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A Renaissance of Fossil Fuels: Consequences of Europe’s Energy Market Panic

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As the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) approaches, calls from the international community to step up the efforts to combat climate change are getting ever louder. While the issue of renewable energy sources has been high on the agenda for most developed economies for quite a while now, the only agent of radical change seems to be some serious crisis—something that would push the energy community out of their comfort zone. This time has seemingly come, with prices for natural gas, coal and electricity hitting record highs in Europe over the past few weeks, and analysts from Europe expecting the factors that drive these prices to persist in the coming weeks.

Many in European political circles would like to believe it is the Russian Gazprom that is ultimately responsible for what has been going on, claiming that its alleged reluctance to supply gas to the European market has sparked the events that caused prices for natural gas to increase fourfold and prices for electricity to double in 2021. However, the Russian company was not in breach of any contracts, nor was it guilty of lowering the transit volumes of gas passing through Ukraine. Besides, hybrid pricing under long-term contracts makes Russian gas significantly cheaper for the consumer as compared to the cost of that coming from the main hubs of the European Union. While it would be hard to argue with the fact that Gazprom is filling its underground gas storage facilities in a fashion slower than does the market on average or that the company hardly books additional gas transit capacity through Ukraine, these factors can only have a marginal effect on the overall cost of energy commodities.

Graph 1. Natural Gas Prices in 2017–2021 (USD/MMBtu)

Source: Thomson Reuters

Gas Prices: In Circumvention of the Rules?

The high cost of gas in Europe became apparent early in 2021 as European countries were exhausting their gas reserves after the relatively cold winter of 2020/2021. At the same time, industries in Europe, as well as the economic activity in a broader sense, were recovering from the recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which translated into an increasing demand for gas. Every month, it became ever more obvious that the injection of natural gas into underground gas storage facilities (UGS) was occurring slower than expected. From August to September 2021, all hopes for the situation to return to normal came to evaporate, as the filling level of UGS facilities was an average of 20 points lower than over the past five years.

Against this background, the public in Europe began to pay careful attention to Gazprom’s moves on the European market, since most of its gas storage facilities in the EU (approximately totaling 12 billion cubic meters, of which some 6.5 billion are located in Germany) were being filled up significantly slower than the European average. The already slow gas injection was aggravated by a fire that occurred at the Urengoy Condensate Treatment Plant, forcing the Russian gas monopoly to temporarily cut production. Nonetheless, Gazprom spokespeople assured the public that the work to fill storage facilities in Russia—approximately 73 billion cubic meters in total—continued in accordance with the plan with no setbacks expected, although they never provided any specific data on the injection rate.

These events led some MEPs to file an official request for the European Commission to investigate possible manipulations on the gas market by Gazprom. First of all, the misunderstanding owes to Gazprom’s reluctance to increase production. Export forecasts for 2021 have not changed throughout the year, hovering around at 175–183 billion cubic meters per year, whereas Gazprom’s 2021 budget assumed an average price of $170 per 1,000 cubic square meters, which is exactly $100 per 1,000 cubic square meters higher than is envisioned in the current forecast of the average annual export price, which has now been revised three times. However, it would be a mistake to squarely place the blame for the spike in gas prices over January–September 2021 on Gazprom’s shoulders, since its influence on the LNG market, a principal driving force to impact the situation with gas shortage in Europe, was rather negligible.

It is worth noting that the global LNG supply did not decrease as compared to the previous year: while 274 million tons were supplied in January–September 2020, the same period in 2021 witnessed a rise up to some 290 million tons. While the global economy is recovering to see the demand for LNG grow, gas disruptions in Australia, Malaysia, Peru and Oman, alongside the continued downtime of the Snøhvit LNG export terminal in northern Norway, coupled with the drop in production and reduced export volumes in Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago, have led people to believe that there is a shortage of LNG on the market, realizing that consumers in Europe and Asia may be in direct competition. All this resulted in higher LNG prices, despite the fact that prices are usually lower in summer as compared to the average level in winter.

