Damage limitation

8th January 2018

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Alice Davies

David Hone asks what measures we can take to reverse climate change and deal with the energy dilemma

In July 1912, in rural Australia, a short article on the global use of coal was published in a local newspaper:

Coal consumption affecting climate

The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.

Just over 103 years later, when French foreign minister Laurent Fabius banged his gavel on the evening of 12 December 2015 in Paris, he ushered in a truly global deal on climate change. It embraces the spirit and ambition necessary to finally deal with the very issue that the 1912 article had noted with regards to the use of coal (and now oil and natural gas).

A related question is whether a country can develop without coal. A few have done so, but it was the use of coal that supported the rise of industry in countries such as Germany, Great Britain, the US and Australia and more recently in China, South Africa and now India. Coal requires little technology to get going but offers a great deal, such as electricity, railways (in the early days), heating, industry and very importantly, smelting (for example, steel making). For both Great Britain and the US, coal provided the impetus for the Industrial Revolution. In the case of the latter, very easy-to-access oil soon followed, and mobility flourished, which added enormously to the development of the continent.

As developing economies emerge, they continue to look at domestic resources such as coal, oil and natural gas for industrialisation. A legacy is the long-term addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as the resources are consumed.

Over the industrial era from 1750 to 2017, approximately 615 billion tonnes of fossil and land-fixed carbon was released to the atmosphere (as 2 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide). Although half of this carbon dioxide dissolved relatively quickly in the ocean or was absorbed into the land-based biosphere, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose from 275 ppm in 1750 to 405 ppm today.

The scientific community has now demonstrated that warming of the climate system is approximately linearly related to the cumulative carbon released over time, with 615 billion tonnes giving the 1.2°C of warming that is now being experienced. Therefore, limiting warming of the climate system and not breaching the 2°C limit of the Paris Agreement means that global anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide must return to net-zero levels and do so within this century.

The current strategy to achieve this relies heavily on the deployment of renewable energy, using energy more efficiently to reduce the rate of emissions and finding alternatives to direct fossil fuel use, such as replacing internal combustion vehicles with electric vehicles.

But addressing the climate issue with a strategy that hinges on increasing the supply of renewable energy and improving the efficiency of energy use is unlikely to yield a net-zero outcome. The climate issue is about the release to atmosphere of fossil carbon and bio-fixed carbon on a cumulative basis over time, it isn’t about how many wind turbines or solar installations can be built over the coming decades. One possible outcome is that the world will have lots of wind turbines, without seeing a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

Energy efficiency is a key driver for development, primarily through the reduction in cost of energy services. This increases access and availability of those services and therefore spurs development. Arguably efficiency, along with a handful of key inventions, has been the single most important driver of the industrial revolution and the resultant emissions seen today. But we now seem to have decided that this is critical to solving climate change. Is it?

Recognising that many countries around the world will choose to use the resources that they have and now depend on to maintain their industrial economies, the focus should also be on the removal of carbon dioxide. This can be done through the capture of carbon dioxide from industrial processes and returning that carbon back to the sub-surface (geosphere) instead of allowing it to accumulate in the ocean/atmosphere system.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) uses existing processes and technologies available today to do this. The carbon dioxide is sequestered deep below the earth’s surface, one to three kilometres, within geological formations suitable for permanent storage.

CCS is a technology that is specifically designed to counter the issue of accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It also has the potential to address carbon dioxide emissions at scale and at a cost that appears more than manageable by society. But the technology requires an economic incentive for deployment and this is largely absent in society today.

Implementing public policy to deliver a cost for emitting carbon dioxide as part of the energy economy is arguably the single most important step that can be taken to achieve this objective. Economists have argued that case for over two decades, yet policymakers appear to be struggling with implementation. Society should embrace this approach; to put it simply, it is the most effective and cost-efficient mechanism available.

No matter how the climate issue is tackled, a major energy system transition will be required. But it is easy to look at the status quo and compare it with a clean energy future of renewables, EVs, bio-polymers and recycling – and then naturally to opt for that future. What is often missing in this thought process is the required change in the global stock of materials to get there.

For example, populating the world with over a billion electric vehicles requires building that many batteries and producing the materials that those batteries require. The required stock build would fully consume 25 years of global nickel production and nearly a century of cobalt production, two important metals in most current electric car batteries. The accelerated scenario that many seek requires this deployment in less than 35 years, which either means a rapid escalation of production in these metals or many different battery chemistry formulations – and probably both. The transition is far from trivial.

The Paris Agreement has sent a signal around the world: climate change is a serious issue that governments are determined to address. But the world is rapidly developing, with energy demand continuing to rise. Several billion people still aspire to a first refrigerator. Others are looking towards a first car or perhaps a long-haul flight to visit other parts of the world. These activities are very likely to put upward pressure on carbon dioxide emissions, even as renewable energy is deployed and electric mobility becomes more commonplace. Society will respond to these new demands and seek to meet them, as has been the case for the entire Industrial Revolution.

The climate deal that has been carefully and tirelessly negotiated over many years is not a solution in itself – rather, it is a roadmap to help all of us find a way forward. The effort that was put into the Paris Agreement now must be taken up by every cabinet office, every parliament and every national institution across the world if the Agreement is to cascade effectively throughout the global economy. The success of the Paris Agreement will also require extraordinary transparency, governance and institutional capacity. Businesses must respond as well, but their behaviour is primarily driven by the market – hence the need for governments to introduce carbon-pricing measures.

By the turn of this century, but ideally before, there is the potential for a very different energy system to emerge. It can be a system that brings modern energy services to all in the world, without delivering a climate legacy that society cannot readily adapt to. That is the essence of the Paris Agreement.

David Hone is author of: Putting the Genie Back: Solving the Climate and Energy Dilemma


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