Finding a vaccine against climate change

Despite a good deal of wishful thinking the evidence that CV19 will not be the trigger for a rapid transition to a low carbon world is mounting. The economic impact of the lockdown measures taken across the world is beginning to be felt. The take up of electric vehicles has slowed even in China, workers in the renewables sector have been laid off, and numerous companies are being forced to reduce or postpone investment plans. In Europe the promised “green deal” is still on the table but finding the money is going to be difficult and the countries which need to make the greatest changes in their energy mix are more wary than ever of jeopardising employment.

The challenge of climate change, however, remains as powerful as ever.  Emissions should fall this year but the recovery whether it takes one year or five will still be fuelled to an overwhelming degree by hydrocarbons.

If CV19 should teach us just one lesson it must be that the only answer to a serious problem is systematic planning. Street protests may serve to raise consciousness and alert us to the dangers ahead but simply proclaiming a climate emergency is pointless unless you can simultaneously put forward a viable plan to avert the danger. Such a plan is what the world needs now.

This blog and the next will lay out one version of that plan.  What follows is one person’s view and I hope that the platform of debate on the energy agenda which ONS is creating will open up the debate and allow others to improve on the ideas put forward here. The aim is to find a practical proposition which can be taken up in different ways by Governments, companies and energy users.

The stress on viability and practicality is essential.  Ideas which depend on actions depriving the people of the emerging economies of the world of their right to escape from poverty and to establish better living standards cannot amount to viable plans because they will never secure the necessary political support.  Ideas which impose enormous short term costs are impractical, and made even more so by the recession we are now facing. A viable climate plan must have a positive economic effect on a global scale.

If CV19 should teach us just one lesson it must be that the only answer to a serious problem is systematic planning.

– Nick Butler

To design the right strategy we need a clear and simple objective. In this case that comes down to the achievement of a global economy in which the ways in which energy is produced and consumed do not in any way threaten  sustainability. That is a long term goal and so it is worth starting with the most intractable elements in the current system – the uses of energy which are essential but which threaten sustainability and are proving hardest to change.

In this category sit the freight business, aircraft, the production of cement and iron and steel, and provision of heat for both manufacturing and domestic use.
These are all essential elements of the modern economy and contribute a significant percentage of the continuing growth in energy needs – growth which will be no more than dented by the current recession. They are also in the main activities which are “beyond electrification”. If we want a low carbon economy other solutions must be found.

The most obvious answers are the development of the next generation of energy storage technology which would allow batteries of one form or another to be used more widely, and the use of hydrogen produced either from natural gas or through electrolysis to provide a vector capable of multiple applications in industrial and domestic settings, substituting for gas and coal. Both are helped by the growth of first generation renewables – wind and solar.  Batteries can dramatically improve the productivity of wind turbines and solar panels by allowing the power they produce to be used when and where it is needed.  Equally the surplus power produced for instance by wind farms can be harvested to produce “green” hydrogen which in contrast to the conventional production methods using hydrocarbons does not require carbon capture and storage technology to eliminate emissions.

Battery and storage technologies are advancing as are the techniques for producing hydrogen.  But neither are yet available on an industrial scale with commercially viable costs. Small steps are being taken, such as the planned development at the Mongstad Industrial Plant in Western Norway to produce and liquefy hydrogen for use in the maritime sector, and the wind to hydrogen cluster in the Hollandse Kuit zone of the Netherlands, or the work sponsored by the UK’s Faraday Institute on solid state batteries.  These steps are important but too limited in scale to match the challenge.  A much more substantial coordinated effort is needed.

Getting these technologies to the point at which they can be deployed around the world should be the challenge of the next decade.  Instead of being splintered across different companies and research centres in countries across the world there should be a concerted effort – funded by a coalition of the willing to achieve a change without which the risks of fundamental and destructive climate change begins to look inevitable.  Prioritisation of these two technologies does not of course exclude other options but if we are to take the challenge seriously some choices on the use of available funds have to be made. The deployment of storage technology and hydrogen is likely to come after 2030 but the moment for investment in research and development is now.

  • Working on the longer term options is an essential part of a serious plan – the equivalent of finding a vaccine against CV19. But there is also a great deal we can do in the short term to reduce emissions and to create a low carbon economy.  That short term agenda will be the subject of the next post in this series.

ONS does not take positions or engage in advocacy but we hope the commentary will stimulate debate in the run up to the ONS meeting at the end of summer and beyond.  The coronavirus has demonstrated in the harshest possible way that we are all in this together. “Together” is the theme of this year’s ONS and we hope by encouraging an open discussion is happening we can go through and emerge from the crisis with a full understanding of the interdependent world in which we live.