Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the world is undergoing a transition away from fossil fuels and carbon-intensive sectors, towards renewable energy and clean growth. The collapse of oil demand and prices have simply compounded the challenges that oil and gas producers already faced.
What happens next will have significant implications for Norway, as one of the world’s largest exporters of both energy and capital, and for the UK, as it plans its recovery and looks ahead to its hosting of the next major climate change summit in 2021 - COP26.
While the speed and scale of the transition has always been uncertain and contested, an accelerated transition with deep implications for future oil and gas demand looks plausible.
There has long been a debate over when global demand will peak, but what happens after demand has peaked is perhaps the more critical question. Now there is the additional uncertainty of how this post-peak demand might be affected by an oncoming global recession and potentially by the greening of recovery measures implemented in response to it. Will there be an extended plateau, a gentle decline or a sudden collapse?
The post-peak trend will impact oil producers and exporters to varying degrees, in terms of their vulnerability to reduced volumes and lower prices, and their ability to compete in a shrinking market. There is also growing scepticism over whether natural gas can act as a bridge between coal-fired power and renewables, as increasingly, renewables directly replace coal. There is also significant uncertainty over extent to which hydrogen, either produced from fossil fuels or renewable energy, will play a significant role in a decarbonizing energy sector.
Even before the pandemic, there was growing public and political pressure in most EU member states for more ambitious action on climate change. More challenging climate targets now look certain as a growing number of governments and companies commit to becoming carbon-neutral by ever-earlier dates.
While market developments, such as the rate of change and the costs of technologies such as renewable energy and electric vehicles will heavily influence their deployment rates, policy interventions and large-scale investment in core infrastructure are still crucial to their scaling up. We are now seeing the EU refocus its Green Deal in support of post-COVID recovery, and scale its support for transition in coal-dependent and carbon-intensive regions with its €100bn Just Transition Mechanism.
These developments have significant implications for fossil fuel producers and energy consumers both inside and outside the EU. It will particularly affect Norway, not only as a significant supplier of energy to the EU, but as a member of the European Economic Area, with likely pressure to adopt similarly binding domestic carbon reduction legislation. Similarly, as the UK forges new post-Brexit trading and regulatory relationships, it will need to align with European policies for efficiency.
As the host of the critical COP26 UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow next year, the UK will also need to at least match the EU in terms of its ambition on national emissions reductions, and in placing decarbonization and sustainability at the heart of COVID-19 recovery measures. However, unfortunately, the early indications are that ‘Project Speed’ will focus on traditional infrastructure projects are less than promising.
The UK and Norway face similar challenges, as oil and gas producers that recognize the importance of climate change, and will rightly face scrutiny where they reinvest in their oil and gas sectors. They are both outside, yet highly dependent on developments within the EU. However, they are also both, somewhat surprisingly, world leaders in different aspects of decarbonization, such as off-shore wind or electric vehicle deployment, in part due their offshore capabilities and advanced manufacturing capabilities. This presents an opportunity for both countries and their industries to place an accelerated energy transition at the heart of their economic recovery and their relationship with the EU.
There will of course be different opinions on how to do this. A new Chatham House paper – Expert Perspectives on Norway’s Energy Future – explores these issues in the Norwegian context, and draws upon the views of 15 international experts on energy transition and climate change, each interviewed in depth. While unsurprisingly there is little consensus, these views provide valuable background from which to consider the future of future of energy for Norway, and for its partners including the UK and the EU.