Imagine it’s the year 2050. The 9 billionth person has already been born, and not in poverty. Rates of poverty are decreasing as emerging economic development works its magic. The way we use energy has changed drastically, and because of this CO2 rates are finally on the down slope. But despite the gains in energy efficiency, pressures on the finite resources of a shrinking planet are stronger than ever, and energy demands have grown by 80%. Humanity has not avoided a two degree temperature rise and many of the once imaginary climate impacts are now creating havoc.

If we could go back to the present and make choices that would create a vastly different climate outcome, would we do it?

Well, today is our chance. Earlier this year, Dutch energy giant Shell shared their predictions of the world’s energy future. When Shell executives consult a crystal ball, they see two images reflected up at them: a mountain and an ocean. These images are metaphors for two possible scenarios of the world’s energy future. Each scenario forecasts how greenhouse gas emissions will change over time, the energy mix used to power society, and the pace of economic development. The scenarios are lenses revealing the future, and are designed to inform Shell’s business and policy decisions around the world.

The Mountain Scenario

The Mountain Scenario symbolizes the rise of a cleaner global energy system. The defining characteristic of this scenario is that natural gas emerges as the world’s primary energy source by the 2030s. The energy system as a whole is cleaner because carbon capture and storage technologies have accelerated greatly, and the share of nuclear power rises too. The energy driving passenger transportation has also become cleaner, and has transformed from liquid fuels to hydrogen and electricity. Cities are more compact, making global transportation much more efficient in general. Finally, electricity generation is carbon neutral by the second half of the century.

But summiting any mountain is not without hard labour. Decision makers are confronted with tough policy questions about the social and environmental trade-offs of natural gas frackingnecessary to unleash new reserves of natural gas to power a clean energy system. And because policy development takes time, emissions from traditional hydrocarbon energy continue to grow through the 2020s until natural gas becomes a replacement. Despite a cleaner energy system overall by 2100, the growth in emissions in the early part of the century guarantees that a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius is unavoidable.

The Oceans Scenario

In contrast to the solid Mountain Scenario, the Oceans Scenario symbolizes a dynamic and fast-moving landscape. Government policy isn’t a major player, and market forces and civil society battle to become ambassadors of a new energy future. Public concerns of the environmental impacts of fracking, nuclear power waste, and the installation of wind turbines are significant, and coal is left as the final option for electricity generation. Urban growth continues, and sprawl becomes a significant concern due to stalled public policy processes. Prices of energy begin to rise which stimulates the extraction of non-conventional oil deposits, but also support the solar panel sector. By 2070, solar photovoltaic panels become the world’s largest primary source of energy.

The constant uncertainties of the public and market behaviours make for turbid waters. A lack of policy measures to support carbon capture and storage leads to a larger amount of greenhouse gases than the Mountain Scenario. While the Ocean Scenario is able to reach carbon neutrality eventually, this occurs some 30 years after the Mountain Scenario, and a 2 degree temperature increase still occurs.

Back to Reality

While both the Mountain and the Ocean scenarios have unique political, social and economic trajectories that lead to a variety of exciting innovations and milestones, they are not without trade-offs. Most critically, neither scenario is able to avoid a dangerous 2 degree warming.

Is this 2 degree warming part of a future we can accept? If we could re-shake the crystal ball, what landscapes would we expect to see?