As the Wind Blows…

While the price of natural gas continues to rise, the nations of Northwest Europe have been facing another challenge—namely, the unpredictability of the wind. Countries like the UK, where up to a third of electricity can be generated by wind farms (depending on weather conditions), were unprepared for a long period of calm. During the first half of September, the North Sea witnessed a rather rare phenomenon when offshore wind turbines failed to generate even half of the power they typically produce: over a two-week period, power generation was below 6 MWh, in quite a contrast to the usual 10–12 MWh.

The situation with both wind and power generation had returned to normal by mid-September; however, the issue of wind reliability in the long term remains. In the meantime, the EU is looking to increase the share of wind energy in its energy matrix up to 20 per cent by 2050. Its overall wind power capacity took a massive hit in the wake of Brexit, as the UK’s 11,000 turbines provided more than 24 GW of power—the country has long been a European frontrunner in terms of wind farm penetration into the domestic market. Many countries have followed in the Britain’s footsteps, with France having set out to build its first offshore wind platform, Spain having published a new wind energy strategy and Greece intending to do the same soon. However, no one has a convincing answer to the question, “What will happen if the wind no longer blows?”

Where possible, nuclear power is the easiest—as well as cheapest—solution. As the largest nuclear power in the EU, France would have endured the market panic over electricity prices with fewer losses if four of its nuclear reactors (with a total capacity of 4.2 GW) had not been undergoing scheduled repairs. Where Europe fell short, South Korea and Japan can succeed. Excessively high LNG prices forced South Korea to restore some of its nuclear reactor production capacity. Japan has made progress in this regard during the Olympic Games, when the Kansai nuclear power plant helped cover additional electricity needs. Japan’s reluctance to buy expensive LNG shipments on the spot market is one of the reasons why the country already has nine nuclear reactors operating.

Coal: Old but Gold

The reinstallation of unused nuclear facilities was shadowed by the revival of old coal-fired power plants. The UK, seeking to shut down all coal-fired power plants by 2024, was forced to restart some of its generating capacity. Less than a year has passed since wind turbines became the main electricity source in Germany—yet, by the autumn of 2021, the EU’s biggest economy had to see another renaissance of the coal as electricity generation at coal plants has more than doubled since 2020, reaching an average of 8.5 GWh in the course of September. Not only will coal serve as Germany’s main energy source in 2021, but it will also retain its competitive edge over gas, which costs 10 euro per MWh more.

The first step towards a gradual increase in coal prices appeared to be China’s embargo on the Australian coal while Australia and Indonesia have been leading suppliers of coal to China since November 2020. The ongoing embargo has significantly increased the cost of coal for Chinese importers as they need to build relationships from scratch and with more remote countries. At the same time, Australia’s export flows have redrawn the map of Asia in terms of market share. Mining in China, however, continues to suffer due to government involvement aimed at combating unfair competition. For example, a mandatory two-month inspection period was established in the country’s largest coal-mining province. Domestic coal prices then doubled: in mid-September, futures contracts on the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange were slightly below CNY1000 ($160) per ton.

Still, coal received a boost following unprecedentedly high prices for natural gas. Once global trade in the commodity fell sharply in 2020, many had written coal off, but it is enjoying renewed interest in countries that have traditionally been able to switch from one hydrocarbon feedstock to another (Germany is precisely such a state in Europe). Therefore, coal imports to Europe in August 2021 returned to pre-pandemic levels (meaning the levels of Autumn 2019, some 12 million tons per month) and continued to grow later in September. This growing demand drove up the prices, seeing them double over mere four months to reach a never-before-seen $185/t.

Although it might seem to be a temporary surge doomed to crash, the annual average Rotterdam Coal Futures for 2022 (also called API2) fluctuates in the range of $130–140/t. We can thus expect prices to remain high—and not just for a one month. Besides, coal remains competitive as compared to gas, although its use entails higher carbon costs (carbon emissions are taxed under EU legislation). With carbon trading at an unprecedented level of EUR61–62/t as well as coal, the latter is still more profitable than natural gas, even with these added costs. The relatively simple combination of weak power generation from renewable energy sources and the insufficient supply of natural gas may well have brought the two most unpopular segments of the European energy sector—nuclear and coal—to the fore.

