Climate change: how to save the world in 12 years
Image credit: Nadia Adhout
We have just over a decade to turn climate change around. What will it take to make the UK compliant with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report?
Vague promises are no longer enough. Action and commitment are needed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in their 2018 ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C’. If the world fails to rise to the challenge, global temperatures will likely soar past the relatively safe 1.5°C threshold. The consequences could be severe – extreme heat waves and droughts, mass extinction and a dangerous sea-level rise.
Global greenhouse gas emissions must decline by 45 per cent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, or be firmly on a trajectory to meet this goal, for the Earth’s delicate ecosystem to remain at least somewhat in balance, the report said.
The problem is that the actions promised by governments at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris would not lead to any reduction in emissions within the next 12 years, according to Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change and the environment at Imperial College London, and a coordinating lead author of the report. The 2018 UN Climate Change Conference in Poland last December didn’t address the need to step up the existing emission reduction efforts, which put the Earth on track to warm by up to 3°C compared to preindustrial times.
The good news is the goal is entirely achievable either with existing technology or within reach of the projected technological development, the report found.
“It will not happen automatically,” says Rogelj. “The report is absolutely clear that we need political signals. These could be the price of carbon, incentives to change or directives and so on. Otherwise, it is clear from the literature that this will not happen.”
Countries will face different challenges. According to Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Foundation, which supports development of innovative sustainability technologies, the world’s demand for energy will double by the middle of the century. Developing countries will raise their living standards and those who have so far lived without electricity will get access to power. Surprisingly, developing countries might be in a better position to make things work sustainably than those built on infrastructure from the fossil fuel era, such as the UK, says James Robottom, the IET’s Energy Lead.
What is it going to take for the UK to ‘make it’ in those 12 years, as the IPCC requires? Simon Harrison, chair of the IET’s Energy Policy Panel, agrees the technology required already exists; no frantic research effort is needed. In fact, he says, it would be nearly impossible to implement profound technological changes in only 12 years.
“If you need to do things quickly, you need to take a much more assertive perspective on regulation and legislation around retrofitting old buildings,” he says.
“Other more structural options, such as changing the fuel we use to heat buildings, are longer term. For example, if you are going to move to hydrogen for heating at a very large scale, that’s not a 12-year job.”
According to the UK Committee on Climate Change, heating was responsible for 19 per cent of the nation’s overall emissions in 2017. Every winter, energy consumption of UK households soars as temperatures drop. The problem is that most homes are still using this energy inefficiently. Single-glazed windows, out-dated boilers, poor controls and lack of insulation lead to a huge amount of energy wastage. The problem is that not all house owners have money to spare or the interest in reducing their carbon footprint.
“There is a high upfront investment that is not always trivial for households,” says Rogelj. “With subsidy or support schemes, these measures can be catalysed and that’s really where the government can play an important role.”
So-called split incentives are another obstacle, Rogelj says. Rental property owners don’t pay energy bills and have no motivation to upgrade old inefficient boilers. Tenants generally accept what they are given.
“The way you go about it is trying to encourage people to do social housing first,” says Robottom. “That’s in the government control.”
A pilot project in 2017 in the Netherlands showed that a large housing complex can become a ‘zero energy’ building with the help of a lightweight high-tech façade developed by the Delft University of Technology. The façade, dubbed ‘2ndSkin’, prevents thermal energy from escaping, but also includes solar photovoltaic panels to generate electricity and a geothermal heat pump system for heating, cooling, and hot water.
‘The report is absolutely clear that we need political signals. These could be the price of carbon, incentives to change and so on. Otherwise, it is clear that this will not happen.’
Most UK homes use natural gas for heating. To fully decarbonise the heating system, a completely new fuel is needed. According to Harrison, there are several possibilities; all of them, however, pose challenges.
“You can electrify it but then you have to make sure that you supply that electricity through zero-carbon sources and beef up networks to cope,” Harrison says.
“You would have to handle peak demand, which is many times the average, or build in heat storage or electrical storage locally. You need to think about the whole system rather than individual technologies.”
District heating, which uses water heated centrally in a zero-carbon way, is another option, as is the use of hydrogen. That, says Harrison, would require developing hydrogen infrastructure, which doesn’t exist.
A project in Leeds recently tested whether a large city could be converted to hydrogen via the existing gas network. Northern Gas Networks, which is responsible for the H21 project, says it is achievable for Leeds to be running entirely on hydrogen in three years.
Burning of hydrogen produces only heat and water. Converting the UK to hydrogen would reduce heat emissions by at least 73 per cent, according to engineering consultancy QEM Solutions, which participated in the project.
“People are looking at the possibilities of using the old network,” says Robottom. “That means you wouldn’t need to dig the road up because to start digging up the road and putting down new pipes... that’s a massive job in the UK. People hate road work.”
Hydrogen could also be mixed with natural gas to at least partially reduce emissions. However, challenges exist with sustainable production of hydrogen. Another alternative could be biogas produced, for instance, in algae bioreactors.
Whichever way the UK decides to go, it is clear the demand for electricity is going to rise. Electric vehicles, according to Harrison, are in position to become mainstream in 12 years, but the grid is nowhere near ready.
“The potential demand for electricity can increase quite dramatically if we electrify > < transport and some of heat,” says Harrison. “We need to increase the scale significantly – especially the smartness of and coordination within the current electricity system – if we want to have a go at transport and heat over that period.”
