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‘Analyzing’ The Future – The Tug of War Between Politics and Economics

Robert Lyman, Friends of Science

He who lives by the crystal ball soon learns to eat ground glass.” —Edgar Fiedler

Predicting the future has always been a perilous and uncertain activity. For centuries, soothsayers foretold events by cutting up chickens and examining their entrails. Today, scientists, economists and others use sophisticated computer models to do the same thing, often with similar results. In perhaps no other field has the practice, and malpractice, of attempting to project future events become more controversial than in the field of energy. Once, the challenge of the analyst was mainly to understanding past trends and how current events might alter them.  Today, however, he or she must be mindful of how projections will align with claims of Anthropomorphic Global Warming  (AGW) (i.e. that humans are the major influence on the global climate) and that governments must manage the energy economy to produce their preferred environmental outcomes. To some extent, projecting the energy future has become a tug of war between economic and political considerations.

This point is illustrated in the most recent report by British Petroleum, the BP Energy Outlook 2019 edition. British Petroleum is one of the most highly-regarded commentators on global energy markets. This is partly because of its authoritative reporting of energy supply and demand statistics, which it provides free to the public in the annual BP Statistical Review of World Energy.  It is also because of its occasional special reports, including its energy outlook documents. The 2019 edition, just published, sets out BP’s analysis of the possible global energy supply, demand and carbon dioxide equivalent emissions trends to 2040.

BP has come under increasing pressure from believers in AGW and their supporters in the financial services industry to support climate change activism. This has been increasingly evident in its last few outlook documents. The 2019 edition succumbs by not presenting two or even three alternative scenarios of the future, but four. The “More Energy” (ME) scenario assumes that the future energy outlook will be very much like the past; that is, driven by the desire of people, especially in the developing countries, for increasing access to improved lifestyles and the energy services that support them, with only modest improvements in technology. The “Evolving Transition”(ET) scenario sees the consumer-driven pressures being partially offset by more rapid technological change and a politically-driven shift towards a lower-carbon dioxide fuel mix. The “Less Globalization” (LG) scenario is much like the Evolving Transition one, but it reflects the potentially adverse economic effects of prolonged trade disputes and increasing protectionism. Finally, the “Rapid Transition” (RT) scenario is one in which all governments adopt policies that will reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 45% by 2040; this might be considered the “lite” version of the policies recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the Summary for Policy Makers based on its Special Report 15 of September 2018. Most of the commentary and graphic illustrations in the report are based on the Evolving Transition scenario.

The outlook is a quite long document, filled with interesting graphs and tables. One can find it here.

In this commentary, I will not attempt to summarize the outlook, but rather to draw attention to its projections that are of most interest from the perspective of those who take a skeptical view of the AGW thesis and its related policy prescriptions.

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