While proponents of crystal balls, horoscopes and tarot cards might disagree, there is no way to predict the future.
One thing we do know for certain is that we’ll continue to need energy to fuel civilization. Exactly how we produce, deliver and use this energy, of course, is uncertain.
It’s a safe bet that what we do in the next century is going to be markedly different from what we did in the last century. We know greenhouse gas emissions from hydrocarbon energy sources are hurting the planet, necessitating changes to our energy system. Exactly what needs to change and how we make it happen are matters at the heart of the energy debate. There are countless perspectives on how best to move forward, shaped by differing interpretations of present reality and our current energy system, as well as visions of the future.
Some energy debate participants use scenarios in an attempt to anticipate the future and many promote these scenarios widely. Scenarios are essentially stories about the future based on economic, political, societal and other trends.
As a recent article by McKinsey & Company points out, scenarios are powerful tools for contextualizing large issues. They force people to ask the right questions and prepare for the unexpected. Scenario planning also helps people expand their thinking, challenge conventional wisdom and protect against groupthink.
Global energy giant Shell is one organization that’s embraced scenarios and promotes them aggressively. (Suncor, too, uses scenarios in its strategic planning.) First released four decades ago, Shell’s energy scenarios consider the essential “what if?” questions when it comes to energy and the future.
Contributing to the energy discussion
Other organizations active in the energy debate develop and publish scenarios too. Global information provider IHS and the International Energy Agency (IEA) offer their own energy-specific scenarios, as does Greenpeace.
Presumably, these organizations invest time and effort in scenarios to establish and maintain credibility in energy discussions. These organizations may also be seeking to advance perspectives by exploring consequences of choosing certain paths. Many of their scenarios have provocative names, such as Shell’s New Lens scenarios known as “Mountains” and “Oceans”, Greenpeace's Energy [R]evolution Scenario or IEA’s 450 Scenario.
Scenario planning doesn’t always accurately depict our energy future. But it does provoke thought and discussion about the risks of our energy choices, and potential impacts on our planet. And that’s a good thing, given that rational conversations about our energy future seem to be scarce these days.