At a London Conference this week António Guterres said that the world must do more to Keep 1.5 alive. He was quite rude about Australia as well. Nevertheless, the UK has decided to make it cheaper to run a car on fossil fuels, some in the government want to restrict renewables while others would restart fracking. Water is an increasingly scarce resource across the world. Now we see it being used as a weapon of war. Next week we can look forward to the government’s energy security strategy and the final part of the AR6 report from the IPCC. And finally, what really is Net Zero?
Economist Sustainability Week
“You have kindly invited me to speak on the topic of “Keeping 1.5 Alive”…
That’s António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations. He delivered the opening keynote at this week’s Economist Sustainability Week.
“Well, there is no kind way to put it. The 1.5℃ target is on life support. It is in intensive care.”
If you read most of the press reports you might think that all he said was that the war in Ukraine was driving governments to abandon their targets in the face of fuel shortages. He did say that, and he warned that short-term measures might create long-term fossil fuel dependence and close the window to 1.5. But before that he said a great deal more.
He spoke of the emissions gap and the need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030: a target not solved at COP26 in Glasgow. Instead emissions have risen to the highest level in history; sleepwalking to climate catastrophe with 30m people already displaced and half of humanity in the danger zone. If we continue with more of the same we can kiss 1.5 goodbye.
The G20, he said, is responsible for 80% of global emissions. While cutting their emissions these wealthy countries should assemble coalitions of engineers, scientists and financiers to help emerging nations transition from coal, but we need a greater sense of urgency to do that. All G20 countries have agreed to stop funding coal abroad. They must now do the same at home. Coal is a stupid investment which only lead to stranded assets. It’s time to stop subsidies for coal and oil and gas exploration. Australia, a major coal producing nation, took offence at this. It’s interesting, incidentally, to learn that Shell, which announced its withdrawal from exploring the Cambo field off Scotland recently has now said it’s reconsidering its decision.
The speech placed much emphasis on finance, – private finance, public finance and blended finance - to help emerging nations with transition. The situation is already bad and in some cases irretrievable. We must protect the vulnerable and the richer nations must make good on their promise of $100 billion to aid poorer countries.
In closing António Guterres said that addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction. We must put the pedal to the metal of our renewable energy future, accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuels, honour the Glasgow commitments, form coalitions to assist emerging nations, develop more climate finance, speed up the decarbonisation of shipping, aviation, steel and cement; and protect the vulnerable.
That’s the only way to move 1.5 from life support to the recovery room.
Who’s listening? Not the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, it seems. In his Spring Financial Statement he announced a 5p cut in fuel duty on a litre of petrol or diesel. This, after fuel duty has been frozen for the last 10 years. In the face of rapidly rising inflation the chancellor was expected to do something to ease the burden on citizens, but cutting fuel duty subsidises the better-off motorists who use more, and those who drive unnecessarily large and inefficient vehicles. It does little for the poorer motorist, nothing for those who cannot afford to drive, and nothing to curb fuel use.
Energy Saving Materials
Some commentators complained that net zero and climate change were not mentioned once by the chancellor. That is strictly true of his speech to Parliament, but both are mentioned in the Spring Statement documents. The chancellor did announce the removal of VAT on Energy Saving Materials. This is believed to cover solar panels, heat pumps, insulation and related installation costs. It’s not clear whether domestic batteries are covered by this. It’s a step in the right direction, although many would say it’s a very small step as few people can afford to install full energy saving even after these reductions.
International Energy Agency (IEA)
The IEA has published a 10-point plan to cut oil use. It claims that immediate actions in advanced economies can cut oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day in the next 4 months. Suggestions include reducing motorway speed limits by at least 10kph. Back in the 1970s when we had an oil shock there was a 50mph limit on all UK motorways. The IEA also suggests more working from home, car-free Sundays, cheaper public transport and car-sharing. There’s a link to the full list below.
None of these ideas has so far been adopted by the British government, but it’s more than likely that such suggestions would be howled down by their supporters as a gross infringement of personal liberties.
Water at War
Water is crucial to life, but the Economist magazine warns that water is being used as a weapon of war. In Ukraine the Russian military has destroyed a dam which was preventing water from reaching the Crimea following its annexation in 2014. Back in 2019 conflict over the Crimea damaged a pipeline and cut off water to some 2m people. Water is not a major factor in the present hostilities in Ukraine but it is the source of conflict all over the world. A new update to the Water Conflict Chronology, a database maintained by the Pacific Institute, a think-tank in Oakland, California, chronicles 127 water conflicts in 2021, up from only 22 in 2000. Water can be a trigger of conflict, a weapon of war; and water systems like the damaged pipeline can be a casualty of violence.
Without all this, water has already been disrupted by the climate crisis, with increased flooding in some areas and unusually severe droughts in others. There are implications for healthcare, sanitation and agriculture.