Graph 2. Average Monthly Electricity Cost in Europe (EUR/MWh).

Source: Thomson Reuters

As we look ahead, it is worth noting that electricity prices would likely decline in the end, at least when the situation with wind energy is sorted out, as wind forecasts for the North Sea in October are largely positive. French nuclear power plants returning to operation and the reinstallation of coal-fired power plants will also help alleviate the shortage in energy supply. Nonetheless, natural gas, the main “transition fuel” on the path to a low-carbon economy, will remain at the core of debates. Europe will still compete with Asia for the LNG shipments remaining on the market, although it is unlikely to be willing and able to pay more than its competitors in Asia. There are few factors that could improve the situation in Europe, which will fuel greater interest in Nord Stream 2. The ardor of traders may temporarily be cooled if the requirements of the German regulator, the Federal Network Agency (BnetzA), for granting a license to use the pipeline are met. However, Berlin is unlikely to rush to this decision, unwilling to demonstrate a preferential attitude to business. This is why we will have to wait and hope that the winter of 2021/2022 will come to be mild.

From our partner RIAC

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Gas doom hanging over Ukraine

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The long history of gas transit across independent Ukraine began with Kiev’s initial failure to pay anything for Russian natural gas, both intended for transit to Europe and for domestic consumption, on the pretext of fraternal relations between the former Soviet republics. Later it cost the Ukrainians a meager $25 for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas, and that ridiculously small sum remained unchanged for quite some time. The sizeable amount of Russian gas provided at a discount price, plus domestically available oil resources, were distributed by the country’s greedy elite the following way: domestically produced gas was used on utilities, proceeds from the transit of Russian gas went to the state budget (minus the money that lined bureaucratic pockets), and Russian gas – to the industry (plus the corruption component).

Then came the Ukrainian revolutions and Kiev’s desire to join “Euro-Atlantic structures” and the desire to “get off the Russian gas needle and prevent the Kremlin from using energy as a weapon.” Ukraine has tried and is still trying to believe in all this by playing up to the collective West and hoping that the West will compensate Kiev for the losses caused by its revolutionary endeavors and anti-Russian antics. As a result, we see gas prices going through the roof, an energy crisis in Europe, and the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Those in power in Kiev hoped for the very last moment that the West valued their country more than it did the energy security of European countries. Much to their surprise (and only theirs), this is not so. It looks like the Europeans are interested in Russian gas supplies and are not so eager to keep Ukraine as the main transit country. Moreover, having “democratized Ukraine” to the state of an openly anti-Russian country, the West turned it into a country, whose leadership the Kremlin does not really want to talk to simply because it does not see any point in doing this. This is the reason why third countries care (or rather pretend to care) about Ukraine. Thus, in July of this year, there came out the “Joint Statement of the United States and Germany on Support for Ukraine, European Energy Security and Our Climate Goals.” According to it, Germany pledged to do everything in its power to make sure that the agreement between Moscow and Kiev on the transit of Russian gas across Ukrainian territory was extended for up to ten years. The statement came when it was already obvious that the construction of Nord Stream 2 would be completed, Germany resisted US pressure on this issue, Moscow paid no attention and Washington, exhausted by the battles of the presidential elections and the search for new strategies in the Old World, was trying to pit America’s European friends against Russia.

It has never been a secret that the West needs reliable transit, and this is something that Ukraine also insists on. However, Kiev has officially labelled  Russia as an “aggressor country,” which means that this very “aggressor” must ensure this transit and bring billions of dollars in revenues to the Ukrainian budget. This looks like a kind of “Euro-schizophrenia” where Ukraine is an anti-Russian country and simultaneously serves as a reliable transit country for Russian gas. Things do not work this way, however, and it looks like Europeans are beginning to realize this. Therefore, most of the European consumers support Nord Stream 2 even though they do not show this in public. Suffice it to mention the recent conclusion of a years-long contract for gas supplies to Hungary.

