And in Other News…
Yes, the threat, challenge and tragedy that is COVID19 remains everyone’s first concern. I’m Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 24th April, in which I’ll bring you sustainability stories from around the world. Coronavirus affects us all, but in this episode my aim is to talk briefly of other things.
First let me welcome the very latest patron of the Sustainable Futures Report, Esteban Velez Vega who is based in Japan. Esteban, thanks for joining, and thanks to all my patrons for your support.
This week I bring you a miscellany of stories that you may have missed. Stories that I’ve found in The Guardian, on the BBC, at medium.com, the hill.com, from the Ethical Corporation and via Google Alerts, among other sources.
Let's start with nuclear news. Nuclear Engineering International reports that the new plant at Flamanville in Northern France is now scheduled to start operation in 2024. This is 12 years later than the original target date for operation of the reactor. As well as being late, the plant has significantly overrun its budgeted costs. One of the most serious ongoing problems has been the detection of faulty welds in the reactor vessel leading to costly and time-consuming remedial work. Two reactors to a similar design are currently under construction at Hinkley Point in Somerset, UK. This plant was due to begin production in 2017, but is now scheduled for 2025. It is also way over budget and is only viable because the British government has guaranteed an index-linked price for Hinkley’s electricity which is at about twice the current market rate. Dieter Helm, professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford, says, “Hinkley Point C would have been roughly half the cost if the government had been borrowing the money to build it at 2%, rather than EDF's cost of capital, which was 9%.” Renewable and battery technology have both advanced dramatically since the first concrete was poured at the Hinkley site. The question must be whether this plant will be a very expensive white elephant.
Nuclear energy is after all, free of emissions, at least in operation. Let's not forget the carbon footprint of the construction process including the vast amounts of iron, steel and concrete which are involved. Nevertheless, once the plant is running there are no emissions of carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gases.
As renewables take up more of the load and coal is phased out, partly replaced by natural gas, the power sector is rapidly reducing its carbon footprint. It’s transport - road transport and aviation - which is another major producer of greenhouse gases in the western world. There are two things which can be done about this. One is to stop emissions at source. The other is to extract the CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it up so that it cannot contribute to the causes of global heating.
One of the favourite charts which is presented at the British government's daily coronavirus press briefing shows how transport use has collapsed since the country went into lockdown. Satellite data from NASA and the European Space Agency during this pandemic has detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant in the atmosphere which causes health problems. But Eric Roston writes in Bloomberg Green that while CO2 levels are falling this will have little impact on the level of CO₂ in the atmosphere. In fact, he says, CO₂ levels will almost certainly continue to rise.
Only a sustained year-long drop in global emissions of about 10 percent would clearly show up in CO₂ concentrations, according to Ralph Keeling, a geochemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Even previous economic cataclysms, such as the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union, have failed to show up in the CO₂ readings taken at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, which began keeping records in 1958. Pierre Friedlingstein of the University of Exeter estimates that a 10% drop in annual emissions would still translate to an annual increase of 2 ppm in the CO₂ count.
In other words, although the rate at which we are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere may significantly decrease, there will still be an addition. It’s a sobering thought that with the majority of people staying at home, with less electricity being used while much of business is at a standstill, with road journeys falling by some 60% and rail journeys cut by 97% we are still adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and making global heating worse.
Clearly we should continue to look at ways of minimising the greenhouse gases emitted from our energy, transport, agricultural and industrial processes, but we are going to need other measures as well. Should we plant trees, for example?
The UK government has pledged to plant millions a year while other countries have schemes running into billions. Turkey, for example, planted 11 million trees across the country in a day. The National Post of Toronto reports that by the end of January 90% of the trees planted in Turkey the previous November were dead. It was the wrong time of year, the trees were not planted by experts and there was a lack of rainfall. So much for grand gestures. But there’s just not enough land to plant enough trees to extract enough carbon. These big numbers can only give a false sense of security.
What else can we do to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere? There’s that old faithful Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The Carbon Capture and Storage Association says,
“CCS uses established technologies to capture, transport and store carbon dioxide emissions from large point sources, such as power stations. It also has an important role to play to ensure manufacturing industries, such as steel and cement, can continue to operate, without the associated emissions.”
This is the ideal, but unless I’m wrong there are no major CCS projects in operation. Although Drax intends to introduce CCS, there is no UK power station using CCS, nor one anywhere in the world. CCS is in any case a “preventive” offset. It prevents CO2 from being added to the global total by trapping it at source at the power station or industrial plant where it is created. CCS does nothing to reduce the total CO2 in the atmosphere, although it may reduce the rate of growth. Nobody claims that it will trap 100% of the CO2 produced.
