How soon is now?

It seems that Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, 80-year-old Ali Naimi, is either wilfully talking himself out of a job or is implementing a long-term strategy to become Saudi Arabia’s first renewable energy minister.

Yesterday, he remarked “one of these days, we are not going to need fossil fuels” and proceeded to discuss the future of Saudi Arabia’s economy — solar power. He’s not the first Saudi oil minister to allude to the end of the “oil age”, but he’s certainly one of the most cheerful about it to date.

The big question of course, is how soon. The world is in what Beyond the Limits authors Meadows, Meadows and Randers refer to as overshoot mode — when a population draws resources or emits pollutants “at an unsustainable rate, but the stresses on the support system are not yet strong enough to reduce the rates of withdrawal or emission”.

They say: “Overshoot comes from delays in feedback — from the fact that decision-makers in the system do not get, or believe, or act upon information that limits have been exceeded until long after they have been exceeded.”

On the one hand, it seems that renewables will not be able to take over from fossil fuels before some organisations say they need to if damaging climate change is to be prevented. Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden acknowledges the role of solar power becoming the dominant factor in the global energy system. But “even under the most aggressive scenarios — scenarios we have not seen in the history of mankind — we still think that the amount of alternative energies in the energy mix will be limited to something like 35pc, 40pc maybe, by the middle of the century.”

On the other hand, time is clearly running out, and two-thirds of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves cannot be used without increasing the temperature of the planet by 2°C by the end of the century, “unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is widely deployed”, the IEA said back in 2012.

Global emissions must be reduced to levels at least 40pc below 1990 levels, and 55pc below 2010 levels, according to a UNEP report. That means Arctic fossil fuel resources should be classified as unburnable, according to a study carried out by University College London (UCL) and published in the journal Nature.

Put simply, the issue is no longer about the world running out of fossil fuels. After all, “the stone age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones”, as former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani pointed out in 2000.

But perhaps there really are reasons to be cheerful. The US and China last year announced new greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets in an attempt to inject momentum into global climate change negotiations. And the scale of renewables deployment in China and India is now outpacing most developed countries, without either country having GHG cuts enshrined in law.

Naimi’s reminder of Saudi Arabia’s renewable plans comes ahead of a UN meeting — also in Paris — during which an international and legally binding global climate agreement will be adopted in December. But his comments also seem to echo a tangible change in the tone of discourse from business leaders, including energy firms. Will 2015 be seen as another significant lightbulb moment for the global energy market?

“When we look up, we have the sun every day. We have the acreage to lay [solar panels] out. We are embarked on developing a major integrated industry. From the silicon in the ground, to the panel to the electric company,” Naimi said in Paris yesterday. “And hopefully one of these days, instead of exporting fossil fuels, we will be exporting gigawatts of electric power. Does that sound good?”

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