Vladimir Putin’s statement, made amid soaring gas prices and growing threats to European industry, came as an energy lifeline for all Europeans.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the initiative of Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak to increase gas supply on the market amid rising energy prices in Europe… Novak said that Russia can stabilize the situation with prices by providing additional volumes of gas on the exchange, adding that this country’s main priority is to accommodate domestic demand,” Lenta.ru reported.

Commenting on the possibility of increasing gas supplies via Ukraine, President Putin recalled that Ukraine’s gas transport system had not been repaired “for decades” and that “something could burst” there any time if gas pressure goes up.

“At the same time, it is more profitable and safer for Gazprom to operate new pipeline systems,” he added. Putin thus confirmed what is already clear to all that Ukraine is an unreliable and, in fact, an extra link, and that Europe can get gas bypassing technically and politically unreliable Ukrainian pipes. He also pointed out that Gazprom would suffer losses from an increase in gas transit via Ukrainian territory, while new gas pipelines offer cheaper transit options. He added that Gazprom is saving about $3 billion a year by using new pipelines and that Russia was ready to increase gas supplies and make them cheaper for European consumers.

Gas shortages have already forced the Ukrainian government to freeze gas prices for household consumers, but prices for gas for industrial enterprises are rising along with those on European exchanges, where on October 6, they reached a very impressive $ 2,000 per thousand cubic meters and went down only after Putin’s statement came out.

Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine’s Federation of Glass Industry Employers, Dmitry Oleinik, said that this [rise in gas prices – D.B.] would lead to an inevitable rise in prices. However, producers will not be able to jack up prices indefinitely, because at some point buyers simply will not be able to cover production costs.

“The Ukrainian consumer will not even be able to cover the cost of production. Plants and factories will slowly shut down and people will lose their jobs – this is already very serious. Budget revenues will “plummet,” and expenses will skyrocket… The issue of bankruptcies is just a matter of time,” Oleinik warned.

If Ukraine continues to follow the chosen course, it will face de-industrialization. By the way, this will suit the West, but certainly not the Ukrainian industrial oligarchs, who have long been eyeing agriculture, including the prospect of turning themselves into land barons. However, the farming sector will not be happy about the high prices on gas that bakeries, sugar factories and greenhouses run on. There will be nowhere to run.

Apart from purely practical realities, the conclusions I can draw from the current energy situation in the world and Vladimir Putin’s statements regarding the Ukrainian transit, are as follows:

  • Gas supplies through Ukraine and to Ukraine are not solely an economic issue, given Kiev’s endless anti-Russian escapades;
  • This problem affects the energy security of Europe;
  • Since there are several angles to this problem, it must be solved in a comprehensive manner;
  • At the same time, this cannot be done exclusively in the interests of the West and Ukraine to the detriment of the interests of Russia.

As you can see, it is once again up to Kiev and its shadow patrons to decide. And winter is just around the corner…

From our partner International Affairs

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Russian Energy Week: Is the world ready to give up hydrocarbons?

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In an official message to mark the opening of the Russian Energy Week international forum on 13-15 October in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that there are numerous issues on the agenda related to current trends in the global energy market, including improvements to industry infrastructure and the introduction of modern digital technologies into its operation.

“The efficiency of energy production and consumption is the most important factor in the growth of national economies and has a significant impact on people’s quality of life. Many countries have already adopted policies to accelerate the development of clean energy technologies,” he wrote in the message to guest and participants.

“The forum business programme is therefore set to look in detail at the possibility of developing green energy based on renewable sources and the transition to new, more environmentally friendly fuels. I am confident that the events of the Russian Energy Week will allow you to learn more about the achievements of the country’s fuel and energy sector, and that your initiatives will be put into practice,” Putin said.

Leaders of foreign states have also sent greetings to the participants and guests. For instance, President of the Republic of Angola João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, Prime Minister of Vietnam Pham Minh Chinh, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Armed Forces Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Vice Premier of the State Council of China Han Zheng.