Good news then, from the Anthropocene magazine. Solar panels are frequently located in hot, dry and dusty deserts. Over time, the dust can build up on the surface of the panels and significantly reduce their efficiency - by as much as 30% in a month. Engineers at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have calculated that cleaning solar panels uses about 10 billion gallons of water per year — enough to supply drinking water for up to 2 million people. And even a 1 percent reduction in power, for a 150-megawatt solar installation, could result in a $200,000 loss in annual revenue. The water for cleaning has to be transported to remote locations and cleaning represents a significant proportion of the cost of operation and maintenance.
The solution they have come up with involves electrostatics. A simple electrode passes just above the solar panel’s surface, imparting an electrical charge to the dust particles, which are then repelled by a charge applied to the panel itself. The whole thing works automatically with no water at all and without human intervention.
Next week sees the publication of the final part of AR6, the latest report from the IPCC. It is expected to go beyond the consequences of the climate crisis and examine the potential of climate intervention. Don’t miss next Wednesday’s interview, when I talk to Wake Smith of Harvard University about his book Pandora’s Toolbox: The Hopes and Hazards of Climate Intervention.
Energy Security Strategy
Next week should also see the publication of the British government’s energy security strategy. There are already arguments being raised against lifting the ban on onshore wind turbines and dismay at suggestions that the prime minister will urge an expansion of nuclear power. More on this next Friday.
Let’s look again at net zero.
What exactly is net zero? It's the situation where a process, a household, an industry or a whole country adds no greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. At the moment human activity is adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and at an increasing rate. We burn fossil fuels in homes, vehicles and power stations and all of these create emissions. Carbon capture and storage (CCS), stripping the greenhouse gases out of flue gases and locking them away in depleted oil wells or underground caverns, can cut emissions, though never by 100%. And it’s just not practical to capture the emissions from vehicles or from domestic gas boilers. That’s why we need to re-engineer our world to use non-emitting technologies like renewable energy generation, electric vehicles and heat pumps. Even that is not enough in itself. We need to make sure that the manufacture of all these systems - and of all other products - doesn’t create emissions either. Some emissions will always remain, and as we heard from António Guterres, we are very far from reducing the rate of emissions, let alone eliminating them.
Net zero is used to describe the situation where emissions have been eliminated as far as possible and the remainder has been offset by planting trees or using carbon capture and storage. The net effect is a zero addition of emissions to the atmosphere.
Offsetting is attractive but it can only be a solution of last resort. On the face of it it’s simple. We just have to plant trees or other crops and they will absorb CO2 so where’s the problem?
Not enough land
The problem is that there is not nearly enough land on Earth to plant enough trees to trap the CO2 that we currently emit. We emit CO2 year on year, so every year we would need more land for more trees to trap more emissions. The problem with trees is that when they reach maturity and stop getting bigger the rate at which they absorb CO2 falls right off. They are effectively “full”. And when trees die, if they rot or are burnt they release the carbon once more into the atmosphere. Forestry can really only be a niche solution to carbon emissions.
Economics of Carbon Capture
I used to think that CCS was not commercially widespread because it didn’t work. That’s not true. It does work, but there is very limited demand for captured CO2 and pumping it into storage is simply an overhead. Much cheaper to vent unwanted CO2 to the atmosphere.
Fossil v Biomass
Net zero will only be achieved by eliminating carbon emissions from fossil fuels. I make the distinction, because the CO2 emitted from fossil fuels adds to the CO2 in the atmosphere, because until now it has been sequestered underground. CO2 from burning biomass recycles CO2 that was already in the atmosphere, although while CO2 emissions from all sources are growing we should aim to eliminate them whatever their origin.
Reducing the Volume of GHGs
Assuming we achieve Net Zero, that means that the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will remain constant. At present it’s close to 420ppm, way ahead of the pre-industrial 280ppm. We may find that that level of GHG leads to an unstable climate so that we have to do something to reduce the total. Direct Air Capture and Storage might be a possibility, but it will be expensive and to remove the excess emissions of the last 200 years is likely to take a considerable amount of time. Whether this is the technology of the future or whether other techniques must be used is yet to be clear. Whatever happens, it’s pretty clear that we are leaving a difficult and expensive legacy for our grandchildren, even if we can start implementing solutions now.
And with that thought…
…I leave you until next Wednesday’s Wednesday Interview. If you have a moment to sign up on Patreon - there’s a link on the Sustainable Futures Report website - your support would be much appreciated. It keeps the Sustainable Futures Report independent and ad-free.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.
UN Secretary General
Shell Cambo field
IEA 10-point plan
Water supplies in Conflict
Cleaning solar panels without water
AR6 - Carbon Removal
Energy Security Strategy