ENERGY TRANSITIONS FOR MAURITIUS, FROM NOW TO 2050 : An overview – Part 1 (Oil Depletion and Climate Change)

As modern industrial society worldwide stumbles along, dogged by problematic dynamics created by its own excesses, like rampant consumption, depletion of natural and fossil fuel resources, environmental pollution, climate change and gross wealth inequity, a dim awareness is unfolding across human societies that business as usual is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.
On the energy front, it is mainly climate change caused by fossil fuels that has caught the attention of the public and that of policy makers. The depletion of fossil fuels and associated costs are barely registering with anyone.
It is thought by many that a transition to renewable energies will abate carbon dioxide emissions and thus mitigate climate change impacts. This is a simplistic view as CO2 levels are currently high enough for climate change to continue apace due to the momentum already gathered by the world climatic system.
Furthermore, globally, the emission of CO2 has not been much affected; it was a staggering 33,500 million tons in 2015 (BP Yearbook) compared to 31,500 million tons in 2010, a 6% increase over 5 years. There is no reason to believe that the annual world rituals of the Conference of Parties organised by the United Nations to conjure climate change will do much good to anyone.
With Mr. Trump as President of the US and his blatant disregard for climate change, it is even less likely that a voluntary or legally binding reduction in CO2 emissions will ever be achieved. At least Mr. Trump has the merit of clearly exposing his position, unlike the Obama Administration that promised a lot but achieved little in that respect. Hence the dynamics of climate change will continue unabated fuelled by the millions of tonnes of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by us all.
The pressing reasons to initiate a transition to renewable energies lie elsewhere. It is common scientific knowledge that fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) are finite and non-renewable resources subject to depletion. It follows that annual production of fossil fuels cannot keep on increasing forever. A point in time will be reached whereby the remaining resource base will be insufficient to maintain current production. Hence production will decline. It is a normal phenomenon subject to the implacable laws of physics.

Those turning points have yet to be reached for coal and natural gas; however the turning point for oil is either occurring right now or will occur in the coming years. It is not possible to be more precise as there are many different types of oil (such as conventional oil, deep sea oil, oil sands, light tight oil, polar oil), each with its own physical and chemical characteristics and depletion profiles.
But, very importantly, since the nineties, with each passing year fewer oil fields are being discovered whilst production keeps going on unabated. Currently the world burns approximately 4 times more oil than it discovers each year. It is a problematic situation for the global oil industry as it is faced with a declining resource base and fewer oil discoveries. Hence it is forced to rely increasingly on difficult to extract deep sea, polar or light tight oils that require advanced, complex and costly production technologies.
Added to the above dynamic is the constant US, Israeli and UK military-political interference in the oil rich Middle East that directly fuels wars, unrest and terrorism. The overall resultant is widely oscillating oil prices since 2000 that rock the world economy and most probably contributed considerably to the economic and financial crisis of 2008-2009.
Hence we have two main reasons to begin in earnest a transition out of fossil fuels, especially oil: (1) The finite and depleting nature of fossil fuels and (2) the increasingly volatile oil prices. Such an energy transition is a hugely difficult task as we shall see.
Any energy transition takes time, for instance it took most of the 19th century for coal to overtake wood and hydro-power and become the main source of energy for industrialization. Similarly, oil which began to be used in large quantities during the early 20th century overtook coal only during the Second World War and even so, currently coal still provides 30% of the world energy supply. Hence, from a historical perspective, we can say that any energy transition takes a minimum of 50 years and may be more. Hence it stands to reason that transition to renewable energies shall take many years, decades even.
Furthermore, there are significant obstacles in the way of this transition. To clarify matters, let us consider what energy is used for in Mauritius. In broad terms, energy usage can be broken down into 4 uses: (1) Transport, (2) Heat, (3) Electricity generation and (4) Others (note that some overlap exist in between those 4 main uses). From the following table we see that in Mauritius the total final consumption of energy was 913 kilo tonnes of oil equivalent (ktoe) in 2015 of which 51% went for transport alone and 26% for electricity.
No renewable energy is used in transport and a mere 23% of electricity is renewable. Overall only about 10% of our energy consumption comes from renewables, worldwide it is barely 12%. Clearly the world and Mauritius have a very long road ahead. Each of these usages present particular challenges to any transition to renewable energies as we shall see in part 2 and 3 of this series of articles.