OPEC and climate change
Being the major producer of fossil fuels which are the single important contributor of carbon emissions, OPEC role in climate change is pivotal. The key to reducing greenhouse emissions is the use of renewable and alternative energies and less use of polluting fossil fuels. Whilst OPEC has to ensure the future profitability of its oil revenue, it at the same time wants to be perceived to be an advocate of climate change issues.
Change in OPEC stance
In the early 2000s when climate change starts to gain global attention, there were initial rumblings among members of OPEC. There were fleeting suggestions of compensation for schemes like carbon trading and carbon tax that would have reduced the attractiveness of crude as a fuel source. OPEC wanted an assurance that even as it invested in its capacity, future demand would be assured.
Over the past decade, even as climate change talks stagnated and gained more prominence, OPEC has changed its stance. In 2007, it adopted a $3b climate change fund to fund research in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, especially in the area of enhanced oil recovery. This research is envisaged to reduce the carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels and increase its attractiveness. Such technology is more suited for immovable facilities like power plants and industrial facilities (eg refineries). At the moment this technology is prohibitive and will be cost effective only if carbon price reaches more than $60/tonne. (Comparatively, the present EUA on the european trading scheme is about $22 at time of writing.)
The electric vehicle and transportation fuels
The advance of CCS technology is not likely to make an immediate significant reduction in carbon emissions due to the exorbitant costs to modify existing industrial facilities, and potential fuel switching to the less pollutive and cheaper natural gas.
A recent Apr 2011 report by the IEA highlighted the progress of the use of renewable fuels. However, since the strong production growth of 2010, its growth (including bioethanol and biodiesel) has slowed to less than 2mb/d. The use of such biofuels is also strongly dependent on mandates and subsidies, making it an unattractive proposition.
An analysis of the usage of fossil fuels indicates transportation fuels to be the main demand driver. Gasoline, jet fuel and diesel constitute 21.3 mb/d, 6.9 mb/d and 21.2 mb/d or 55% respectively of 90 mb/d global demand (notwithstanding bunker fuel which will change to use marine diesel in the next decade).
It is the advent of the electric vehicle that may potentially displace the major use of transportation fuels and thence fossil fuels. It is this area that OPEC will probably be watching. The use of such vehicles will take time to filter through as old vehicles are replaced. Further it requires infrastructure to be built for the re-charging and maintenance of expensive batteries. A research by Goldman Sachs estimates this revolution to slowly take place over the next 5-10 years. For its use by the mainstream consumer, this will take an even longer time.
In the interim period, the insatiable global demand for crude oil from the emerging economies is expected to increase, creating a temporal period of imbalance in demand/ supply. The world is not going to wean itself of dependence on fossil fuels in the medium term. This will continue to incentivise OPEC to invest in existing capacity.