. Both would torpedo civilisation.

The top 20 European utilities, including GDF Suez, were worth $1trn in 2008. Today they are worth half that. The growing success of renewables, plus their own mistakes and oversights, have done this to them.

These are dying companies, with unworkable business plans. They should be embracing renewables with open arms, but instead seem set on a last ferocious assault on them. Their inculturated, institutionalised belief system compels them to do this.

All the evidence for this article can be found at www.jeremyleggett.net

Jeremy Leggett is founder and non-executive chairman of international PV company Solarcentury. His new book, The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance , is published by Routledge

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