Reviewing Futures: The Shell Energy Scenarios to 2050

Science fiction has a cousin—another genre of stories set in the future. Governments, corporations and militaries worldwide use scenarios and scenario fictions to explore strategic alternatives. They aren’t trying to predict the future—that’s impossible. What they’re trying to do is build resilience into their planning process. One of the most famous of these ongoing foresight efforts belongs to Shell, which most famously used scenario-based planning to ride out the energy crisis of 1979 and come out far ahead of its competitors.

Scenarios aren’t exactly stories; they’re more like the pile of raw material that you put together to make a story. They are foreseen settings, situations, trends and possibilities. The lines between scenario and story can blur, though, particularly when scenario findings are presented as fiction, as I’ve done, with, eg. my work for the Canadian army in Crisis in Zefra. In the interest of blurring these lines even more, I thought I’d write a few reviews of current and famous past scenarios. In doing so I’m looking to tease out the meta-narratives of our age—the scenarios we all subconsciously use to construct our own visions of the future. These aren’t the specific narratives of the future we find in works like Frankenstein or 1984; they’re the grand themes of fear and aspiration which we find lurking behind words like Progress and Apocalypse.

In the case of the Shell Energy Scenarios to 2050, the word (acryonym, actually) is TANIA: There Are No Ideal Answers, and the grand theme it points to is… well, I’ll get to that.

TANIA is the 2008 revision of Shell’s strategic message from the 1990s, which was TINA (There Is No Alternative). TINA referred to the decarbonized, energy-efficient future without which we’ll all collectively choke. Already, though, the report is wallowing in irony: if Shell really believes TINA, then there should be massive investment happening in technologies like carbon-capture and sequestration. Yet currently we stagger forward with only a couple of pilot-plants operating world-wide, and a global investment in technologies like carbon air capture that are in the millions, rather than the billions that companies like Shell are capable of.

To its credit, the Scenarios to 2050 document doesn’t shy away from these ironies. It presents two scenarios, Scramble and Blueprints:

Will national governments simply Scramble to secure their own energy supplies? Or will new Blueprints emerge from coalitions between various levels of societies and government, ranging from the local to the international, that begin to add up to a new energy framework?

In Scramble, countries are too worried about energy security to give much thought to long-term trends, including those who know how to invest in Bitcoin UK trends. Quick returns on investment—as with China’s continued foray into coal-powered electricity—trump sustainability at every turn. Nations jockey for control over these resources producing a realm of haves and have nots—and short-term prosperity for the haves—but when they do inevitably become scarcer everybody who’s bet on them is left in a severe energy crisis. Similarly, nobody pays much attention to green technologies until there are major climate shocks. Shell optimistically predicts that this dire situation can’t continue forever—but in Scramble, it does for long enough to guarantee a prolonged economic slump out past 2020.

In Blueprints, organizations and countries find ways to profit by going green, and a slowly-building momentum pushes the world in the direction of radical decarbonization. This push is not motivated by altruism, but by a parallel set of interests: both climate and economic concerns demand greater energy efficiency and a shift from outmoded technologies. Cities and regions take the lead in this scenario, and provide the safe-haven necessary for capital to flow into sustainable investments. Growth is continuous in Blueprints, despite the U.S. using 33% less energy by 2055.

Scenarios to 2050 was published in 2008; four years later, after the failure of several key climate change conferences, it looks like Scramble is the scenario that’s coming true. Appearances can be deceptive, though, and knowing which will of these stories ‘comes true’ isn’t what this exercise is about, as you’ll see below. If companies like Shell have been aware of TINA since the 1990s, they’ve had lots of time to lay the groundwork for weathering massive disruptive change; that’s what scenario documents like this are for, and Scenarios to 2050 is only one of many such planning documents that now exist. Governments, multinationals, and citizens have all in fact been making plans for a decarbonized future for a very long time; the problem is, we’re all waiting for the other guy to blink first. The poor countries are waiting for the rich countries, China’s waiting for America, America’s waiting to see whether Germany and Denmark’s flirtations with renewables end in wedding bells or failure.

How to Read Scenarios

Scramble and Blueprints pretend to be two alternate futures. If scenarios were about prediction, then our next step would be to argue over which one is actually going to play out. Instead, scenarios are about building resilience into our current institutions and practices. Scramble and Blueprints don’t actually describe two futures, but two aspects of the one future we’re hurtling towards. The way I usually put it is that all futures come true, just not in equal measure. What this means in this case is that Shell hasn’t decided that Scramble is ‘true’ and Blueprints isn’t, or vice versa. These two narratives provide the two walls of a planning arena, allowing the company to design all manner of strategies—and the best strategies will be ones that would profit Shell in either scenario.

What I said above, that everybody’s waiting for the other guy to blink first, can be seen in the Blueprints scenario’s fantasy that cities and regions will act first, allowing corporations to follow. That idea reveals the true meta-narrative—the  ‘grand theme’ I talked about at the top—that Shell and so many other players are building their thinking around today.  That theme is this:

When somebody decides to lead, we’ll be ready to follow.

Everybody’s poised, everybody’s got their plans in place. The only problem is that the corporate world is waiting for governments to lead, and governments are waiting for the corporations to do it. In Blueprints, Shell recognizes the impasse and looks longingly at cities and regions as possible leaders; but there’s really no getting around the fact that waiting for the other guy to move first is a bad idea. Ultimately, Nixon had to go to China.

If Shell really stands behind the conclusions of the Energy Scenarios to 2050, then they are going to have to be willing to blink first.

Karl Schroeder has published many novels through Tor Books. He divides his time between writing science fiction and consulting in the area of technology foresight. He is currently finishing a Masters degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation. Karl lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter, and a small menagerie.


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