In their greetings, it generally noted the importance of the topics to be discussed at the forum as well as the need to build an international dialogue and consolidate efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals, including as regards climate change.

The programme covers a wide range of issues of transformation and development in the global energy market. In the context of energy transition, the issues of energy development are inextricably linked with the introduction of new technologies, and the transformation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Climate protection is a task that cannot be solved by one country; it is a global goal, which can be achieved through building dialogue and cooperation between countries.

The participants in the discussion will answer the question: Is the world ready to give up hydrocarbons? In addition, during the panel session, the participants will discuss whether oil, gas and coal are really losing ground in the global energy sector; whether the infrastructure will have time to readjust for new energy sources; how long will there be enough hydrocarbons from the field projects that are being implemented; and whether an energy transition using fossil fuels is possible.

The international climate agenda is forcing many countries to reform their carbon-based energy systems. For Russia, which holds a leading position in the global hydrocarbon markets, the transition to development with low greenhouse gas emissions presents a serious challenge, but at the same time it opens up new opportunities for economic growth based on renewable energy, hydrogen technologies, advanced processing of raw materials and implementing green projects.

The Climate Agenda included sessions dedicated to the operation of the Russian fuel and energy sector in the context of energy transition, the impact of the European green pivot on the cooperation between Russia and Europe, as well as the session titled ‘The Future of Coal in a World Shaped by the Climate Agenda: The End, or a New Beginning?’

Sessions of the ‘New Scenarios for the Economy and the Market’ track are dedicated to the global challenges and opportunities of the electric power industry; the impact of ESG on the Russian fuel and energy sector; the potential for the renewable energy sources; and other issues of the future of energy.

The Russian Energy Agency under the Ministry of Energy brings together experts from key international analytical organizations to discuss the future of world energy during the session titled International Energy Organization Dialogue: Predicting the Development of Energy and Global Markets.

The Human Resource Potential of the Fuel and Energy Sector, participating experts will discuss the prospects for developing the professional qualification system, and a session titled Bringing the Woman’s Dimension to the Fuel and Energy Sector. Optimizing regulation in the energy sector and organizing the certification and exchange of carbon credits in Russia are the basis of the Regulatory Advances in Energy. 

Anton Kobyakov, Advisor to the Russian President and Executive Secretary of the Russian Energy Week 2021 Organizing Committee, said “the level of various formats of international participation testifies to the importance of the agenda and Russia’s significant role in the global energy sector. We are a reliable strategic partner that advocates for building international cooperation based on the principles of transparency and openness. With the period of major changes in the industry, it is particularly important to engage in a dialogue and work together to achieve both national and global goals.”

The forum, organized by the Roscongress Foundation, the Russian Ministry of Energy, and the Moscow Government, brought together many local and foreign energy and energy-related enterprises. The speakers attending included  Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO Darren Woods, Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG Chairman of the Board Ola Kallenius, BP CEO Bernard Looney, and TotalEnergies Chairman and CEO Patrick Pouyanné.

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World Energy Outlook 2021 shows a new energy economy is emerging

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A new energy economy is emerging around the world as solar, wind, electric vehicles and other low-carbon technologies flourish. But as the pivotal moment of COP26 approaches, the IEA’s new World Energy Outlook makes it clear that this clean energy progress is still far too slow to put global emissions into sustained decline towards net zero, highlighting the need for an unmistakeable signal of ambition and action from governments in Glasgow.

At a time when policy makers are contending with the impacts of both climate change and volatile energy markets, the World Energy Outlook 2021 (WEO-2021) is designed as a handbook for the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which offers a critical opportunity to accelerate climate action and the clean energy transition. The new analysis – which the IEA is making available for free online – delivers stark warnings about the direction in which today’s policy settings are taking the world. But it also provides clear-headed analysis of how to move in a well-managed way towards a pathway that would have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C and avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

The WEO-2021, the IEA’s annual flagship publication, shows that even as deployments of solar and wind go from strength to strength, the world’s consumption of coal is growing strongly this year, pushing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions towards their second largest annual increase in history.