Writing in City A M Dr Rowena Sellens warns that supporters of CCS are missing a trick. Yes, you can store carbon, but capturing and storing it can cost from $600 - $800 per tonne, plus the ongoing storage maintenance costs. The answer is CCUS - carbon capture, storage and utilisation. She quotes Drax (Drax again) which recently announced a partnership to use captured carbon from its power station to create green polyurethane, and says that CarbonCure has long since been using captured carbon to create concrete.
Carbon, she says, has a range of potential applications across a number of industries, from concrete, fuels, aggregates, methanol, to polymers and chemicals. All that’s missing is government support for the research needed to bring these processes to commercial viability. Former Chancellor George Osborne offered £1bn to any company that could develop a viable CCS system, but withdrew it shortly afterwards. Countries like Germany and Canada offer significant support for such research.
Reportlinker offers a report on the Global CCS Market in which it states that the Carbon Capture and Storage market worldwide is projected to grow by US$3.3 Billion, driven by a compounded growth of 11.6%. Pre-Combustion Capture, one of the segments analyzed and sized in this study, displays the potential to grow at over 11.8%. No, I don’t know what Pre-Combustion Capture is either - maybe I should read the full report. On the other hand, at £4,251 a copy I think I’ll pass.
Environment and Energy Leader is even more upbeat. They suggest that the CCS market will be worth $6 billion by 2026. Strange, as they seem to be commenting on the report that I’ve just mentioned. They say that the conclusions of the report include:
- The demand for CCS projects is flourishing across the industrial sector due to their longer operating life and emission control nature.
- Growing investments across various industries, including chemical, oil & gas, and power generation, are estimated to drive industry growth.
- Major players operating across the market are Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Japan CCS Co., Ltd, Shell Cansolv, Fluor Corporation, Siemens, Schlumberger Limited, and Halliburton, amongst others.
- Positive outlook toward the expansion industries, along with stringent government norms to diminish CO2 emissions, will accelerate the technology trends.
But is it viable?
Surely, though, unless revenue can be generated by some sort of carbon utilisation, the cost of CCS will simply be an overhead to power generators and other heavy industry. And those overheads will have to be paid by the consumer. Isn't the sensible route to eliminate carbon emitting industry as far as possible, leaving CCS to soften the phase-out of legacy plant?
Meanwhile reports that Power producers SSE Thermal, Drax Group Plc (LON:DRX) and Uniper SE (ETR:UN01) are part of a consortium that plans to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen technology to decarbonise energy production and industry in the Humber region of Northern England.
The group of 10 energy and industrial companies aims to turn the Humber region into “the world’s first zero-carbon cluster” by 2040. They secured funding for the project through Phase One of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, an initiative of the British Government to increase funding in research and development by £4.7 billion over 4 years to strengthen UK science and business.
Of course CO2 is not the only GHG. Methane is far more potent, although it lasts in the atmosphere for a far shorter time. Nexus media news reports that a new analysis from the (NOAA) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that methane levels have reached an All-Time High.
“Here we are. It’s 2020, and it’s not only not dropping. It’s not level. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growth rates we’ve seen in the last 20 years,” said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University.
“The easiest way to stem methane pollution, however, is to limit its release from oil and gas drilling sites, he said. Natural gas is mostly methane, and it is prone to leaking from wells. There are essentially two ways to deal with this problem. The first is to burn the natural gas that seeps out, which turns the methane into carbon dioxide. The second is to plug the leaks.”
Remember that I recently reported that in response to the coronavirus pandemic the US environmental protection agency announced the relaxation of environmental regulations, which amongst other things means that oil and gas companies will not be held to account for methane emissions. In fact they will not even be asked to monitor or report on the levels of such leaks.
The only alternative according to Shindell, is to eat less beef and dairy.
According to the International Energy Agency further innovation is needed both to increase understanding of emissions levels and to help reduce the cost of emissions mitigation strategies such as leak detection and repair. The US government does not seem to be behind such initiatives at the moment.
While methane levels rise, The Guardian quotes a report from Geophysical Research Letters that indicates an exceptional loss of ice from the Arctic last year. Greenland's melting ice raised global sea level by 2.2mm in two months. 2.2mm doesn’t sound a lot, but spread over 362m square kilometres it is a lot. It may be a marginal rise, but those millions or billions of tonnes of extra water will make storm surges significantly worse and flooding of coastal areas more likely.
Last year was the hottest on record for the Arctic, and so we go on.
Unsurprisingly, since we have been locked down to avoid coronavirus air quality across the world has improved. Both the European Environment Agency and the WHO have reported a correlation between the areas with the worst levels of air pollution and the number of cases of coronavirus. It raises the question of can we, should we or will we go back to business as usual?
Cities across the world, including Milan and New York, have announced plans to restrict city-centre traffic after lockdown is released. This will improve air quality and apart from anything else will provide more space for pedestrians who are likely to be social distancing for some time to come.