Electricity for cars and heating must be zero-carbon. That, says Harrison, is realistic. The cost of offshore wind has gone down considerably, and farms can be built rather quickly. Onshore wind, solar, hydropower and other mature distributed technologies are even cheaper, and other options, such as tidal, are possible. The problem, however, remains around the intermittent nature of renewable resources and the similarly fluctuating nature of demand.
“Everybody tends to get up in the morning and need electricity,” says Robottom. “Then they go to work and the demand drops. Then everybody comes home at about the same time and the demand increases again, so you have two big peaks in a day.”
The UK’s National Grid has gas-fired power plants on standby to cover peak demand. On the other hand, when the wind blows too much and wind farms produce an excess, the network operator turns them off.
Storage is one of the missing components that would make the electricity system fully renewable. It’s not a problem of technology availability, says Harrison, but rather a problem of the market set-up.
“The electricity market does not recognise the value of storage,” he says. “Storage has all sorts of opportunities. You can store domestically, you can store on the community level, you can store at large scale, you can store in the form of heat. There is a whole bunch of technologies people have developed to allow you to store effectively and what’s really missing are the business and market models to make those choices cost-effective.”
Such market models would incentivise people to invest into storage technologies, charge their domestic or local storage facilities when electricity is abundant, and sell the energy back to the grid when there is not enough coming from the power plants.
Electric vehicles could play a part in this new-era energy market, but it all requires the grids to smarten up.
“We really need to smarten the whole system at a rapid pace, using data-driven approaches, AI and demand participation,” says Harrison. “It would all be done automatically including running electricity-consuming devices when electricity is plentiful.”
Harrison says the entire electricity system might switch into an entirely new paradigm – a paradigm where consumers, or their digital assistants, are in control.
“There is a very high level of more local, exploratory and consumer-centred activity at the margins of the electricity system,” he says. “Large technology companies, car makers and innovative new entrants are all investing heavily in this area, which has the potential to create entirely new data-driven business models and allow energy services to be provided in new ways.”
Community energy groups, local authorities working to meet decarbonisation targets, and thought leaders in smart cities are all contributing, with new schemes already in operation. Harrison adds that the pace at which change can happen in the consumer space is much faster than in the world of policy, regulation and large corporates. “There is an opportunity for this to contribute within the next 12 years, and perhaps emerge as a dominant force for the longer term,” he says.
As well as renewables there are other zero-carbon electricity options. Yet their deployment at scale in 12 years also brings challenges. Nuclear is a proven technology that could supply both electricity and hot water for district heating.
“In principle, a large amount of new nuclear capacity could be delivered in 12 years,” says Harrison. “But in common with many countries, the UK has yet to find a scalable and affordable delivery model.”
The other low-carbon (if not quite zero) option is to keep burning fossil fuels but to capture and bury their carbon emissions. This could be used as part of electricity production and to produce hydrogen for heating and transport.
Development of carbon capture and storage technology, which has stalled in the UK, could be restarted given the new urgency. The development challenge, says Harrison, is not large as the technology “uses individually proven components but integrates them in new ways”. The issue is mainly the cost of demonstration at scale.
The government needs to act to “unleash the forces of innovation and change”, says Harrison. The question is whether there will be enough political impetus to facilitate change when governments are facing so many other pressing challenges.
According to Robottom, there is good reason why the world’s love affair with fossil fuel lasted so long. It could be stored and transported in barrels and tankers and used when needed, allowing the entire system to work without too much complication. The new zero-carbon world would have to be much more sophisticated.
Carbon capture and storage
If the world fails to wean itself off fossil fuels and achieve a net zero-carbon situation by 2050, it would have to balance out the situation by removing CO2 from the air at large scale, the IPCC report says. The report’s authors claim even temporarily exceeding the 1.5°C threshold could be corrected with carbon-removal techniques.
The UK might need carbon capture and storage technology to offset emissions generated by gas-fired power plants, which are still used to provide power when there is not enough coming from renewable sources.
However, in 2015, the UK government stopped funding a project aiming to develop carbon capture technology at Peterhead Power Station in Scotland and at Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire. The technology was intended to scrub CO2 from exhaust gas generated by the power plant.
The same year, the US Office of Fossil Energy estimated the cost of scrubbing CO2 from gas-fired power plant emissions to be at about $70 per tonne of CO2.
The chair of the IET’s Energy Policy Panel, Simon Harrison, says investing into carbon capture technologies could be a viable way for oil and gas companies to keep themselves in business in the new zero-emission world.
While the UK government has been sitting on the fence, a handful of private-sector players have made impressive forays into this territory.
A Swiss company called Climeworks, a spin-out from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, has been developing a direct air capture system since 2007. The DAC-1 unit fits neatly into a shipping container and removes 135kg of CO2 from the ambient air per day, using chemical filters. By simply stacking up multiple containers into larger blocks, Climeworks can build direct air capture plants of various sizes at convenient locations.
The first commercial plant, sitting atop a waste incinerator in Hinwill near Zurich, was launched in May 2017. Climeworks has now built 14 direct air capture plants.
Climeworks’ ambition is to be removing 1 per cent of the world’s annual CO2 emissions by 2025. To meet this goal, the company would have to build 250,000 plants the size of its first installation in Hinwill.
The company’s head of marketing, Daniel Egger, believes Climeworks will be able to reduce the cost of the technology to $100 per tonne of CO2 removed. In case of the Hinwill plant, the cost was estimated to be at $600 per tonne. At the $100 per tonne level, the technology would become commercially viable, Egger says. Climeworks hopes to market its direct air capture plants to industries that need CO2 for their operations, such as fizzy drink makers, chemical plants or, as in the case of Hinwill, greenhouses that use CO2 as a fertiliser.
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