“The world’s hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “Governments need to resolve this at COP26 by giving a clear and unmistakeable signal that they are committed to rapidly scaling up the clean and resilient technologies of the future. The social and economic benefits of accelerating clean energy transitions are huge, and the costs of inaction are immense.”

The WEO-2021 spells out clearly what is at stake: what the pledges to reduce emissions made by governments so far mean for the energy sector and the climate. And it sets out what needs to be done to move beyond these announced pledges towards a trajectory that would reach net zero emissions globally by mid-century – the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario from the landmark IEA report published in May, which is consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.

As well as the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, the WEO-2021 explores two other scenarios to gain insights into how the global energy sector may develop over the next three decades – and what the implications would be. The Stated Policies Scenario represents a path based on the energy and climate measures governments have actually put in place to date, as well as specific policy initiatives that are under development. In this scenario, almost all of the net growth in energy demand through 2050 is met by low emissions sources, but that leaves annual emissions still around today’s levels. As a result, global average temperatures are still rising when they hit 2.6 °C above pre-industrial levels in 2100.

The Announced Pledges Scenario maps out a path in which the net zero emissions pledges announced by governments so far are implemented in time and in full. In this scenario, demand for fossil fuels peaks by 2025, and global CO2 emissions fall by 40% by 2050. All sectors see a decline, with the electricity sector delivering by far the largest. The global average temperature rise in 2100 is held to around 2.1 °C.

For the first time in a WEO, oil demand goes into eventual decline in all the scenarios examined, although the timing and speed of the drop vary widely. If all today’s announced climate pledges are met, the world would still be consuming 75 million oil barrels per day by 2050 – down from around 100 million today – but that plummets to 25 million in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. Natural gas demand increases in all scenarios over the next five years, but there are sharp divergences after this.

After decades of growth, the prospects for coal power go downhill in the Announced Pledges Scenario – a decline that could be accelerated further by China’s recent announcement of an end to its support for building coal plants abroad. That move may result in the cancellation of planned projects that would save some 20 billion tonnes in cumulative CO2 emissions through 2050 – an amount similar to the total emissions savings from the European Union reaching net zero by 2050.

The differences between the outcomes in the Announced Pledges Scenario and the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario are stark, highlighting the need for more ambitious commitments if the world is to reach net zero by mid-century.

“Today’s climate pledges would result in only 20% of the emissions reductions by 2030 that are necessary to put the world on a path towards net zero by 2050,” Dr Birol said. “Reaching that path requires investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure to more than triple over the next decade. Some 70% of that additional spending needs to happen in emerging and developing economies, where financing is scarce and capital remains up to seven times more expensive than in advanced economies.”

Insufficient investment is contributing to uncertainty over the future. Spending on oil and natural gas has been depressed by price collapses in 2014-15 and again in 2020. As a result, it is geared towards a world of stagnant or even falling demand. At the same time, spending on clean energy transitions is far below what would be required to meet future needs in a sustainable way.

“There is a looming risk of more turbulence for global energy markets,” Dr Birol said. “We are not investing enough to meet future energy needs, and the uncertainties are setting the stage for a volatile period ahead. The way to address this mismatch is clear – a major boost in clean energy investment, across all technologies and all markets. But this needs to happen quickly.”

The report stresses that the extra investment to reach net zero by 2050 is less burdensome than it might appear. More than 40% of the required emissions reductions would come from measures that pay for themselves, such as improving efficiency, limiting gas leakage, or installing wind or solar in places where they are now the most competitive electricity generation technologies.

These investments also create huge economic opportunities. Successfully pursuing net zero would create a market for wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, electrolysers and fuel cells of well over USD 1 trillion a year by 2050, comparable in size to the current oil market. Even in a much more electrified energy system, major opportunities remain for fuel suppliers to produce and deliver low-carbon gases. Just in the Announced Pledges Scenario, an additional 13 million workers would be employed in clean energy and related sectors by 2030, while that number doubles in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.

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