Saving the Planet - or not
An article on medium.com by Alan Knight Partners says “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Not Save the Planet”. They say, “While the entire world continues to be ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, some are celebrating its unexpected upsides such as a dramatic decrease in air pollution, immaculate blue skies, and clear waters in rivers and lakes. Many are claiming this as a victory for the planet amid clamors that Nature has pressed the ‘reset’ button. While pollution has indeed reduced and the air has been rendered clean due to the absence of noxious fumes, many are asking: is this respite temporary?”
That’s the $64,000 question. “This drop is not due to structural changes so as soon as confinement ends, I expect the emissions will go back close to where they were,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia.
Back to business as usual?
“The manner in which economic stimulus packages are designed will play a key role in determining the extent to which the environmental gains will be sustained. The positive impacts will be completely undermined if emissions return to previous levels, or worse, are allowed to increase,” say the authors.
They also comment on the mountains of plastic waste as health systems across the world discard used PPE. They point out that discussions regarding climate change have taken a backseat due to the coronavirus pandemic. Enforcement of social distancing norms has rendered it impossible to organise physical mass protests. There’s a danger that governments will be given a free ride back to business as usual. But in the face of unprecedented unemployment and citizens having plundered their savings in order to survive, the pressure to get economic activity back to normal levels will be intense. The exact format that takes will be crucial to our environment, our emission levels and our future.
And in Good News…
You’ve probably heard that oil giant Shell has announced plans to become a net-zero emissions business by 2050 or sooner. The devil, as always, in in the detail, and particularly that little word “net”. “Net” usually means that an organisation will continue to emit pollution but will use offsets to balance the picture, but not always. Much of Shell’s emissions are Scope Three, in other words they are emissions created by customers using Shell products like petrol and diesel, and out of Shell’s direct control. The company is therefore developing hydrogen, biofuels and renewable power with little or no carbon footprint to replace some of these.
Overall Shell’s long-term ambition is targeting a 65% reduction in emissions across its products by 2050, with an interim target of 30% set for 2035. Presumably offsets will be used to achieve net zero, and the credibility of these offsets must stand up to scrutiny.
While it may always be possible to hope for major organisations to do more, we’ve got to welcome this initiative which would have been unthinkable only 10 or so years ago.
Another bit of good news
Norway has approved plans for a floating wind farm proposed by multinational energy company Equinor. It will consist of 11 wind turbines based on the Hywind wind farm concept developed by Equinor, with the 8 MW turbines having a total capacity of 88 MW.
The output will be used by two offshore oil platforms, reducing their need to run gas turbines and reducing their emissions by an estimated 200,000 tonnes per year.
Do you believe in climate change?
I don’t says Duncan Riach on medium.com. I don’t believe, I know that on the balance of scientific probabilities it’s a fact.
“I think that framing the climate change issue as one of belief plays a game that is degrading to science; science is not a religion. When the religious right claims that it doesn’t believe in climate change, the adult response is simply, “it’s your right to believe anything you choose but we don’t set policy based on beliefs; we set policy based on the balance of evidence.”
It’s all the fault of the Rich
According to a new report climate change is all the fault of the rich. Researchers at the University of Leeds UK have analysed the statistics for 86 countries and concluded that the richer people become, the more energy they typically use. For example, the wealthiest tenth of people consume about 20 times more energy overall than the bottom ten, and their transport choices mean that they use 187 times more fuel than the poorest tenth. This is because the poorest tenth cannot afford to drive - or to fly. The wealthiest also use significantly more energy for cooking and heating, probably because they have bigger houses.
Cut Transport Demand
The authors say governments could reduce transport demand through better public transport, higher taxes on bigger vehicles and frequent flyer levies for people who take most holidays.
The authors also note that the UK March Budget declined to increase fuel duty and promised 4,000 miles of new roads. It did not mention home insulation.
Who wants to do it?
But Professor Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre in Manchester, who was not involved in the study, told BBC News: “This study tells relatively wealthy people like us what we don’t want to hear.
“The climate issue is framed by us high emitters – the politicians, business people, journalists, academics. When we say there’s no appetite for higher taxes on flying, we mean WE don’t want to fly less
“The same is true about our cars and the size our homes. We have convinced ourselves that our lives are normal, yet the numbers tell a very different story,” he said.
gnowthi seauton as the Greeks used to say.
And in closing,
I’d just like to thank last week’s interviewee, Rebecca Henderson, for telling me about Chris Goodall’s carbon newsletter. I’m sure I’ll find lots of leads there.
And also, since last week’s interview I’ve had more listeners than ever before. Thank you all. Do keep listening.
And you’d like to be a patron you’ll find the details at patreon.com/sfr.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
This is usually the point at which I say, “There’ll be another Sustainable Futures Report next week.” Well there won’t. I have a birthday next week. I’m taking the week off. I’ll be back for 8th May.
Stay safe until then.
Greenland's melting ice raised global sea level by 2.2mm in two months
Save the planet?
Floating wind farm
Belief v Evidence